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How Functional Movement Can Help You Live A Better Life

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 13 March 2017
Hits: 32522

I don't know anyone who does not want to be strong. From older person wanting to preserve strength for walking up stairs to sports people wanting improved performance, we all know being strong is great for the health of our body and enjoying life. This is where there has been a shift in recent times to using Functional Training methods. It is very much one of those buzzwords in the Fitness industry that is thrown around by all circles but actually knowing what it really means, and more importantly how to do it is often completely missed. Wikipedia defines functional training as “Functional training is a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.” Pretty simple right. Does Olympic Lifting or muscle ups fall into this category? They do not, yet these exercises often have the term functional applied to them, but they are sports specific and not something we would ever do or need in daily life. This is not to say they are bad exercises, they are great to evolve to if you can. But if you skip steps and go straight to this training, potential problems will arise. To understand what functional movement really means, you need to think of what key or foundation movement patterns we perform as humans that form the basis of all movements. In this article, we will show what these key patterns are, but even better than that show you how to assess, and go about improving it if it is faulty or weak. Regardless of age, gender, injury or whatever goal you have in terms of health and fitness, you cannot escape the fact you must learn how to move efficiently to function in life. 

Why Do We Need Functional Training?


As I mentioned in the introduction the need for functional training is very simple. It is a way to enhance how we move. I can say with 100% certainty this is without doubt the fastest way to make any person stronger. For when you move better, your body is more stable, coordinated and prepared for the demands of applying loads or speed. The nervous system and brain control all the systems and when they work at a high level they change hundreds of things all at once. Moving better makes it easier to do the things to make you improve fitness.

Older people lose their ability to move before they lose their strength. And the same is the case when you are injured or in pain, or perhaps have an illness or health problem you need to find a way to restore this. Unfortunately the fitness industry forgets this very simple philosophy and with all the trends, fads and gimmicks really confuses people as to what is the best way to achieve health goals. Notice I say "health goals" and not fitness goals.

In terms of strength training the body building world has corrupted our way of thinking when it comes to movement by using all types of isolated exercises to target muscles and exhaust them. Feeling good and moving good, is of little focus and sacrificed in order to look good in a mirror. At the other end of the spectrum we now have Crossfit using all types of complex methods and exercises with the purpose of destroying the body for improved fitness. Again feeling good and moving good is sacrificed in order to make a time limit or some target for a WOD! And we still have all the other stuff in between being running, cycling and various boot-camps and group training programs that are very popular.

Now I am not saying all of these are necessarily bad for you, they can be great ways to stay in shape or even improve your fitness. They are just not great ways to improve health, and they are not always great ways to improve sports performance either!

Health and fitness are not the same thing!

You cannot use a fitness plan to make you healthy. Most people need a health program first and once they have improved their health and earned the right to train for fitness, harder training can be used.

Before I go on make sure you download a copy of our Free Report on Functional Training below as this gives you all the key movements and programs in great detail that I am about to show you.

Why You Must Train Patterns Of Movement

There is several things wrong with training muscles or even simply having a focus on muscles instead of patterns of movement.

Firstly we do not move like robots, we are a complex and sophisticated system of systems all bound by one another. Very, very rarely to muscles work in complete isolation or anywhere close to it. When we move some muscles contract, others stretch and elongate to while some muscles provide stability, and all of this is done within a split second without you having to think about it. This is what is known as a pattern of movement and these patterns are like groups of movements linked together in a big chunk of information. The chunk of information is known as a motor program (like software on a computer).

These motor programs link many movements together all at once to complete a specific task. When you train against this principle by using isolated exercises that do not require this "chunking" you are basically making the system slower, inefficient and dumb! The brain does not understand or recognize how to use any of this information for movement.

Functional training on the other hand is the exact opposite, and trains the brain and nervous system to enhance these motor programs, a bit like uploading new software to a computer.

