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What is Functional Movement & The 7 Best Exercises

Functional movement is a term used to describe those exercises that mimic the natural movements of the body which are generally performed by healthy, active people on a regular basis.

A body that is used to performing functional movement will not only feel stronger and more agile physically, but will be able to adapt easily to less frequent, important/fun activities and adventures that place extra demands on the body.

Motions such as pushing a trolley, walking a set of stairs, lifting a suitcase, steadying a wheelbarrow in the garden and reaching above your head to place something on a shelf, are all examples of basic activities that rely on a certain amount of functional movement for you to perform. 

Additionally, adventure or recreational activities like hiking, cycling, skiing, golf, tennis and dancing will also benefit greatly from a body that is used to performing functional movement.  

The problem is, unless you make functional movement part of your regular self care routine, over time you'll lose your mobility, flexibility and strength - which will ultimately impact your ability to do these simple tasks, and ultimately, it will reduce your quality of life.

Here, we explain exactly what is meant by functional movement and reveal the seven basic functional movements you should consider incorporating into your exercise routine, regardless of your level of fitness, age or goals, for wonderful health benefits even as you age.

What Is Functional Movement

There are generally considered to be seven basic functional movements that are used as part of an active lifestyle. 

These movements are squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, twist and walking.

The good news is, you don't need to attend a gym or lift heavy weights to get the benefit of these movements.  Most of them can be performed very easily with body weight only at home each day or a few times per week.

Here we briefly explain each functional movement and their benefits.

1.  Squat

Squats are a fundamental movement that works the muscles in your legs, glutes, and core.  They are great for improving your balance, coordination and overall lower body foundational strength. 

There are many variations of the squat, including the traditional bodyweight squat, goblet squat, and front squat. 

The best way to practice squats at home is to stand with your back gently placed against a wall.  Gently bend your knees and squat to a seated position, briefly pause and then return to the starting position.  Repeat several times.

To make the movement more challenging, you can add weight to your squats by holding onto some light dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell.

2.  Lunge

Lunges are another great functional movement that targets the muscles in your legs and glutes.

They also work your core and can help improve your balance and stability, which is important for a healthy, active lifestyle.

There are several variations of the lunge, including the forward lunge, reverse lunge, and lateral lunge which can be done with body weight only, or you can add weight by holding dumbbells.  To perform a basic forward lunge, from a standing position, place your hands on your hips and step forward with one leg before bending it to 90 degrees.  Return to the starting position and repeat the movement for several repetitions before switching to the other leg, or you can alternate each lunge with your left and right legs.

3.  Hinge

Hinges are a compound movement that works multiple muscle groups, including your lower back, legs, glutes and core. They are great for building overall strength and power, and can also improve your posture, stability and balance.

Hinges can be performed by interlacing your hands behind your head, placing your feet forward and slightly bending the knees.  Then, brace the core, hinge forward to a flat back position, before returning to the upright starting position.

This exercise can also be performed by gripping a weighted barbell, or a pair of dumb bells or kettle bells in front of your shins and gradually hinging down and up.  This strength exercise when performed with weights is generally known as a "dead lift".

4.  Push-up

Push-ups are a classic upper body strengthening exercise that targets your chest, shoulders, triceps and core mid-section.

They are a great way to build upper body strength and muscle tone, and can also help improve your posture and balance.

Since regular push ups require a good base level of strength to perform, a modified version can be done using bent knees on the ground to complete the push up movement.

5.  Pull-up

Pull-ups are another classic strengthening and sculpting exercise that primarily target your back, shoulders, arms and grip strength.

The best way to perform pull-ups is with an overhead chin up bar which requires a moderate amount of base level strength to do.  However, a lighter variation of this exercise can be performed in a gym by attaching a stretch band to the overhead bar and then placing your feet in the loop of the band at the other end that hangs toward the floor, which will provide assistance during the pull up motion.

A further variation of this exercise that works similar muscle groups can be performed at home if you don't have a pull up bar - the basic row. 

From the kneeling position, place one hand on the ground, tilt your torso slightly forward and activate your core. Then, with your free hand, make a fist and with bent arm, row your elbow back as far as you can, before pausing, and then returning to the starting position.  You can also add a light hand weight or dumb bell to make this exercise more challenging.  Do several reps on one side, then swap to the other.

6.  Twist

Twisting is a movement pattern that is used for everyday activities such as opening a door and placing or lifting items off a shelf.

One of the best ways to mimic and strengthen a twisting action with a functional movement exercise is to perform a "wood chop".

From an upright standing position, cup your hands into a fist and from your torso, twist down to one side and then spring your hands up diagonally to the opposing side of your body above your head.  Perform this opposing twisting fluid motion several times before switching to the other side.

This type of movement can be enhanced with exercise stretch bands or light hand weights to create extra resistance for the arms, core and obliques. 

7.  Walking

There is a reason why walking is the number one, base-level movement that human beings should perform every day. 

Walking not only is well known to help prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and to boost your mood, it is also a wonderful exercise for all round wellbeing and body function.

Walking strengthens your leg muscles, joints and core and helps to build good foundational stability and mobility for the entire body.

Regardless of your fitness level, age or goals, if you value health and longevity you should make walking outdoors - in the morning if you can - a daily ritual for at least 30-45 minutes. 

If you don't have the time or desire to practice the diverse range of functional movements that we've shared with you here, our advice is to at least make walking a priority.

The Main Take Away

Functional movement is an important part of any fitness and self care routine.

Your body relies on a wide selection of functional movements to achieve not only basic everyday tasks such as shopping, gardening and getting from A to B, but also it sets you up to make the most out of life because you can adapt to more adventurous tasks very easily with confidence.

When it comes to optimising your functional movement, by practicing these types of exercises often, you'll get the benefits and you'll notice a difference to your posture, strength and how your body feels. 

You'll also build flexibility, mobility and agility, which helps you to avoid injuries and body pain as you age.  For these reasons, functional movement is definitely something you should keep in mind and that you should intertwine into your weekly exercise routine if you're not already.

Tolman Self Care.


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