7 MOVES THAT WILL REVEAL HOW FIT YOU ARE

If someone were to ask you what your definition of being fit is, what would your response be? Strong core/abs? Be able to squat your bodyweight? Run a mile? The toe-touch test? While these are all ideal indicators of being fit, they don’t necessarily provide an accurate measure of one’s fitness. A lot of guys think they are fit because they can bench press and squat the world (I used to be one of such people) and have washboard abs. The fact of the matter is how fit a person goes beyond physical strength. Don’t get me wrong, being strong is a renowned gift and warrants acknowledgement. There is more to fitness than being able to Deadlift 300 pounds.

There are several assessment protocols that measure fitness and plenty enough to chose from. But the following are 7 simple tests that can reveal how fit you are and can be done pretty much anywhere using just your bodyweight. These tests will identify strengths, weaknesses and limitations while measuring upper/lower body strength, core strength, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility and mobility.

OVERHEAD SQUAT: Using a PVC pipe or a rolled up towel held at slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, bring your hands over your head with elbows fully extended. Your feet should be slightly wider than hip-width. Take a deep breath, brace your core and sit your hips back as far and low as you can while trying to keep your torso rigid.

Things to look for:

-Do your knees cave inward as you descend? (This is caused by weakness and/or poor activation of gluteus medius and other hip external rotators)

-How deep can you squat? Are you able to bring your things to parallel? (Could be a result of tightness in hamstrings and hip external rotators)

-Do your arms, along with the PVC pipe or towel, drift forward during descent? (This could be caused by tight shoulder internal rotators and weak core/trunk stabilizers)

-Are your heels rising off the floor? (Tight/weakness in dorsiflexors and/or ankle instability)

The Fix: Exercises like band-resisted clamshells and side-band stepping are ideal for activating and strengthening gluteus medius which is responsible for knee function and hence better squatting. Regular stretching and foam rolling of the hamstrings and hips can improve depth. Working on external rotation/retraction exercises like band pull-apart and face pull will keep the arms from dropping forward.

 

SCAPULAR WALL SLIDE: Stand wit your back about a foot or slightly less from a wall. Establish three points of contact against the wall : head, shoulder blades and tail bone. Bring your arms full extended in from of your then pull your elbows back to touch the wall. Point your left and right forearms towards 11 ‘o’ clock and 1 ‘0’ clock. From there, extend your arms up against the wall while trying to keep your wrist and forearms pressed against the wall (creating the letter ‘Y’) . Hold for a second and then bring them back down to your starting position.

Things to look for:

-Were you able to extend your arms up against the wall while maintaining your 3 points of contact and keep them pressed against the wall?

-Did any of your body parts come off the wall during ascent and descent?

-Did you feel any pain/ache during the movement?

The Fix: If you answered ‘yes’ to the first question, congratulations! You have excellent shoulder mobility and flexibility. But if you answered ‘yes’ to the lat two questions, your shoulders are internally rotated thus causing limited mobility in external rotation. This can sometimes come with rounded shoulders or a slouch posture. Interestingly enough, this very test can also be used to correct the issue. Externally-rotated targeted exercises and practicing pulling the shoulders back are the best remedies.

 

PLANK: I don’t consider the plank to be the best measure of core strength given the fact that it requires a great deal of shoulder strength and endurance. But it can be a good indicator of how strong the anterior core is. With a stopwatch timing you, hold a plank for as long as you can.

Things to look for:

-Are you able to maintain a neutral spine all throughout? (lumbar hyperextension, dropping the head)

-Did you hold for longer or less than 30 seconds?

-Did you hold for longer than 60 seconds?

The Fix: Being unable to maintain a neutral spine during a plank not only means the anterior core is weak. It also means the posterior chain isn’t activated enough to keep the body upright. The gluteus muscles and lumber stabilizers must be strengthened to help correct this. Although not universally accepted, holding a plank for less than 30 seconds could be a sign of a weak core. I believe 45 – 60 seconds is a moderate standard to aim for. The only drawback to the plank is it can be quite difficult for people with preexisting shoulder injury and chronic pain. Either way, gradually work your way up to 1 minute.