The brain recognizes these patterns and when your practice it and find ways to do it better than before, it is stored and used as an "automatic program" later when the situation arises that you need it. When you throw a ball for example can you tell me which muscles fire first and in what order? There would be something like 100 muscles all firing to do this movement. But can you tell me what patterns of movement are used here? There is a lunge, a twisting and pushing pattern being used.

This is an example of where chunking takes place and there is several key patterns all being used. If there is a problem with one it will affect the entire movement. When you train muscles too much on their own you disrupt their timing, sequencing and ability to work together as a motor program.

Does this mean you should never use isolation exercises? No there is a place for these which we will explain but the important thing to understand is this:

You MUST have an intention on learning to enhance movement and not muscle.

This brings me to my next point.

Strength Is Pattern Specific

This is something that really confused me for a long time as a trainer when I started. How could someone be able to squat over 100kg but really struggle to do a single leg squat or a lunge with a minimal weight? Why did they appear so strong in one movement and so weak in another that uses the same muscles? For if they improved their strength in their legs shouldn't that make them stronger for all movements? An even better example would be the leg press. I had many clients who came to see me for a knee problem or back problem and could easily leg press 300-400kg but could barely lift their own weight on a lunge or a squat. And they definitely could not do a single leg squat or single leg deadlift!

Read our article on Squat vs Leg Press to see the full detail of this comparison.

This is another perfect example of how the body moves in patterns. The squat pattern is so different to the lunge pattern. The same muscles are being used but in completely different orders and requirements. You cannot leave out or miss a pattern for you risk becoming worse at that movement and even worse than that, corrupting any life activity that needs that pattern! This is what I mean by strength being pattern specific.

Another example of this being abused is in the rehabilitation field where so called "core" exercises are used to enhance stability. People assume that because you can do a plank for 2 minutes you have great stability. But just as with the prime mover muscles, the stability muscles are pattern specific and are used differently depending on what pattern is being used. For the stabilizers to work correctly and provide great stability in a single leg squat, they need to be trained in a single leg squat. The role they play in this movement is completely different to a push up or plank. By the way planks are a terrible exercise anyway so don't use them if you are currently using them in your workouts.

I find the lack of understanding of movement in today's health professionals extremely frustrating. Working as a rehabilitation specialist with so many badly injured people and chronic pain cases where not once has anyone tried to teach this person how to move, just mind blowing. In rehabilitation there is ALWAYS a movement problem present. You just have to find it and then teach this person how to correct it.

We lose certain movements because we have favoured movements and so many repetitive and habitual ways of doing things in our daily life that cause compensation at an automatic level. And when people exercise they are unaware of this compensation and all it needs is time for pain and injury to develop. Understanding the role of stability within patterns of movement is critical for this person and once this is restored you can begin improving the overall strength and function of the various patterns.

Watch the video below of how to correctly train Stability for better ideas of how to do this or you can read our full article Stability Training What Is It Really & Why Is It So Important?


What Are The Fundamental Patterns?

Now you must be thinking, "how many patterns are there? This is going to take forever." Well good news there really is 7 Key Patterns that govern and control all movements we make.

These are the key movements.

  1. Squat
  2. Bend
  3. Lunge
  4. Twist
  5. Push
  6. Pull
  7. Gait

These key or foundation patterns form the base for any similar movements we make in life, so when you train these movements and enhance their stability, timing, coordination, strength, speed and power you really become bulletproof! We will go through each pattern quickly and give you some ideas on how to assess, restore the movement if it is faulty and enhance it if you are capable at a basic level.

Before we get right into each of these patterns always follow the form principle and rules of progression when learning or trying to improve. You must always follow this process as each step is bound by the previous one. The formula is as follows:

For each pattern I will provide examples of how to do this but I encourage you to read our article about the Success Formula for more information and detail on this process.

In all these patterns mobility and flexibility are always a big concern to start with and the stability stage is where we spend most of the time learning the skill. 

