Prevent Injury with 9 Essential Functional Fitness Exercises

If you think about it, it’s simple and makes sense: the exercises you do should mirror the movements you make in real life. That’s why functional fitness exercises should be the foundation of your exercise program.

Why?

Well, it relates to part of the goal we have here at Gray Zone Fitness, which is to help people 50 and over live a longer, fully functional life, free of injury. Obviously, we can’t guarantee that you’re going to be free of injury, but if you incorporate our lifestyle approach to fitness, you’ll dramatically reduce your chance of injury.

After all, how can you meet a physical challenge if you don’t prepare for it?

I believe training should focus on function above aesthetics. That’s not to say that I disagree with training so you look good – having a nice physique is great. However, I believe that training should focus on function before form, and to that end, my recommendations are centered on basic human movements.

Functional fitness exercises are designed to train and develop your muscles to make it easier and safer to perform everyday activities, such as carrying groceries or gardening.

Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together, which prepares you for your daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability.

Regarding function, if you think about it, we move in essentially three ways. We move forward and backward, side-to-side, and we twist and turn, or rotate. These three types of movement are called the three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. In each plane, several different movements occur at the joints.

Training should facilitate those movements.

Let’s take one of the most basic movements, for example, that we do practically every day: picking stuff up off the floor. Think picking up a bag of groceries or a suitcase.

What resembles that in the gym? The deadlift, which is an essential functional fitness exercise movement.

The sad thing is that while I work out at a gym that caters mostly to people 50 and over, I practically never see anyone doing deadlifts. And deadlifts are one of the most foundational functional exercises.

What I do see a lot of is people doing cardio. Now there’s nothing wrong with cardio, but does it really prepare you for all the different kinds of movement you make in real life? Let’s look.

The 9 different kinds of movement:

  • Walking
  • Hinge (bend)
  • Squat
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Rotate (twist or turn)
  • Rotation Resistance
  • Carry
  • Lunge

What exactly are these movements, and how do we use these movements in our daily life?

1. Walking

functional fitness exercises - walkingThe ability to walk is a fundamental part of daily life. Functionally, we can include walking, jogging, running, or sprinting into this category. Since walking is such a fundamental part of daily life, you should make walking a priority in your training program, especially if you’re just beginning on your path to fitness.

To mix things up in walking, and to add challenge, walking up and down stairs is great, as is walking on uneven surfaces. Obviously, you have to judge what you’re capable of, and make the best decision for yourself.

To help both with stability and also incorporate more of your body into your walking, it’s a great idea to use Nordic Walking Poles.

2. Hinge (bend)

functional fitness exercises - squatsThe hip-hinge is a forward bend at the waist during which the hips move forward and backward. The hip-hinge is a common movement everyone does daily. If you’ve every bent over and picked something up without squatting—which everyone has—then you engaged in a hip-hinge movement. Therefore, incorporating this into your exercise routine is important.

Performing this movement allows you to pick stuff up from the ground, bend to take a closer look at something, and other similar movements. Being able to hip-hinge requires mobility, strength, and balance.

There are many hip-hinging exercise to pick from, with the most common being the barbell deadlift.

The hip hinge primarily works the posterior chain (the backside of your body), including your gluteal muscles (your butt), hamstrings (the back of your thighs), and lower back. Additionally, smaller stabilizer muscles, tendons and ligaments help keep you balanced

The posterior chain is an all-important, though often under focused, area of the body. Incorporating hip-hinge exercises to strengthen your posterior chain and related muscles will help enable you with activities of daily living.

3. Squat

functional fitness exercises - squatsThe squat is comparable to sitting down and standing up, which we all do many times every day. The bodyweight squat is a simple movement pattern that you can vary by changing the level of support, range of motion, or resistance.

Squats are also a compound exercise, meaning they engage two or more joints – the hips, knees and ankles.

If you’re a beginner, start with body weight squats. As you get stronger, add resistance and include both front and back squats.

Remember that ideally your thighs are just above parallel to the floor when you’re at the bottom of your squat.

For deadlifts and squats, I highly recommend that you work with a trainer to perfect your form. Get your form down first, then add resistance.

4. Push

functional fitness exercises - pushingPush movements are used by most of us daily, and might include pushing a lawn mower, or someone in line, or pushing a grocery cart. Exercises include pushups, military presses, or overhead dumbbell presses.

An exercise like the push-up is the simplest upper body push movement but can offer difficulties for those with reduced mobility. As a baseline exercise, I actually prefer a standing resistance band press as it also helps to develop balance. For those who are unable to stand, the exercise can be regressed to a seated version.