 

TOE TOUCH: Arguably the most premier assessment flexibility test, the toe touch has pretty much been eradicated from many fitness testing protocols. I still consider it a good measure of hamstring and trunk flexibility. So many people have tight hamstrings and not even know it. This simple test will tell you. Standing with your hands along your sides, bend at the waist (trunk hinge) and reach your hands as far as you can towards your toes.

Things to look for:

-Did your hands get past your knees and/or shin?

-Were you able to touch your toes, or better yet the floor?

-How much did you have to bend the knees?

The Fix: If you were only able to reach to your knees and shins, your hamstrings are tight and most likely your lower back too. Being able to touch the toes or the ground indicates great trunk and hamstring flexibility. Although the knees can bend slightly during execution, too much bend devalues and diminishes the test. Correcting the above miscues is simple : lots of passive stretching and foam rolling.

 

PUSH-UP: Probably the most ancient exercise of our time, the push-up remains a staple in fitness programs. While it can be used as a workout, it can also assess upper body strength and muscular endurance. Perform as many push-ups as you can. When you start getting tried, drop to your knees and continue until exhaustion.

Things to look for:

As with the plank, so many standards exist for the push-up. The way I look at it is the more push-ups you can do without having to kneel, the better and stronger you’ll be. The modified push-up, though a regression of the standard push up, can help build some upper body strength. But it’s alway going to pale in comparison to the regular version in terms of improving and developing strength and endurance.

The Fix: Incorporating lots of anterior core work can help improve push-ups. Doing push ups on higher surfaces like a bench or Reebok STEP can be a precursor to the push-up. Strengthening of trunk stabilizing muscles like the shoulder and triceps can be beneficial also.

BODYWEIGHT SINGLE-LEG RDL:

The Romanian Deadlift is a popular exercise for targeting the posterior chain but can also a good way to assess balance and strength in both legs when done unilaterally with just the bodyweight. With your hands resting along your sides, stand on your right leg and lift the opposite left foot slightly off the ground. Hinge the trunk forward while reaching your hands towards the ground as your left leg lifts up. Aim to perform 6 to 10 reps.

Things to look for:

-How much shifting is occurring at the hips?

-Is the balanced foot/ankle wobbling and/or pronating too much?

-Does your hamstring fatigue enough so much you’re forced to stop?

-How high is the non-balanced leg when fully hinged? Is it in line with the trunk?

The Fix: Hip shifting and lateral movements could be traced to weak and under-active hip external rotators. Band-resisted clamshells and side-band stepping will help with that. Another challenge with this test is wobbling and pronation at the foot and ankle. Doing inversion, eversion, dorsiflexion and plantar flexion with a Thera band is a great way to address this. Generally speaking, single-leg work like lunges, step-ups and single-leg squat variations are vital for strengthening the legs individually. Keep in mind that traditional squats done on both legs, while associated with tons of perks, do not identify which of the legs is working the hardest and and the least.

STAIR CLIMB:

Find a stairwell with lots of floors and climb up 3 to 4 flights at your regular, walking pace.

Things to look for:

-Did you get out of breath?

-If you got out of breath, how soon did it happen?

-Did you find climbing these flights of stairs overly exerting?

The Fix: Stair climbing can be a good way to measure cardiovascular endurance and VO2 Max. The latter is the amount of oxygen available for use during activity. Here’s a simple way to look at it: If after walking 2 or 3 flights of stairs you found yourself breathing heavy, it indicates there wasn’t enough readily available oxygen in your body which means your V02 max and cardiovascular endurance are low. Obviously there’s a limited number of stairs we all can climb before we get tired. Assuming the knees and hips are in good condition, I believe we all should be able to climb a minimum of 4 flights of stairs without getting out of breath. Strength training the lower body and doing a wide variety of cardio activities like HIIT, bootcamp, cycling will surely help improve cardio endurance and VO2 max.