1: Squat Movement Pattern

Learning to squat correctly is important for maintaining the ability to sit down and stand up out of a chair, walk up stairs and even the action of jumping. These movements all share relative timing to the foundation movement of squatting. I am always amused when someone tells me that their physio said they should not do any squats in the gym as it is bad for their knees or their back. I then ask them to show me how they sit down without using that movement. Impossible. You cannot eliminate a key movement such as this and be able to function in society normally. Sure a careful approach to the choice of squat and the intensity to use, but finding a way to firstly measure your current ability and secondly devise a program to improve this is key.

For all runners this is even more important for the Single Leg Squat is what running is made from. Basically running is a series of single leg squats over and over and over. If you have a problem with the single leg squat you will have a problem running. The single leg squat is a great way of assessing potential knee or back injuries as it exposes many weaknesses. If you can do a great single leg squat your chance of being a great runner and also injury free is very high.

So how do you go about restoring or improving your squat?

Well remember the success formula? Start with the flexibility and mobility problems first. Often the ankles and the hips are too stiff and not able to place you in the correct position to do the squat. This is your starting point, which then allows you to about the process of reinforcing stability and the coordination of the brain and nervous system to adopt this new method. Remember you need a lot of repetitions to make this the new automatic motor program. 5000 in fact! It is in this stage your focus is on movement skills and quality form. 

Once you have restored flexibility you can go about strength training and eventually adding power to the movement pattern. It is important to progress to this point to fully teach the system how to correctly sequence and coordinate all the timings necessary for this pattern. Below is a video of jumping in action.

The videos below give you a good idea of how to do this and the video on the right explains many of the common faults we see with squats.


2: Bend Movement Pattern

Out of all the movement patterns this one is one attributed to so many problems, in particular herniated disc and low back pain and also one we use the most. To understand just how often we use it, how many times do you think you would bend over to pick something up in a day? Where the problem with this pattern come in is where our bodies have adopted a poor way of moving based on overused faulty patterns of using our spine to do all the bending instead of our hips.

In the photo above compare the action of the guy bending over to pick up some leaves versus the picture of the bent over row or deadlift. This is an example of an everyday movement we use, one being very poorly done (can you guess which one) that is linked to back pain injury. The deadlift, and any exercise in a standing position that utilizes this similar bending action will now play a role in either improving or making any similar action we use in life that shares the same relative timing.

In sports this could be picking up a ball, addressing a golf ball on the first tee, and in life activities like tying your shoe laces, bending over to pull a weed out of the garden, picking up your dog etc. This must not be confused with a squat, for although they look the same the squat is much more upright, usually with the eyes focusing straight ahead, whereas the bending action moves your eyes focus to the ground.

Below is a great video example of this.


How do you go about restoring this movement?

Again look at flexibility and mobility problems with the hips, and also thoracic spine first. I often use kneeling positions before standing and various glute strengthening exercises to help the person feel what it is like to use their glutes for the first time. Often this is the weakest part and a big reason why they hurt themselves. For the posture and keeping thoracic curve I use a stick on their back or even tape on their back, see video above.

Read our article Deadlift Technique Tips for more tips and ways to do this movement efficiently.

3: Lunge Movement Pattern

The Lunge is arguably the most difficult & most athletic movement for many people to execute. Our sedentary lifestyle where we sit for long hours creates extremely tight hip flexors which are not a good thing when doing the lunge. The lunge requires great flexibility through the hips and quads with incredible strength through the glutes.

A unique element to the lunge stance is the activation of the slings of the body. Anterior Sling, Posterior Sling, Lateral Sling & Deep Longitudinal Sling all share a common theme that they are activated in a lunge or split stance. These slings are what enable the body to move efficiently, produce more force, and create more speed. For example throwing a ball. Another unique element to this movement is the ability to move in all directions, again a necessity in many sports such as tennis.

Lastly, severe difficulty with the lunge results in a increased risk of knee pain, back pain and loss of balance, and use of poor bending actions to pick things up. The overall loss of ability to get up off the floor on your own is the end result of complete loss of lunging ability, a common problem to the older adult.

