We are more than a collection of body parts.
When a fighter throws a punch, do they do it with their arm, or are they actually trying to hit using a coordinated effort of the whole body? Do soccer players just use their feet all of the time, or are their upper bodies involved too? Is feeling strong and stable on a hiking trail just all about having good calves, ankles and thighs, or is there more to it? As we like to say in Canada; “Get outta town, eh!”
In all these cases, of course there is so much more going on! Most of the energetic activities we enjoy in life and sport involve multi-joint, compound movements of the body. As such, it surprises me how often I still hear hard-working gym-goers talking about divvying up their bodies into component parts to train them. “Today I’m workin on back and chest…” Have you ever been engaged in an athletic endeavor and thought to yourself, “this is where I use my back and chest?” Probably not. Then why on earth would we consider training our “parts” in this fashion? We are more than a collection of body parts.
Movement is life, and moving well is living well. If we can leave behind the body parts approach to training and prioritize performance over appearance, it will help to dispel the myth that our muscles and limbs are just like clothing items that we can chose to take on or off in order to look a certain way. This shift in perspective sets us free to work on the quality of our movement patterns, and to develop athletic attributes like strength, speed and explosiveness without compromising mobility, stability and overall health. And guess what? A body that moves and feels better, usually also looks better too.
So what are these movement patterns and why is their quality so important?
Consider this; although we are all different, we are equal. A human body basically does this:
Hinge - You might be familiar with this one as it’s one of our most powerful ways to move an object. (Hint; Deadlift!)
Squat - You know… squats. It is what it is. You can’t answer a certain call of nature without doing this.
Push - Upper body pushing (unilateral or bilateral, for this one to be safe and strong it actually uses the whole body if we’re really doing it right, right?)
Pull - See “Push" above, but the other direction; also unilateral or bilateral
Single Leg / Split Stance - This category actually just uses squat or hinge mechanics again, but more unilaterally. It’s how we get around; every step we take has a moment of single leg stance in it.
And to perform these activities safely we need:
Trunk and Rotary Stability - Also known as “core strength” but it’s really more involved than that. It’s the skill of stabilizing the spine while our limbs are in motion.
Let’s briefly look at why the quality of each pattern affects our quality of life.
The Hip Hinge is a fundamental human movement pattern used for picking up heavy things. We train this pattern with exercises like deadlifts (usually a slow grind) and kettlebell swings (powerfully fast). Proper hinge mechanics, core stability and posterior chain mobility are essential to performing these activities safely. Training the body to hinge while keeping the core braced, the shoulders packed and without flexing the spine will save lower back from being overloaded and reduce the risk of injury. A strong and skilled hinge pattern is very useful for activities like picking up children... and then putting them down safely, of course!
The Squat is also a fundamental human movement pattern that we use everyday just to sit down and stand back up again. We use it to lift objects as well, and to eccentrically load the body for explosive jumps. Training this pattern can help us to reach more squat depth without compromising posture. Learning proper squat mechanics and breathing is essential for most load-bearing exercises such as barbell squats or KB Goblet Squats. Training the requisite hip and spine mobility for deep squats, and the core, hip and shoulder stability to squat safely under load helps to reduce the risk of injury to the knees and back, both in the gym and in the rigors of day to day life. The better we can squat, the longer we can live independently.
Upper body pushing and pulling movement patterns help us open doors and move objects around. In sport, they are used for everything from passing a basketball to throwing an opponent to the ground in judo. Their effectiveness can be improved in the gym with many load bearing exercises like pushups, pull-ups, bench presses and rows. Working to achieve and maintain adequate shoulder mobility, stability and proper body mechanics will increase our resilience to harmful impacts in sports and any of our load-bearing pushing and pulling activities, including catching ourselves from falling down.
The single leg and split stance movements are integral to acceleration and deceleration mechanics, as well as changes in direction for many athletic activities and exercises in the gym. Training the lunge pattern helps to focus on improving the body’s ability to respond appropriately to the stresses associated with rotation, lateral movement and the dynamic stability requirements to control the pelvis and core in an asymmetrical hip position. Running, jumping, heavy lifting, and rotational work all benefit from improving the skills in this movement pattern. Working on single leg stances and lunges can also help us avoid injuries from falling and make it safer for us to simply get around.
The ability to reflexively stabilize the core is an important skill to have while performing just about any of the movements described above. The muscles of the abdomen must be strong and skilled enough to prevent dangerous degrees of extension in the lower back. We sometimes see this dysfunction appear in upper body pushing activities like pushups or planks where the back can be seen to “sag,” for example. Rotary stabilization mechanics are some of the most primitive human movement patterns that we develop as children when we learn to roll and crawl. These movements teach us the basics for walking, climbing and jumping as we mature. Practicing dynamic core stabilization mechanics, and the breathing used to safely train the abdominal muscles will benefit just about any other activity we choose to perform.
An effective functional training program takes into account several key factors to ensure that we are on the path to moving, feeling and looking better. Each individual’s safe ranges of motion, balance, and medical history need to be taken into account in order to prescribe progressive resistance at appropriate levels to improve the strength and skill of the fundamental human movement patterns. Training in this manner helps to build us up a lot more than it breaks us down. At any age, and at any stage, we should always be working to improve the quality of our movement patterns while also patterning them for strength, power and endurance. Improving movement quality means that we are simply improving our quality of life!