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5 ways to spice up your cardio

By now, we all know a combination of cardio and strength training is the best way to achieve and maintain a lean, healthy weight. However, a majority of recreational exercisers hate doing cardio. Many of us find it too boring and monotonous and just doesn’t yield the same high as a strength training session. Although gyms and health clubs are packed with tons of treadmills, only a select few, particularly avid runners, use them regularly. Elliptical machines, stair climber and bicycles are also utilized frequently by fitness enthusiasts but their usage pale in comparison to that of the treadmill. It’s important to point out the dislike associated with cardio is steady-state cardio, i.e. being on a cardio machine for a long time. Most people just don’t like the idea of being stuck on a treadmill or elliptical for 30 minutes.

So what exactly is cardio?

Simply put, cardio is any activity that is rhythmic in nature. The idea is to have the activity rhythmic enough to challenge the heart. Based on that theory, jumping jacks, walking up a flight of stairs, double dutch, and even gardening would be considered as cardio activities. All of the above will raise the heart rate up and require a moderate amount of effort and exertion. The heart rate and its beats per minute (bpm) is perhaps the most common way to measure how challenging a cardio activity is or any activity for that matter. This usually requires several formulas in which certain numbers are plugged in, with the most popular being the ‘220-age method‘ multiplied by a percentage. However, I believe the RPE scale is a better assessment since it takes into account the feel of the individual. You know when you’re working too hard, moderately or with little to no effort.

For those “I hate cardio” folks, there are a plethora of non-traditional cardio options you can consider. Here are 5 good ones:

Circuit Training: This is actually one of the most popular ways of training amongst fitness enthusiasts and has been around for quite some time. Not only is it a good way to save time and get more bang for your buck, it provides both aerobic and anaerobic benefits. You alternate between a minimum of 2 exercises without resting (also known as ‘super-setting’) , before resting briefly and repeating cycle for at least 2 more sets. It’s important that exercises selected for a circuit don’t require maximum effort and should allow for 8-15 reps at an RPE of between 11 and 15.  Below is an example of a sample circuit training program: Perform the exercises marked ‘a’ and ‘b’ consecutively without resting. Rest for 90 seconds after exercise ‘b’ then repeat for 2 more sets before moving on to the second circuit.

1a. Barbell Squat

1b. Push Ups

2a. Jumping Jacks

2b. Burpees

3a. Plank

3b. Side Bridge

HIIT: For those who want a quick cardio session rather than the usual steady-state stuff, High Intensity Interval Training is just that. HIIT gained mainstream several years ago and is a staple in many people’s cardio programs today. It is defined as alternating between bouts of high intensity and low intensity. The heart rate stays high enough during the ‘work’ portion so much that it doesn’t drop too low during the ‘recovery’ portion to yield sufficient fat burning. According to an ACSM study, HIIT has a number of benefits including increasing metabolism, burning more fat than steady state cardio, lowering blood pressure and shrinking abdominal/trunk fat at a faster rate.

There’s no ideal HIIT protocol but a sample HIIT workout I often use and recommend to my clients is running 1 minute hard followed by 1 minute easy/recovery, and repeating for 8 – 10 rounds. If you’re a beginner or your cardio conditioning isn’t as high, you can try 1 minute hard followed my 90 seconds easy/recovery.

TABATA:  An adapted version of HIIT is the Tabata protocol, popularized by exercise science professor, Izumi Tabata in the mid 90’s. Unlike HIIT, which is mostly running and in some cases cycling, Tabata uses whole body movements and exercises done at moderate to high intensity for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. This process is performed for a total of 8 rounds or 4 minutes. More than one exercise can be used for Tabata training or simply just one. For example you can set up 8 different stations for each round of Tabata, go through all 8 stations, rest 90 seconds and repeat for 2 more rounds. A single movement can also be used for Tabata providing that movement engages and challenges the whole body.

Some effective exercises for Tabata training are kettle bell swings, kettle bell snatch,  jump squats, high knees, burpees, push press, medicine ball slams, battle rope slams/waves, mountain climbers, sandbag cleans, to name a few.

Bootcamp: This is one of the premier methods of training, dating back to the 80’s. The early days of bootcamp utilized mostly your bodyweight. Exercises like jumping jacks, mountain climbers and burpees were birthed by bootcamp training. Perhaps the greatest perk about boot camp is it can be done just about anywhere, even in your living room. Nowadays, props like medicine balls, battle ropes, stairs and kettle bells are being incorporated for a more effective, fat-burning workout. There isn’t a preferred routine or format when it comes to bootcamp. It has been tried and tested over time and will continue to be effective.

