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Understanding What Functional Movement Really Means

ultimate sandbag workouts

Discussing training theory is great and citing research is very important, but in the end, I think nothing tells more about what a person actually believes in than the programs they put together. After looking at program after program and workout after workout there is something that really astounds me. The fact we aren’t as movement oriented as we believe!

What do I mean? Many coaches like to brag that their programs are incredibly functional because they squat, they deadlift, they press, and they pull-up. Heck, some even throw in a bit of running, crawling, and handstands. But that still keeps us from really understanding many important aspects of functional movement. There are those that are doing REALLY out there exercises calling them functional, but are they really?

Instead of seeing purely muscles in isolation, we now recognize more integrated movement patterns that show how we actually create movement. This isn’t a difference in semantics, but takes into the account the powerful role of the nervous system. The intermuscular coordination (how muscles work together to create a movement) that improves with more functionally based movements is what professionals believe creates better development in all around fitness. Yet, we are still missing a great deal of what actually is meant by functionally based training and advancing these strategies.

core exercise

While the K.I.S.S. method (keep it simple stupid) is a good theory for introductory strength training, adhering to this method exclusively leads to  the S.I.S.S. method (stuck in stupid simplicity). How does this apply to our world of functionally based training? Most good coaches see movement patterns in the following manner:

  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Hip Hinge
  • Vertical Push
  • Vertical Pull
  • Horizontal Push
  • Horizontal Pull
  • Rotation
  • Locomotion

This would seem like a very solid look at strength training movements and something we have discussed many times in our DVRT posts. Yet, the problem is the problem when we look at movement, often as what is done in the weight room does not really meet the demands of what we do outside of the weight room. While the above is good, it can be much better.

The body really is a complex system made up of many chains. These chains, when they are working well, help us move better, produce more force, and create more speed. However, when there is a weak link in the chain we often don’t address the chains, but rather the muscles and a very general movement pattern.

Let’s talk in more specifics. In phyisotherapist Diane Lee’s book, The Pelvic Girdle, she discusses four important sling system of the pelvic region. A “hole” in any of these systems creates dysfunction and, we can assume, poor performance.

  1. Anterior Oblique System: External and internal oblique with the opposing leg’s adductors and intervening anterior abdominal fascia.
  2. Posterior Oblique System: The lat and opposing glute maximus.
  3. Deep Longitudinal System: Erectors, the innervating fascia and biceps femoris.
  4. Lateral System: Glute medius and minimus and the opposing adductors of the thigh

While we could and maybe SHOULD have posts about each of these chains/systems, the point today is that people are misunderstanding that use of these ideas. For one, you can not isolate any of these chains as they are all active when we move. However, you can HIGHLIGHT certain chains and use stances, positions, and placement of load to see if these chains are working their best.

Caroline Juster shows a few of many ways that we train these chains in smarter ways.

Another mistake is that people think you just “work the muscles” for example the anterior oblique sling. Recently, I saw a coach recommend someone perform alternating bench press with a block between their legs to squeeze. The idea that was expressed was that this focuses more on the anterior oblique sling. This sling system is typically thought of as the adductors on one side connecting to the obliques on the other.

On its face, this does make sense as the adductors are activated more by squeezing the block and performing an alternating dumbbell bench press will use more obliques. HOWEVER, what is not understood here is that this systems is typically a point of emphasis when walking, running, and doing more upright activities.

As described by physiopedia, “When walking, the AOS is important in providing stability. The adductors work in harmony with the internal oblique and opposite external oblique muscles, utilizing a balance of force vectors to both stabilize the body on top of the stance leg and to rotate the pelvis forward. This is to position the pelvis and hip optimally for the succeeding heel-strike.”

Meaning, that the adductors are not necessarily actively contracting by pushing the legs together, but by stabilizing the leg while moving into single leg stance. For example, if you stand on one leg, your adductors are working but much differently than if you were to use an adductor machine at the gym.

If we wanted to use the concepts of the Anterior Oblique Sling smarter, then we can do so by using progressions like I show here where I use split stance, half kneeling, and inline positions to press. Using cables or bands I can have many progressions of using the obliques in the equations while also creating bracing of the obliques.

Using the Ultimate Sandbag in drills like Arc Presses, Lifts/Chops, and Around The Worlds, I can challenge the Anterior Oblique Sling at higher levels through more reflexive forms of stability. If we are going to use these ideas, we need to put them in proper context.

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