Natural Movement and Functional Exercise

During a recent workout at Tompkins Square Park, I observed a father and son playing catch. The dad was around my age and the boy looked to be about three years old.

At one point the child missed the ball and the dad went to retrieve it. I watched him bend down with his back rounded, shoulders slumped and knees pitched way over his feet. (What you might call “bad form” on a squat or deadlift.)

A few minutes later, the boy missed the ball again, but this time the father let him retrieve it himself. When the tot picked up the ball, he squatted down from his hips with his chest up tall and lifted it without the slightest bend in his back – or any overt awareness of the movement pattern. It seemed to happen very naturally. He certainly had no idea what he’d just done can be difficult for many personal training clients!

Child’s Play
Lots of the exercises I teach my clients are movement patterns that children instinctively know, yet through years of neglect, the adult body has forgotten. However, with practice the movements usually return, and with them come increased strength, flexibility and of course, functionality.

Kids typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how. Yet when a deconditioned adult tries to perform these movements, they may feel very unnatural. We’ve spent our entire lives sitting in couches, chairs and cars, steering our bodies away from natural movement patterns. We’ve done this to the point where we’ve unlearned instinctive habits like lifting from the legs, and replaced them with lower back pain and hip ailments.

Functional Exercise
The best exercises are those which mimic natural movement patterns, like the aforementioned squat and deadlift, but sometimes functional exercises aren’t natural movement patterns. A pistol squat certainly isn’t something the body “naturally” does, but it’s a fantastic exercise nonetheless. The pistol takes a natural movement pattern and exaggerates it, making it more difficult, thereby causing the body to adapt and improve. That’s what makes it a functional exercise – it has carryover into real life scenarios. The pistol improves balance and makes each leg individually strong, so when you need to use them together, they can be an even stronger team.

Function or Fashion?
While taking a natural movement pattern and adding difficulty to it is a great way to bring a practical element to your workout, sometimes “functional training” gets so far removed from the original source that it misses the point. Standing on one foot on a bosu ball while doing an overhead dumbbell press is probably less functional than just using heavier dumbbells on stable ground.

Don’t fall for a “new exercise” just because it looks complicated or involves high-tech equipment. You don’t need anything fancy to get functionally fit. Real-life scenarios might involve standing on a shaky surface or pressing a heavy object, but they rarely involve both at the same time. A heavy standing overhead press is already a stability exercise – it demands that you use your entire body!

If you want to mix up your pressing routine, a handstand push-up might be a better choice. Admittedly, being upside-down isn’t something that will come up in day to day activity for most of us either, but the HSPU demands a high strength-to-weight ratio as well as stability and full body control. The HSPU also requires you to push yourself away from the ground, rather than pushing a weight away from your body, which will automatically engage your scapular musculature and build rotator cuff stability. You’ll be much less likely to make the mistake of pressing with your neck instead of your shoulders. Like all inversions, another benefit of the HSPU is that it can improve circulation.

Have Fun(ction) With It!
There are many ways to take natural movement patterns and increase their difficulty in a functional context. Adding weight, bringing in a plyometric element or using a stability component are some of the best ways to accomplish this. But remember, you don’t need wobble boards and other such gadgetry. Be weary of any fitness equipment that isn’t a weight or some type of pull-up apparatus. As a general rule, the more equipment that is required to perform a given exercise, the less functional it’s likely to be.

Below are some examples of functional exercises in each of the categories mentioned above:

Natural Movement + Weight
Squat
Deadlift
Clean and Press
Natural Movement + Plyometrics
Jump Lunge
Plyo Pull-up
Clap push-up
Natural Movement + Stability
Pistol Squat
Ring Muscle-up
One Arm Push-up

Final Thoughts
This list is just the tip of the iceberg! The world of functional fitness includes endless variations on these and other exercises. There might be some that are more effective for you than others. Experiment for yourself and let your body be your teacher.

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  • Feinguy

    That was a fun-tastic read. Thanks Al! 

  • Maryland173

    Great Post Al. I couldnt agreee more. I am always amazed at the people who are doing squats with dumbells on a bosu ball or endless crunches on an exercise ball while their feet are supported by some other apparatus. Your posts are very good because they are well written and utilize common sense. Keep up the great work..