There are thousands of bootcamp workouts to select from and even more bootcamp studios you can attend for a class. It doesn’t matter what you opt for because bootcamp isn’t fading anytime soon.

Jumping Rope: Just like bootcamp, jumping rope has been around for years and also demands a great deal from the body. Forget about the fact that you have to swing this light piece of string over your head and under your feet, simply jumping off the ground repeatedly is a surefire way to get your heart rate up. Everything from your arms, legs, core and trunk stabilizers are used while jumping rope. Most fitness enthusiasts use jump rope as a warm up before a big workout. But it can be utilized solely for a cardio workout. Other folks who jump rope don’t do it long enough or fail to do it well enough to yield benefits. Keep in mind that although the forward jump is the most basic and common jump, there are other jumps that can also be done. Examples are side-to-side jump, backward jump, single-leg jump-left, single-leg jump-right, double jump and  alternating jump to name a few.

Consider this basic jump rope routine: forward jump for 30 – 60 seconds; rest 60 seconds and repeat for a total of 10 rounds. More advanced people can jump for 60 seconds and rest for 30 – 60 seconds.

One exercise only to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking my fellow fitness enthusiasts if they had to pick just one, what single exercise would they do for the rest of their lives. I received a lot of interesting responses including popular movements like squat, deadlift and push-ups. The fact of the matter is any exercise is good for the body so from that perspective any exercise is better than no exercise at all. But lets say, hypothetically, we could only perform one exercise for the rest of  our lives, which one would take precedence? Are there certain movements that are more impactful on the body than others?

Without a doubt!

Compound movements will obviously be favored because of their multi-joint actions. But as all-encompassing as compound movements are, they  don’t engage all muscle groups. Regardless, a few muscles will be left unworked. So how does one select the ideal exercise to perform for the rest of their lives?

I can make a case for 4.

1) A Case For The Deadlift: If you deadlift on a regular basis, you know it is one of the most whole-body engaging movements. Its functional impact on the body also makes it a staple in every workout program. The entire posterior chain gets worked from the upper trapezius muscles to the lats, erector spinae, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings. There’s also emphasis on the anterior core, quads, biceps, forearms and grip enhancement. Very few movements offer a barometer for strength like the deadlift due to its biomechincal physiology. The term ‘dead’ in deadlift essentially means picking up a dead weight from the ground which requires a great deal of effort and precision. It is why so many people hurt their backs when picking up items from the floor because their kinetic chain isn’t mechanically aware and alert enough. The deadlift corrects and addresses the problem while strengthening the body over time.

Although the chest, triceps and shoulders don’t get a lot of work, the fact that two-thirds of the body is engaged during this movement makes it an ideal exercise to perform for life.

2) A Case For The Squat: Widely considered as the premier exercise, the barbell back squat remains an essential component for weight loss, strength and lean muscle. It remains an assessment tool for many fitness professionals. Though I’d argue that the deadlift can and should replace the squat in assessment protocols due to the fact that preexisting knee and back ailments can affect a person trying to perform the latter. But I digress. The squat and deadlift are by far the two most functional movements in fitness, partly due to to their hip-hinging similarities  and identical muscle groups that are used. There are over 600 muscles in the body and squat is known to work about half of them! That alone is a good incentive to pick the squat as the ideal exercise to perform. Glutes, quads hamstrings, anterior core and upper back are some of the engaged muscles.

The only drawback, which I mentioned earlier, is knee and back pain can make back squatting difficult and unable to perform. Compressive forces from a loaded barbell on a weak lumbar spine could discourage an exerciser from doing squat. Although variations like the front squat (an ideal replacement for those with knee and back pain) and single-leg squat exist, they require near-perfect precision and execution and can take a while to master (the Bulgarian Split Squat being the exception). All things considered, the squat remains a great exercise and in my estimation, one of the two most important exercises (the deadlift being the other).

