Basic exercises that mimic the way we move in real life, build functional strength and prevent injury.
Human movement can be reduced to three basic categories: pushing, pulling, and hip extension (squatting, jumping, running, and even riding a bike). Functional fitness begins with learning good form for this essential repertoire and then gradually adding weight and difficulty to build stability and strength. Doing these exercises correctly with five pounds, in other words, is better than doing them poorly with 100. In the words of Gray Cook, one of the founding fathers of functional training, “Don’t add strength to dysfunction.”
Push-ups activate a chain of muscles – particularly in your arms, shoulders, chest, and back – that are key for everything from getting up off the ground to shoving something heavy into the back of an SUV. The humble push-up beats the bench press for developing this functional push strength because the push-up doesn’t take your back and legs out of the movement.
We rarely press overhead while sitting down in real life. Shooting a basketball, putting something up onto a high shelf – it all happens while we’re standing up, so standing presses are the way to go, creating a linked muscular chain from your hands down through your body core into your feet. Use kettlebells or dumbbells instead of barbells because they let the shoulder joint find its own way through a safe range of motion.
Pull-Up and Chin-Up
Whether swimming, rock climbing, or just hauling yourself over that wall in your next Tough Mudder, vertical pulling motions are just about the most basic things we do with our arms. Both pull-ups and chin-ups work the entire upper body as a unit, but chins engage the biceps more, while pull-ups de-emphasize biceps in favor of the upper back and triceps.
We pull on things all the time, but pull strength and stability are even more valuable for correcting the forward lean we develop sitting at a desk all day. There is no better tool for horizontal rows than adjustable fitness straps. Hung from any doorway – or even a tree – straps allow for a more efficient row than other methods because of the way they demand head-to-heel core stability.
For the most elemental of human movements – sitting down and getting back up, or lifting something heavy off the ground – there is no better exercise than the squat. But form is incredibly important for preventing injury, so start with unweighted “air squats” to develop a full range of motion before adding weight.
Athletic power is the ability to accelerate weight – it’s not just about applying force, but applying it quickly. Almost every sport depends on power, from sprinting to driving the pedals of a bicycle. The kettlebell swing is the perfect foundational power exercise, Boyle says, “because it’s simple and explosive.”
The strength in hip extension comes from your posterior chain, a string of connected muscles running from your hamstrings up through your glutes into your lower back. Nothing trains the posterior chain better – while protecting your lower back against the lumbar pain so typical of middle age – than the dead lift. Russian kettlebells make the perfect learning tool because even the light ones – use a 20-pounder to get the movement down – have handles high enough off the ground that you don’t have to bend over too deeply to get started.
The most surprising functional-training advance of the past 15 years is the understanding that knee pain nearly always begins with weak hips – specifically, the stabilizer muscles aligning the upper leg, from the hip down into the knee. Walking lunges, a kind of exaggerated striding motion, build solid leg joints for everything from the deep knee bends of powder skiing to walking up a flight of stairs. For the walking lunge, simply take one big step forward, plant your foot, and bend your forward knee 90 degrees while bringing the rear knee low enough to almost touch the floor. Repeat with the other foot.