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Functional Movement Exercises

"The main word here is function. Function is purpose. So functional training is just training that has a purpose,” says Eric Salvador, a certified personal trainer at the Fhitting Room in New York City. More than that, functional training is focused on movement patterns that have a purpose.

That purpose can be related to getting better at everyday activities—like walking, squatting to pick up something heavy, pushing a revolving door, or getting in and out of a chair—or preparing to compete in a sport, like soccer, football, or tennis. A functional workout is simply one that strengthens you in a particular way that directly translates to an activity outside the weight room. For most people, the practical application of functional training is to make daily activities easier to perform, says Dan Henderson, cofounder of the Functional Training Institute in Australia.

A functional workout typically consists of compound exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts.

Compound exercises require more than one muscle group to work together, like a squat, deadlift, lunge, or push-up. Because of that, they typically mimic everyday movement patterns—like pull, push, squat, hinge, rotation—better than isolation exercises, like a biceps curl. Think about it: How often do you simply stand in place and lift something from waist level with just your biceps? Probably rarely, if ever. Now, how often do you squat to lift something off the floor? Or lunge to tie your shoe? Or push a door open?

“A majority of functional training movements are multijoint, and a functional training program should incorporate movements in multiple planes,” says Henderson. That means moving forward and backward, side to side, and incorporating rotational movements.

Functional training improves your body’s ability to work efficiently as one unit.

By training multiple muscle groups at the same time, you are helping your body function better as a whole, says Teakle. You’re training it to be a system and not just individual parts that work independently. “Training [different parts of your body] to work together is going to keep you safe,” Teakle says.

Part of that is because both your mind and muscles will learn how to recruit multiple muscle groups to get a job done instead of relying on just one. “Recruiting multiple muscle groups is going to prevent strain injuries that happen from using one muscle group,” says Teakle.

Think about lifting a heavy suitcase. If you do it incorrectly and just bend over instead of squatting or deadlifting, you’re likely to use—and potentially strain—your lower-back muscles. You may even end up really hurting yourself by, say, rupturing a disc (an extreme but not unheard of result of improper lifting). But if you’ve been focusing on functional movements in your training, you’ll be way more comfortable lifting that suitcase properly: by using your entire body. You’ll squat and deadlift it from the floor, using your glutes and legs and keeping your back flat and chest up like you’re used to doing with a weight in the gym.

Get out there and help yourself by using functional exercises in your training regimen.

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