3). A Case For The Push-Up: By far the most popular exercise and best for working the upper body, the push-up is as ancient as Greek gods and is here to stay. Simply put, no exercise targets the pecs, anterior core, shoulders and triceps like the push-up. Keep in mind that the traditional bench press is a derivative of the push-up so both exercises are essentially the same. But unlike the bench press, the push-up requires no equipment and no set-up and can be done virtually anywhere so from that standpoint, it is more advantageous to many exercisers. Variations like the one-hand push-up, feet elevated push-ups, plyo push-ups, T-push-ups, atomic push-ups and band push-ups make for unique and interesting challenges, one disadvantage with the bench press.

There is little to no engagement of the lower body during a push-up which could come as a detriment later in life to someone who choses to make it their only exercise. That’s the only case against the push-up. Aside from that, it is the ultimate upper body builder.

4). A Case For Walking: As impactful and popular as the push-up is, not many people can perform it well or do enough of them. Walking is the one activity everyone can relate to. Barring any chronic knee or ankle condition, walking is the simplest and easiest physical activity to do. It is why so many health experts and professionals recommend it as part of an exercise regimen to lose weight, lower blood pressure and high cholesterol and promote a healthy lifestyle because all it requires is for you to just get up and move. Simple! So many people enjoy walking and have reaped benefits via weight loss, mood and overall positive state of mind. Believe it or not, walking can also be made challenging and walking programs do exist for its lovers. For an in-depth look at these programs, take a look at this blog post I wrote a while back.

As ubiquitous as it is, walking just fails to address many of the musculoskeletal needs of the body. While fat loss can occur via walking, so can lean muscle. Power, muscle mass and raw strength cannot be achieved through walking, regardless of the distance covered. On a more encouraging note, walking is the only activity that has the lowest risk for injury and can be done by people of all ages.

Squats Vs. Hip Thrusts – Which Is Better For The Glutes?

Ask anybody at your local gym what exercise they think is best for the backside. I can confidently say most people will say it’s the squat. From the beginning of time, the squat has been associated with developing and building strong gluteal muscles. The backside of the human body has become an essential part of many training programs. Athletes require a strong posterior chain for optimal performance in their sports. Society’s obsession, though mostly women, for a firmer, tighter and rounder butt is at its highest. In fact, many women I come across these days tell me they want bigger butts. The butt craze is in full effect!

So what is the best exercise for building the backside?

For years, the traditional squat was the go-to movement for butt and still remains a fantastic choice. But in recent years the hip thrust has gained popularity and emerged as a true rival for gluteal development. No research comparing the two exercises and its effect on the glutes had been conducted until Bret Contreras (www.gluteguy.com), the creator of the hip thrust, conducted one. Bret examines 3 key factors that impact muscle growth and development : mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage on the gluteal muscles. Majority of this is based on his findings.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Squat: Glute activation during a sub-max effort on a barbell squat isn’t what most people think it is. With the loaded bar on your shoulder, the glutes are relaxed and only begin to contract during the eccentric phase. Contraction during descent is very low and lowest at the bottom of the squat. In fact, research now shows that a ‘bucket squat’ or going too deep has little to no impact on the backside.  The most amount of muscle contraction and activation takes place during the concentric phase; as you drive explosively upward from the bottom of the squat. Maximal contraction takes place during the middle of the rep, and slowly dissipates as you get back to the top.

Generally speaking, gluteal activation at the lowest phase of the squat is about 10-20% of maximal contraction, 20-30% at the start of the eccentric phase and 80-120% at the start and during the concentric phase. Overall the average gluteal activation percentage is about 60% of maximal contraction.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Hip Thrust: Using a sub-max load, the barbell hip thrust challenges the gluteal muscles a bit different from the squat. At the start of the movement, when the barbell is placed on the hip, the glutes are relaxed.  The lifter thrusts the hips concentrically upwards until full hip extension is reached. Average gluteal activation during this phase is about 160% of maximal contraction. Keep in mind that full hip extension must be achieved (squeezing the buttocks as hard as possible at the top of the lift) for full benefits to be reaped. Unlike a barbell squat where the glutes are relaxed at the top, the gravity effect on the hip thrust (the barbell constantly trying to push you back down from the top) inevitably places constant tension on the gluteal fibers resulting in more of a burn.

