Functional Fitness: Training to Move

One of the most overlooked aspects of fitness comes in the gym. As we focus on fitness and yearn for a six-pack or less body fat or bigger biceps, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of aesthetic fitness — exercising in a way that will shape how you look, while ignoring your body’s need for mobility, strength and function.

Our concentration this week is on small steps you can take to ensure you’re training for a body that will not only look good, but perform, whether it’s in pick-up basketball games or just a casual hike. The body was designed for functional movement, so train it that way.

AGILITY

How easily you can move around without discomfort or stress is pretty much the name of the game with agility; many people think this aspect of fitness is unimportant simply because they are not competing athletically at a high level. Twists, turns, fast change of direction — why bother?

You don't have to be as agile as Barry Sanders in the hole — but being mobile enough to get in and out of the car without grunting is nice.

You don’t have to be as agile as Barry Sanders in the hole — but being mobile enough to get in and out of the car without grunting is nice.

Well, as we get older, this becomes more and more important. You don’t need to be able to possess amazing skills with a football like Ronaldinho or burn through the cone shuttle like Jamaal Charles. The simple act of getting in and out of a car without grunting (ask your dad if you don’t believe us) is valuable. Being able to enjoy a dance with your partner without crushing her poor toes is valuable. Feeling mobile, light and responsive — agility, again, is valuable.

So how do you get more agile? You pretty much have to move more, and do it in an athletic stance. We wish there was something more complex to it than that, but that’s the goal. Include lateral training into your gym sessions (when was the last time you did, or saw anyone doing, lateral movement at the gym?). Jump rope, do jumping jacks, do box squats and pronounce every movement explosively. Your body is not a machine, with creaky pistons and gears; slow, methodical, one-plane training has only limited benefits. There are responsive muscle fibers and joints and tendons in there that will get stronger as you work them. So work them.

A few examples of lateral training are below. Find the basketball court or get outside on a field somewhere.

Lateral Lunge (Strength)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance (knees bent, low center of gravity).
  • Perform a lunge step to the side while keeping your lead thigh parallel to the ground as you descend.
  • Return to starting position and perform a lunge step to the opposite side.
  • Back and forth is one repetition.
  • Always remember to keep your body balanced and under control throughout the execution of this movement.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds between sets and perform 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps per leg.

Body Weight Lateral Speed Slide (Speed)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance.
  • Mark out a distance of 5 to 10 yards away from your starting position.
  • Perform a lateral speed slide as fast as possible while staying under control to the marker, and back to your starting position.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds and repeat for desired reps.

Body Weight Lateral Crossover Step Drill (Speed)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance.
  • Mark out a distance 10 yards away from your starting position.
  • Execute a lateral crossover step as quickly as possible to the marker, and immediately change direction and crossover step back to your starting position. Concentrate on staying low in your athletic stance and allowing your hands and arms to quickly move in front of you (think “wax on, wax off” movement) to keep your balance.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds and repeat for desired reps.

Strength

heavy-squat

Heavy lifting = strength. Period.

For example, one can get big muscles with very light weight, relatively speaking, and a high volume of reps. Only at the end of these long sets will strength truly be a challenge, as the longer, “slow-twitch” muscle fibers are recruited the entire time and the shorter fast-twitch ones (associated with explosive strength) typically do not come into play nearly as much. On the other end of the spectrum, powerlifters who focus on one or two reps at a time experience a much more powerful push, with more energy exerted from short muscle fibers to move heavy weight — but there is less cellular energy (ATP) in these fibers than their higher-capacity slow-twitch counterparts and it is more quickly exhausted in lifting like this.

All this is to say that, to some degree, the thought that a big muscle is a strong one, and vice versa, is not universally true. Those training aesthetically, to create bigger muscles with the goal of wearing a T-shirt better, might have a different approach than those training for the function of strength, especially in short rep ranges.

EXPLOSIVENESS

The difference between being strong and being explosive is subtle, but definite — a strong athlete can squat 300 pounds, or bench 1.5x his/her weight; an explosively strong athlete can move the bar faster, and maneuver his/her body faster through space. It’s a combination of fast-twitch strength and agility that makes the difference between sheer strength and athleticism.

This is all to say that, while we love strength training, explosiveness training deserves a place in your workout plans at some point. Plyometrics are fantastic for achieving fast-twitch strength, as the focus is, again, on moving the body or objects through space as quickly as possible. Many high-level athletic programs use a Tendo Unit, which is a device that actually measures the velocity of the weight being moved. You can train your favorite all-time lifts explosively, too — start with the weight at the “bottom” of the range (so, if you were benching, with the bar on your chest), and simply move it as fast as you can through the rep.