The videos below give you some good exercises to improve your lunge and the progression on the right is perfect example of chunking. This is where the two patterns of lunging and bending are combined to perform a specific motor program of picking up an object from the floor.


I would also say out of all the movement patterns this one upsets people with knee or hip pain the most. Why? For it requires the often over dominant hip flexors and quadriceps to go into full stretch. The lack of flexibility in this area has become so common and prominent and I spend almost every day helping someone to improve this. 

How do you restore this movement?

Starting with hip flexor and quadricep stretching, possibly foam roller release for the hips and ITB. And as with the previous two movement patterns a focus on glute strength is a must. Learning how to integrate all of these factors together is the real tricky part and in the video above I show you a few ideas and tricks for doing this.

Make sure you read our article Why The Lunge Is Essential To Your Health & Fitness.

4: Pushing Movement Pattern

The first thing people think of when I mention this pattern is either push ups or the bench press. While push ups are a great exercise the bench press is not!

The push up is a great exercise and is definitely a functional movement necessary for most sports and just the simple action of getting off the ground. However the bench press while very similar has one major flaw. It does not require you to be standing. I have met many people who could bench a considerable weight, but could hardly move a cable with one arm! And it was not their arm or chest that was the weak part, it was the coordination of the body, lack of stability and timing that made them weak!

Remember the slings we spoke about with lunges well the anterior sling is used predominately with the pushing movement and it is activated more powerfully with single arm. Dual arm actions like push ups are okay but for full leverage and the ability to add some rotation for leverage a single arm push is always more effective and more importantly efficient. Pushing a wheelbarrow, or moving objects around the home is examples of everyday life activities. In contact sports this pattern is used often when absorbing bumps or getting off the ground. Often shoulder injuries are linked to weakness with this movement.

This pattern also stirs up anyone with shoulder or neck pain, but learning to do it correctly also prevents it for it greatly strengthens a very important muscle known as Serratus Anterior.

Below are some good videos of the pushing movement in action.



5: Pulling Movement Pattern

Obviously this is the exact opposite of pushing and consequently uses the Posterior sling. Often this area is under trained in the gym, as it strengthens many of the areas we cannot see. But a very important action to train often, and correctly if you want to avoid having neck, shoulder problems or developing weak glutes that will set you up for a multitude of lower limb injuries. This is also where the powerhouse for acceleration is found as this action activates all the muscles needed for moving forwards.

The first exercise most people think of is chin ups or seated cable row in the gym. Both great exercises, the chin ups without doubt one of the best all over exercises you can do. As for the rowing movements, I like all them all although I prefer standing up versions such as sled pulls, squat row or even bent over row to seated rows or dumbell single arm row. Again for the same reason as pushing, that standing up forces better integration of the entire system of inner unit and outer unit muscles plus it encourages use of the slings, which is how we are designed to move most efficiently.

Everyday movements with this range from walking your dog, to pulling out a weed, to tackling in sports and even rock climbing. A great movement to be perfect at if you want to improve your posture and upper body strength.

How Do You Restore This Movement Pattern?

As with the pushing make sure you address any flexibility problems with the pecs, in particular pec minor and also the thoracic spine. Without optimal extension in your thoracic spine it is almost impossible to pull correctly into your deep middle and lower traps, very important muscles in maintaining good posture. I always start with simple single arm cable pulls on a 45 degree angle, before progressing to more difficult exercises with 2 arms such as bent over rows and and sled pulls. I prefer to do lat pulldowns before chin ups to learn correct pulling movement without too much load. But once I have the form and adequate strength progress to the chin up as it is a superior movement.

Some good videos of pulling movements are below.



6: Twisting Movement Pattern

The movement of twisting or rotation is without doubt the most important of ALL the movement patterns.

All movements are created from this, meaning that if there is a problem with twisting you will develop problems or faulty patterns in some or all of the other movements! Often in rehabilitation programs for back pain we have to teach people infant development exercises to get them to loosen up and move with freedom, just like a baby! A newborn baby doesn't yet have the motor nerves, strength or ability to integrate the arms and legs to propel movement.