There is little to no hamstring activation during the barbell hip thrusts. However, when the drive occurs at the balls of the feet as opposed to the heels, some may get some hamstring work. As a rule of thumb, the heels should always be favored.

Squat:Hip Thrust

Conclusion: Both the squat and hip thrust are excellent choices for building the backside. The fact that both movements keep the knees in a bent position means there is limited hamstring activation due to its shortening and therefore more involvement of the gluteal muscles. The hamstrings can only fire maximally when they’re continually lengthened. Although both exercises require hip extension which forces gluteal activation, the minimal activation during the eccentric phase and the lack of tension at the top of the squat doesn’t cause immediate burn and soreness unlike the hip thrust where there is constant tension. However because the fibers get a deeper stretch eccentrically during the squat more than the hip thrust, a lifter is highly likely to get sore in the days following a sub-max squat workout. The only small drawback is the lower back strength limits the load a lifter can use on the barbell squat and quadriceps and hamstrings activation takes away from maximal gluteal activation. The hip thrust, though easier to perform, is limited by glute strength, meaning once the glutes get tired from firing, a lifter will no longer be able to thrust thereby ending the set.

So which is the better choice for the backside?

Based on what the research shows, both exercises build and develop the gluteal muscles effectively and should be incorporated in a training program. Though the hip thrust offers more gluteal bang-for-your-buck results, it shouldn’t be necessarily favored over the squat nor should it replace it entirely. The barbell squat engages more of the lower gluteal fibers than upper fibers whereas the hip thrust fully activate both fibers. If you want a fully developed butt, you’ll have to routinely perform these two exercises. Performing only one and not the other will rob you of the full results. Both can be performed during a workout session or on separate days. The load must be challenging enough in order to illicit good gains. Generally speaking, a sub-max effort of about 75% of 1RM should suffice. Ideal rep range should be between 8 and 15.

Keep in mind that the front squat and goblet squat, which place emphasis on the front side of the body and anterior core, has very minimal impact on the backside and therefore can’t be relied upon for maximal gluteal development. While both exercises are low-back and knee friendlier than the back squat, they don’t fire the glutes nearly as hard due to the placement of the load.  As a bonus, the deadlift along with other gluteal isolation exercises like the reverse lunge, stiff-legged deadlift and hip abduction movements will yield one heck of a backside.

 

Preventing Knee And Back Pain By Improving Hip Mobility

The hip complex is indeed a very complex joint –  no pun intended. It is responsible for almost every action we execute everyday. Like the shoulder, it is a a ball and socket joint which is capable of movements in all three planes of motion. In all my years in the fitness industry, I’ve noticed that the knee and hip joints of people seem to be the most vulnerable to injury. Some of you reading this have had your share of these joint pains. Some of these pains and injuies are due to falls, natural disasters and playing sports. However, many are a result of infrequent training of the hip complex and poor exercise selection leading to compensation of the knee and ankle joints.

If you look at the human body, you’ll see that the hip is located at the center of the body. This makes it come into play nearly every time we perform a task or action. Sitting, getting up, climbing stairs, playing sports, running and a plethora of other activities require hip involvement. But many of us have hip mobility issues, and because the body is one big chain of stack of joints, hip immobility can affect the knee and ankle joints. Many joint aches and pains can actually be resolved by strengthening the muscles of the surrounding joints. Even low back pain can be attributed to poor hip mobility. If the gluteus maximus muscle group is weak, it forces the opposing hip flexors to shorten and subsequently pull on the low back in seated positions. If the gluteus muscles, hip external and internal rotators are not trained often enough, it won’t be long before the knees, low back and even ankles are forced to compensate themselves in hip-dominant activities.