5. Pull

functional fitness exercises - pullingLike the other exercises on this list, pulling exercises are fundamental to how we move in daily life. While you may not do pullups regularly – though it’s a good idea – you do other movements regularly. In fact, we’re all constantly pulling and pushing, every day. Playing with your dog, opening a car door, pulling out a garden hose, etc. are examples.

What’s curious about pulling exercises is that like the deadlift mentioned above, there are a lot of people I see at the gym who do bench press or barbell press, but they don’t think about the opposite movements, like pullups or cable pulls.

I’m a strong believer that it’s extremely important to incorporate balance into your workout program. Practically every push exercise has an opposite pull exercise. An asymmetrical workout will set you up for injury.

A common phrase you hear among fitness people is “mirror muscles.” This is when a guy spends a lot of time working out muscles he can see, but forgets about the ones he can’t see. Don’t be like that.

6. Rotate (twist or turn)

functional fitness exercises - woodchoppersAn important movement commonly ignored is rotational movement.

I recently overheard a conversation between 2 chiropractors. They were discussing the most common injury they treat. I was fascinated to find that they agreed that for both of them, the injury occurred when someone who worked in a cube suddenly turned around to grab something off a shelf.

Those injuries wouldn’t happen if people included rotation or rotation resistance exercises into their workout program.

If you care about preventing injuries, this is an important movement you should consider incorporating to your program.

Rotation exercises are all about core functionality. Your core consists of a lot of muscles designed to work together. One of the best movements to strengthen your core are rotational movements such as woodchoppers.

Woodchoppers engage your core muscles, helping them to work in harmony and strengthen your lower back. This helps prevent lower back issues – one of the most common musculoskeletal problems.

Your lower back, or your lumbar spine, isn’t designed for a lot of movement. On the other hand, your middle spine (thoracic spine) should be trained for mobility, as it’s where most of your spinal rotation occurs.

7. Rotation Resistance (anti-rotation)

If you think about it, we don’t just rotate, like when we swing a golf club or a baseball bat, but we also resist rotation. Anti-rotation exercises prevent your spine from rotation or twisting, which is especially important for your lower back.

An example of how we do this every day is when we open a door. When you open the refrigerator door, you stabilize your core and resist rotation.

Anti-rotation exercises both mimic and strengthen the natural function of your core, which is to stabilize your spine and move in an injury-free plane of motion.

8. Carry

We all carry stuff regularly, whether it’s grocery bags, suitcases, or whatever. With that in mind, loaded carries are an essential exercise to include in your program, along with the other fundamental movements of push, pull, squat, and hip hinge.

These functional exercises enhance your body’s resiliency against injuries. Whether the goal is to prevent injury and maintain independence, get stronger, build muscle, or rehabilitate an injury, loaded carries are great to include in your exercise program.

Loaded carries work nearly every muscle in your body, improving strength, stability, and conditioning, all at once.

Loaded carries are great for developing healthy shoulders, and help improve posture and stability. Additionally, loaded carries help build strength and stability through your core muscles, since maintaining proper posture during a loaded carry requires your entire core and hips to work together to stabilize your trunk.

The other great thing is that when you do one-handed loaded carries, you add in the anti-rotation and flexion aspect as well. The muscles of the trunk must work against the weight to prevent the core from rotating and flexing to that side, thus building unilateral strength.

A strong core is essential to your overall fitness. After all, your core muscles are the central link in the connection between your upper and lower body.

9. Lunge

functional fitness exercises - lungesThe lunge is an important movement pattern that has good transfer into walking, stair climbing, and picking up things from the floor. The importance of lunges comes from our understanding that knee pain nearly always begins with weak hips – specifically, the stabilizer muscles aligning the upper leg, from the hip down into the knee.

Walking lunges are essentially an exaggerated striding motion, and build solid leg joints. Lunges involve taking one big step forward, planting your foot, and then bending your forward knee 90 degrees while bringing the rear knee low enough to almost touch the floor. Repeat with the other foot.

Conclusion

Most people move primarily forward and backward, and occasionally twist or move side to side. And if what I see at the gym is what happens at most gyms, then most people who exercise do so without consideration of how their body is designed to move in real life.

I believe that training should enable people to move comfortably for as long as possible. Personally, I want to always be fully physically functional.

Does that sound good to you too?

If so, you need to think through how you train your body. You need to think about what your body does for you every day, and how you move it.

When you go to the gym or exercise at home, it’s not just so you can get bigger arms or a smaller waist – your program should reflect a goal to live fully functionally, capably, for all of your days.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

Does this help? What else do you want to know? How can we better serve you? Email me at david@grayzonefitness.com.

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