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Training to Optimize Daily Function
by: Chris Kelly
Chris Kelly is an NSCA Core Strength and Conditioning coach, nutritionist, and experienced fitness writer. Chris works with athletes, bodybuilders and trainees of all kinds to develop custom fitness solutions to fit any goal. To learn more about his online training program, contact him at [email protected]

Moves to increase functional strength

Have you ever wished for the speed of a cheetah, the strength of ten men, or the ability to scale tall buildings in a single bound? If so, you may be in luck.

Just ask the Olympic sprinter who covers 40 yards in 4 seconds flat, the fireman who regularly races up ladders, or the strong man who pulls cars and buses in quick succession.

In each case, these seemingly superhuman abilities come down to specific training for real world environments. So how is this done?

Read on to learn what it takes to tailor your workout for optimum function.

Case #1: Strongman training: As opposed to strength in the bench press or the squat, training for this type of athlete revolves around the ability to push, pull, lift, and press loads in a variety of different circumstances. In events like the keg toss and truck pull, factors such as the duration of the event, direction of force (whether pulling, pushing, lifting, etc.), and even competition surface all become factors in a training program.

The Keg Toss (an event during which a keg or a stone/block is thrown over a given wall/bar for maximum height) is a great example of an event that doesn’t require brute strength, but rather explosiveness, timing, and technique. Training for this type of event revolves around mimicking the squat-to-thrust motion of reaching down, picking up a heavy load, and tossing it over your head at a high momentum.

As opposed to building muscle, the point of this training is to more accurately guide heavy loads while avoiding injury or strain. In the weight room, this sort of “functional” strength is further reinforced by exercises which involve quick press- heavy loads, such as the clean and jerk and Dumbbell snatch.

Case #2: Sprinting: The ability to exert maximum power and strength the hallmark of any sprinter’s routine. But as opposed to the strongman competitor, who requires strength and endurance in multiple movements, a sprinter’s muscles are composed specifically for high intensity bursts of speed in a single direction. A sprinter would not be caught dead at a marathon.

A typical sprinting routine includes short sprinting and plyometrics: skipping, hopping, and leaping at high velocity for explosive speed; balance drills such as a single leg squat for control during a sprint; and weighted movements such as the squat and dead lift which simulate the motions of exploding from the starting block. In each case, performing these movements in short, intense bursts helps to mimic the cardiovascular demands and tempo of sprinting.

Case #3: Firefighting: Compared to traditional aerobic activity, such as jogging, cycling, or even running, firefighting is the ultimate full body workout. Skills such as dragging fire hoses, clearing debris and climbing 40-50 feet to rescue injured victims challenge the body to pull, push and lift with maximum power. Often performed during prolonged oxygen deprivation, firefighting also requires superior aerobic capacity.

Before hitting the streets, new recruits are put through a rigorous physical evaluation to test aerobic fitness, maximum power, and functional capacity in firefighting activities. To prepare for this exam, recruits often turn to circuit workouts which train relevant muscle groups (back, legs, chest, and shoulders) at a series of exercise stations. Resting no longer than 30 seconds between each exercise, recruits take turns performing their sets while assisting their partner. As opposed to many bodybuilding programs, the entire strength training workout lasts approximately 30 minutes and addresses cardio, strength, and teamwork.

Analyzing your environment

By now, it should be abundantly clear that training is most effective when given a specific purpose. But even if you have no plans to lift heavy loads, break in to a sprint, or scale ladders, the technique shared by each athlete – analyzing the environment – can be applied to improve your routine. This begins by looking at your environment to determine the movements and patterns in which you engage on a daily basis.

Case in point: If your job involves sitting for hours at a desk, bicep curls have little use in your routine. Squatting, by contrast, builds endurance in the hips, quads and hamstrings – muscles which are commonly involved in sitting – and helps to improve posture and pain during a long day. If you enjoy golfing on the weekends, abdominal twisting exercises are key to improving your back swing, while learning to squat and dead lift help to forgo injury when bending over to retrieve golf balls.

But whatever your lifestyle demands, training in the movement patterns of your lifestyle is sure to improve daily function. To assist in this effort, try these moves for increasing daily performance:

Guidelines:

  • Begin with bodyweight versions of the exercises listed below.
  • Once you can complete 15-20 reps with good form, it is time to increase difficulty.
  • Complete 3-5 sets for the upper and lower body.
  • For postural improvement and toning, perform each exercise at a slow and controlled pace.
  • For cardiovascular training, perform each exercise back-to-back in a circuit with 30 seconds rest periods in between.

1. Lunge:

Standing with feet spread shoulder-length apart, place one foot in front of the other and slowly lower your back knee to the floor.

    • Now raise your back knee and allow your front foot to step back to your original position.
    • The lunge can be made more difficult by increasing the length of your stance, holding dumbbells or barbells, and including upper body movements (such as lunging-to-bicep curl).

2. Squat:

  • With feet spread shoulder-length apart, descend into a squat as if you were sitting in a chair. Rise by pushing hips forward and pushing up through heels.
  • Once you become comfortable with this movement, mimicking this pattern in a free standing environment will help to increase the range of motion and depth of your squat.
  • Weighted dumbbells or barbells increase muscular demands, while changing the width of squatting stance trains different leg muscles (wider for hamstrings and glutes and feet closer together for quads). Squatting down on one leg develops balance and stability.

3. Push up:

  • Begin with the elbows fully extended and lower to the floor while keeping your hips level. Your chest should be slightly lower than parallel to the level of your arms.
  • For beginners, strength in the push-up and technique can be built by pushing up on an inclined surface such as a chair or wall, and moving progressively lower as you gain strength. Once you hit the floor, changing the position of the hands and elevating the feet helps to further increase difficulty.

4. Rowing:

  • Most commonly done with either dumbbells, barbells, or cables, proper rowing form involves holding the shoulders back and keeping the back straight throughout the exercise.
  • In the gym, perhaps the most beneficial rowing exercise for posture is the seated cable row.
  • This exercise can also be done at home by tying a thera and/or cable to a common household surface.
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