MUSCLES-OF-HIP

By strengthening the muscles of the hip, the lumbar spine is better equipped to handle everyday stress of life. Barbell squat, deadlift, single-leg squat, reverse lunges, hip thrust, step-up and certain quadruped exercises are some excellent choices for improving hip mobility and strengthening the muscles. Flexibility in the hip flexors, hamstrings, adductors and hip external rotators is also key to achieving and maintaining a strong and pliable hip joint. Active stretching and myofascial work will help improve flexibility in these muscles while keeping them lose and warm. The foam roller is arguably the most vital fitness accessory because of  its impact in reliving the body of aches, inflammation and tightness. Myofascial work via foam rolling or lacrosse and tennis balls may be advantageous over stretching because of its ability to go deep into muscle tissue.

Whether you’re an all-around gym enthusiast, an athlete or weekend warrior, hip mobility is crucial for long health and prevention of  injury. A training program that addresses strengthening of the hip muscles and improvement of flexibility will successfully achieve this goal.

Functional Training : A Brief Overview

Though extremely essential and vital for longevity, functional training may be one of the most overlooked and misunderstood areas of fitness. It is a term that was coined by rehabilitation therapists who had a sole objective of getting chronically injured patients to perform basic day-to-day activities again much simpler. For this reason, it has garnered a lot of mainstream recognition through the years but remains a mystery to some. How do you know if you’re training functionally? What exercises are considered functional?

It is important to know that functional training is designed to meet one specific demand only : performing a wide range of daily activities more efficiently without any potential risk for injury. It’s basically simulating basic movements at home, work and sporting activities. For example, a squat is a functional exercise in the sense that it trains and teaches the lower body muscles to be able to pick up an object from the ground. By performing this exercise routinely, the body is well equipped to handle any life situation that involves bending and hinging of the hips. The overhead press is another excellent functional exercise which trains the upper body and torso in reaching for items in our overhead kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets.

Keep in mind that common exercises like biceps curl, leg extensions, lateral raises and even the bench press, while aesthetically great for the body, have no functional benefits. Nothing we do in life simulates the actions of the aforementioned exercises. Can you think of any day-to-day activity that requires you to lay on your back and push an object upwards? How about one that requires you to bend your elbows with your arms fully extended? My point exactly.

Here are 4 reasons you should be doing functional training:

1. Across The Board: Just about anybody can participate in functional training. Whole body movements make up the template making it easy for an individual to utilize several muscle groups when doing a particular exercise. Resistance for functional training comes in many forms, from dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands to body weight, kettle bells and medicine balls making it universally accessible. The ability to perform basic everyday tasks much simpler and efficiently is more than enough incentive to train the body functionally and benefit exercisers of all levels and backgrounds. Older adults and sedentary individuals historically reap the most benefits due to years of inactivity and lack of movement.

2. Emphasis On Movement: One of the perks of functional training is the ability to effectively perform tasks in different planes of motion (i.e, different angles). As a result, movement is promoted and thereby encouraged. Think of multidirectional challenge involved in mopping the floor, vacuuming and doing gardening work. This movement in different directions subsequently incorporates other muscle groups. As I mentioned earlier, it is for this reason a case can be made against exercise machines that only isolate muscles and restrict movement as having functional benefits. The step-up exercise will yield more perks from a functional standpoint than the seated leg press machine, even though both exercises train the muscles of the lower body.

3. Core Stability:  Another important perk of functional training is the ability to integrate the core musculature. Functional training exercises are designed in a way so there is great deal of core stabilization. The squat and overhead press train the lower body and shoulder girdle respectively but there is core is stabilized and engaged to a great degree, although you won’t necessarily feel a ‘burn’ in your abs during these movements. The result is stronger abs and increased ability to control our bodies through different planes of motion and in the most adverse life situations.

4. Proprioceptive Enhancement: Performance of multi-joint and multidirectional exercises requires a good amount of concentration and alertness. Think about how zoned in you are when you do lunges or squat-to-press. Slips and falls in our society, especially among senior citizens, has been linked to poor balance and underdeveloped motor skills. Functional training addresses these areas by sharpening motor skills, decreasing the difficulty of balance and improving coordination. This is why functional training emphasizes the training of ‘movements’ and not just simply ‘muscles’.

Some of the best functional training exercises include squat, overhead press, step-up, lunges, medicine ball throws, kettle bell swings, rotational movements and pulling exercises.

The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.