    As for pistols, have you seen the youtube video of the guy who does pistols while balancing on a kettle bell handle…?? Insane balance

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you like this one – and nice pun!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!  I have indeed seen the kettlebell-balancing pistol guy on youtube – I’ve even messed around with some balancing pistols myself: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2010/11/advanced-pistol-squatting/

  • Keith Ryan

    Love the post Al! I remember a couple years back I was talking to my neighbor while his kid was squatting and playing with sidewalk chalk. He told me he does not know how his kid can squat there like that without any discomfort. How quickly we forget what is natural.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Keith.  It still amazes me sometimes how people can be out of touch with basic human movement – but it’s never too late to undo the damage!

  • Pjod71

    I like this philosophy a lot Al. Nice one! Also some people try to tell me the pistol is not a functional, natural movement. Er – full range of motion, flexibility, balance and strength – call the pistol what you want but its clearly an excellent exercise. I think Pavel said it best when asked if doing pistols gave him sore knees, he replied that his knees got sore if he DIDN’T do pistols. Also loved your one arm push up article – some excellent progressions and great form as always.

  • Jim Arkus

    Great post!  I learned how to deadlift by watching a little kid.

  • Toby

    good thing the ball didn’t way 400lbs. although if it did and he strained his back i think he would be very careful the next time

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks – glad you liked these recent articles.  Pavel knows whats up!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Jim!  We can learn a lot about movement from kids!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Haha – A 400 lbs. ball would make for a pretty intense game of catch!

  • Anonymous

    Good lookin’ kid!

  • Anil

    It was a nice fun reading. Thanks Al :)   By the way I have been working out hard your way (ofcourse as much as I can do) for about 12 days and even it has been a short while, I feel stronger than before. I do not know how strong will I when a years passes. I will see ;) Take care.

  • Sebastian Müller

    My daughter is three years old now and i learned so much in this time about natural movements. Your great post remind me to look more often how she moves… :)
    Thanks.

  • Jeep4u2

    Hey Maryland173, were abouts are you from?  I’m in the Rockville area

  • Jeep4u2

    Great article, simple and effective.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Haha – he sure is!  Like father, like son!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Anil – and congrats on your progress!  Keep it up!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!  Another couple of years and then you can get her started with pull-ups.  :)

  • Matt R.

    I also enjoy weighted pull-ups and chin-ups – I suspect they help me increase reps for body weight pull-ups in addition to being a fun exercise in their own right.

    Al, I have found your flexibility post to be quite useful, specifically for the hips and shoulders.  However, this is still an area of physical fitness that I know the least about. There is a lot of information in the internet world about building strength, but considerably less solid info on increasing flexibility and how to fit that into routines and lifestyles. I wonder if you might consider doing another post?

    Thanks.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I agree about the weighted chins!

    I will likely do another post on flexibility at some point, though admittedly my flexibility (and knowledge thereof) is not on par with my strength or endurance.

  • Nyall

    that’s one of the reasons I no longer read Men’s Health.  I’m not gonna pay for silliness like doing tricep cable pushdowns while kneeling on a medicine ball.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yeah that’s ridiculous.  Did they really recommend that in Men’s Health?

  • Gandalfbeli

    truth !

  • Fatmanzen

    This a great article, is there a site where I can learn ore about how body weight exercises effect the muscular system like you explained in the HSPU automatically engaging the scapular musculature. 

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!  As for your question, you’re already on the best site for info about bodyweight training!  Take a look around, there is tons of info here.

  • http://scapularstabilizationexercises.com/ scapular exercises

    HI, 

    Its nice post guys about Natural Movement and Functional Exercise. 

  • http://premierfitnessolutions.com/dundee-personal-training.html Fitness Training

    Really nice post and very informational. Although some exercises are hard to to do but at the end we will get the benefits. Fitness is really important for everyone it boast up our confidence.

  • http://www.alexandalexa.com/kids-trainers.html alexandalexa uk kids trainers

    Wow, that exercise are really very nice but they seem very harder and tough. Well, regularly exercising is the best way to keep body fit and healthy.

  • Lenny Lefebvre

    Good article Al.

  • Cheryl

    Great article! I have a question though, when I do pistol squats, are the knees beyond the toes and can the back be rounded?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Lenny!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Cheryl! The answer to both your questions is yes, provided your heel stays down.

    More info is here: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/07/pistol-squats/

    I’ll be going much more in depth about the pistol in my next book, which will be out spring 2013.

  • Cheryl

    Awesome, I can’t wait!