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How Functional Training Changes Your Fitness

sandbag exercises

One of the big differences with the mindset of functional training versus other training methods is the concept of training movement not muscles. On the outside this seems like a very simple concept, but as I travel the world discussing these ideas I begin to realize how confusing functional training is for more coaches. 

It isn’t their fault, there is a lot of confusing information out there. Everyone now seems like an expert and it is hard to have a great filter of true great coaches and those just posting a lot. I often joke that being old does have the benefit of having a better filter. In fact, I am very grateful that I get to talk to so many awesome coaches from different disciplines. Doing so really helps me shape better ways to explain the true meaning of functional training. 

Back in the late 1990’s I was all into Paul Chek (who was one of the first to bring functional training to mainstream fitness) and he discussed the idea of Primal Movement Patterns. These were seven patterns that were innate to human movement. According to Mr. Chek they included….


-Hip Hinge


-Upper Body Push

-Upper Body Pull


-Locomotion (walking, running, etc.) 

functional training

Ironically this would the same list of movement patterns that leading spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill would promote later in his books. So, you have to think that functional training first and foremost has to focus on these patterns. The hard part is that many exercises can make up these patterns and people can get overwhelmed. 

This is especially true when it comes to locomotion. I am fascinated at the simple fact what makes us uniquely human, locomotion, is something that in general the fitness industry understands so poorly. That is probably because even those that believe in functional training still fall into “what muscles I am working?” One of the perks that functional training is suppose to give people is that you don’t have to worry about what muscles because if you focus on balance of addressing these movement patterns you hit ALL the muscles of the body you could imagine!

Not worries about what muscle you are hitting that day, functional training gives you a BETTER way to train!

Over time I will break down the misunderstanding of each pattern. Heck, I’ve hit on the hip hinge and squat patterns pretty hard and we have a great one on the lunge HERE. For this post though I want to hit on locomotion or gait (walking) because it is something that has received more attention in functional training yet we don’t really get it. 

You may wonder, “how the heck do we screw up walking?!” Very easily, it is one of the most complex movement patterns that we perform and we almost don’t think about it at all. Yet, shoe companies have a billion dollar industry trying to sell us on better ways to walk and run. 

How many people do you know take up running, jogging, anything of the like and within weeks are wearing numerous braces or complaining of pain of some sort? Walking well is something most don’t do well because of our shoe wear, the surfaces we now engage with have changed so much, and we are less mobile than ever. 

In an effort to help issues like core stability and raise awareness of the gait pattern many coaches have become strong advocates of activities like loaded carries. Everything from farmer’s carries (weight by the side) to waiter’s walks (weight overhead) had been strongly promoted for better functional training of the core, shoulders, and pelvis. Are they wrong? Not necessarily. 

Scientists like Dr. Stuart McGill have found great benefit to functional training of the body through carries. Yet, the question should be asked first, how do we know you walk well before we load you up? Physical therapist and creator of the Functional Movement Screen, Gray Cook, talks a great deal about not loading dysfunctional patterns. However, most fitness professionals never look to see if their clients walk well. 

While walking is something that is actually very complex to analyze (I’ve looked at university labs that are designed to JUST examine how people walk and they are crazy!), we can do simple things to qualify people for loaded carries. 

Where most people go wrong is right from the start in misunderstanding the pattern versus the exercise. For example, we often say that the deadlift is a hip hinge pattern, but the hip hinge pattern does NOT have to be a deadlift! Most coaches mess this up when it comes to gait. The exercise is a loaded carry the pattern is gait. Meaning gait training doesn’t HAVE to be loaded carries. 

We have talked a lot about other forms of the gait pattern. Exercises that make up gait, for example, dead bugs, bird dogs, even lunge variations build up functional training of gait. So, knowing the difference is important because if you don’t walk well, what do you do?!

When you look at what the Dead Bug teaches it becomes obvious it is teaching us the qualities of locomotion. 

First off, the great thing about DVRT is you just start at the beginning. Work on exercises like dead bugs, bird dogs, etc. Over time as we get more upright (focusing on half kneeling and lunging exercises) we can start to get more specific to gait. 

What I wanted to use this post was to talk about the functional training exercise from DVRT that is the perfect screen to use right before we look at doing loaded carries. That is our various march progressions. 

Marching is awesome for so many reasons and this past weekend fitness professionals were shocked at how difficult they were when we presented at the Perform Better conference. These were many coaches using loaded carries but couldn’t use our marches well! The point was well taken at making sure we set good functional training progressions because the question isn’t usually is the exercise good, but rather, is the exercise good for YOU!

Our friends at J and D fitness show we can use this DVRT concept to demonstrate pelvic control and true core strength. 

Our marches aren’t complicated, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. The name implies what we are doing which is marching in place. This is great because from a space perspective we can have minimal room and still benefit from this form of functional training. However, why are marches great preludes to loaded carries? 

There are several things that go wrong when people walk incorrectly, but we are going to boil it down to some simple, but important factors. The first is how the foot strikes the ground. Many people have foot issues of all sorts and if the foot doesn’t interact with the ground correctly then there is a chain reaction causing problems in the knees, low back, and even shoulders! Using our marches we teach people how to use their feet better because as you lift one leg off the ground the other MUST grab the ground and create stability. This simple action goes a long way to making you better!

The second is most people have poor frontal plane (lateral strength and stability), this is suppose to be improved with loaded carries but if it is poor to start with then how can we make it better before we make it more demanding? You got it, marches! Lifting one leg off the ground and making the support foot more active we really emphasize the frontal plane without being so complex in asking people to walk. However, to make this really work we have to include one more piece of the puzzle. That is activating the core and lats!

One reason that farmer’s walks are so touted for their benefit is that tightly gripping weight down by your side you connect lats and core. We can use this strategy but so many more layers to our marching series to really strengthen the core, the pelvis, and our frontal plane work by some of these strategies that DVRT Master, Sean Lettero demonstrates. The keys are the same, creating tension in the hands by pulling apart the Ultimate Sandbag. This simple strategy increases core tension and strength of the kinetic chain. 

Where should you use marches and how do you program them? Like loaded carries, marches benefit from longer time under tension. So, start implementing them at the end of your workout when you want to really challenge your body with longer time under tension (60 seconds and up). You can use them for activation and shorter time under tension at the beginning of your workout (30-60 seconds) to “wake up” a lot of muscles that have been turned off and are required for good functional training. 

By giving more layers to your training, you can offer more solutions to yourself and clients. Marches reflect both the need to have smarter progressions to your functional training and understanding how the body functions in life. Make them a part of your functional training workouts and see the change in your real world strength!

Want to get a REAL challenge? Try using our DVRT Water Bags for these march variations and welcome in a much bigger world of functional training! Save 25% with coupon code “strong“ and get our NEW DVRT Water Bag download manual for FREE HERE with any purchase of our DVRT Water Bags