Plyo push-ups, with a clap mid-rep, are probably the most popular explosive training that’s easy to do. There are pull-up variations as well, and of course leg training offers myriad opportunities for speed and explosiveness training: box jumps, cleans and snatches, to name a few.

Avoid Injuries, Aid Muscle Growth: Stretch It Out

A cold, tight muscle is a muscle that’s more likely to be injured when it’s called into action. And yet, how many times have you jumped right into your working sets, with nary a warm-up rep or stretch?  Or left the gym walking around stiff, muscles still contracted?

The muscles and casing-like lining around them (the fascia) benefit greatly from warm-up movements and stretching, not just to make the muscles more pliable and less injury-prone, but also to help promote growth and agility. We’ve got a list of great stretches throughout the week that not only help loosen up that creaky rig of yours, but also feel pretty darn great (in that unique “gym” way of feeling great).

dsc012461. The Brettzel Stretch: This one is a favorite of mine, personally, because it really helps improve spinal mobility, meaning all the twisting and bending you do during a workout is less likely to result in you hunched over grabbing your lower back. It also targets the hip flexors and quads, making it a great all-around stretch. Lie on your side, with your bottom leg bent and bottom hip extended, and with your top hand, reach back and grab your bottom ankle. Simultaneously, bend your top leg and, with your bottom hand, grab your top knee. You should now be in a position to try to pin “four corners” — both shoulders, bottom ankle, top knee — to the ground, and hold it for 10 seconds. Chances are good that your first try at pinning four corners won’t be successful, and you might be able to pin only three or even two corners. Just keep stretching it out. You might even get a bonus back crack or two.

2. Calves and Hamstring Foam Roller: Self-explanatory, really. Grab a foam roller, and roll your hamstrings and calves over it to work out the knots and tightness that can accumulate in these large muscle groups. Many people find that easing up the muscles in the posterior chain of the legs also has a direct effect on back pain and/or tightness. It’s recommended to do these before any legs days, especially if you’re targeting hamstrings.

3. Downward-Facing Dog: Surprise! We snuck some yoga in on you. You’ll forgive us — it is a great means to stretch the spine, chest, arms, hips, hamstrings and calves while strengthening the ankles and quads. Yoga Journal describes the movement in detail:

The two main movements of Downward Dog are common ones: lifting your arms overhead and stretching your legs out at a right angle to your torso. But when you combine these movements and try to hold them upside down against gravity, they get harder. The pose becomes a laboratory where you observe your body’s patterns. Where are you weak? strong? tight? flexible? Practiced consciously, Downward Dog can train you to balance strength and flexibility in your whole body. To start, focus on your upper body. If your shoulders are tight, your work is to open your chest, stretch through your armpits, and straighten your arms. If you are already flexible here, resist the temptation to press your chest down toward the floor to experience more stretch. This tends to compress your spine and the backs of your shoulders. Instead, engage your arms and upper abdominals, aligning your upper back to lengthen your spine and create an even, diagonal line from your wrists up to your sitting bones.

Next, check in with your lower body. If your hamstrings are tight, they may pull your hips down and force your back to round. In this case, practice with your knees actively bent at first. If you already have open hamstrings, it may be easy for you to lift your hips toward the ceiling. Don’t exaggerate this movement and overarch your lower back. Instead, firm your legs and your lower abdominals to lengthen your spine.

4. Lat Stretch: A fully contracted latissimus dorsi muscle is impressive — just check out someone at the top of a pull-up sometime. But when the lats are at their most impressive is when they have the long, flared look, and you can help their cause by stretching your back well after your back workouts. The great news about this stretch is you don’t need much in the way of special equipment: Just bend down, at the knees or at the waist, grab something sturdy (a door jamb works if you’re at home; any kind of squat rack will work at the gym) and pull backward while keeping your arms extended. For an exaggerated stretch, you can grab one hand at a time, and rotate your torso to “turn in” toward the side of the arm that’s doing the holding.

5. Back Foam Roll. It’s hard to beat a back rub. Lying on a foam roller and using it to free up the knots in the lats, rhomboids and traps is heavenly — and also really effective. Plus, the action required from the legs can warm up and activate the hamstrings and calves, to a lesser extent. Cross your arms over your chest while you do this motion for the best effect.

6. Pec Stretch: For your chest days, I don’t really recommend doing the stretching first; instead do it after you’ve hit your pecs. Lengthening the muscle fibers via stretching can cause a bit more weakness during the lift itself; instead, warm up with a light weight on the same lift you’ll be doing. So, if you’re benching, do a set of push-ups or press a light bar a few times. After your lift, though, have a set of dumbbells nearby and act as if you’re going to perform a fly. Lower the weight slowly, stretching the chest as you lower the dumbbells to the floor. And just drop them — no need to actually finish the fly.