The infant learns to move its body by using it’s core in a twisting and wiggling type movement which is how you first learn all movement. This is why we regard the Twisting movement pattern as the most important one to master and perfect as it is the first one you learned, and also the one the other patterns learned from! People who suffer from back pain or have a stability deficit will typically stiffen themselves like a robot to create a belt like stabilizing effect, to prevent pain. This in turn switches off their ability to rotate and they begin to move more like a robot, and not like an athlete like of grace and poise like Michael Jordan or Roger Federer who rotate with extreme precision and also force and power.

For everyday movements like sweeping a broom and even walking are impossible without rotation. I find most Sports Conditioning coaches really do not understand how to train this and fear it, which is ironic considering how often the athletes use this in their sport. Again the body building mentality and the obsession with Olympic Lifting corrupts their way of thinking.

Anyone playing ball or racquet sports like Tennis, Golf, Hockey or Baseball this movement is an absolute must!  

How Do You Restore This Movement?

Well this can be very difficult to learn. The key is to understand how to use the legs for the weight shift. The legs initiate everything, then the hips most rotate so the lumbar spine can remain neutral. At no point do you want the lumbar spine to do any rotation, this is very bad for the back and only happens when there is poor technique and tight hips present.

Exercises I use to begin with are mobilization exercises like infant development exercises, Feldenkrais shoulder spine integrator, and various thoracic drills. Then I progress to more hip based drills before finally moving to cable woodchops, tornado ball slams and much more powerful rotation movements. Below is is the video showing you this in action.



7: Gait Movement Pattern

If the twist pattern is the most important then Gait would be the most complicated to teach as much as it is to learn.

A gait cycle is a sequence of events in walking or running, beginning when one foot contacts the ground and ending when the same foot contacts the ground again.The human gait cycle is a very complicated, coordinated series of movements. Which is one big reason why so many rehabilitation programs fail when they use simple methods to improve it! Often we have to start with crawling and teaching the body how to integrate the upper limbs and lower limbs together. Just like a toddler who learns to do this before standing. But to make any real progress we have to get standing up. Lack of strength is not the major problem. It is the lack of stability that precedes the loss of strength.

And the only way to get it back is to expose the brain and nervous system to various methods that improve the body's ability to stabilize itself and transfer weight from one leg to the other on an automatic reflex. As you can imagine a very difficult process but not impossible. We have successfully helped many people with severe walking impairments learn how to get this back to a level that is not perfect but good enough to live life without fear or limitation. I encourage you to read our article 6 Ways To Improve Your Ability To Walk to see examples of real life case studies and how we helped them.

And for those of us not injured this pattern is also the activity of running. If you want to run better you need to work on exercises that improve this pattern. Running technique is massive here for both injury prevention and improved performance. The elite athletes know this and spend countless hours with all types of drills and exercises to get the very best out of their body and be the most efficient. The amateur runner ignores this and wonders why they end up injured. 


Do You Want More Information?

As mentioned at the start make sure you get our Functional Training Free Report as this details many of the programs and progressions of exercises from easy to hardest for all of these patterns. For more specific programs for general fitness, various injuries, sports and even older adults methods I encourage you to get our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets book below. This has over 100 detailed programs with exercises, sets, reps, rest and tempo all done for you and broken into specific chapters to make it easy to reference what you need. The ultimate tool and resource for you to get the most out of your training.

Click here or the image below to get your copy.


I apologize for the length of this article but we did cover a lot. And I really wanted to show you that the secret to getting stronger really is simply learning to move better. And now you know what I mean when I say, learn to move better. You will know that there is seven key patterns that the body makes all it's movements from and it uses several patterns at once often in what we call "chunking" to create motor programs on an automatic level. By using the methods shown here and also in the free reports available you will be able to enhance your ability to move for everyday activities and sports if you wish. It should always be our mission to move better and become stronger at doing so. This is how great foundations of health are built upon and starts with learning to move.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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