Complex Drills for Better Human Movement

Developing these functional patterns will pay dividends in everything else.

“Which book or program should I go to so that I don’t make mistakes?”

That’s the biggest question I get when counseling younger coaches. I always have to explain to them that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Repeating them is the problem. The mistakes I have made have helped me become the coach I am today. Through that evolution and experience, my thoughts on strength training have changed quite drastically.

What I now see as strength was inspired by the old idea of physical culture. The original idea of exercise was never solely a venture of the physical, but the whole person. The real purpose of strength training was to help people become better humans.

What Is Functional Training, Really?

At every program I teach, I ask our class, “Do you believe in functional training?” Almost everyone nods or raises their hands. But when I ask them to define functional training, I mostly get puzzled looks. After some prodding, I’ll get answers like, “It makes people better in their lives.”

Who could argue with such an answer? But it’s actually pretty vague. That philosophical manner of approaching a training methodology leaves us with no clear vision of functional training. That’s because we often forget what makes us human. Yes, people will tell us we squat, we hinge, we push, we pull, but such a list of general movements is almost as vague as the term “functional training” itself.

Renowned physical therapist Gray Cook has an answer that sheds more light:

We want adaptable strength that can work in changing environments. Adaptable strength is developed though complex movement patterns, not over-rehearsed, over-coached lifts in a never-changing environment. The athlete, warrior, outdoor enthusiast or physical adventurer embraces change and challenge, while the gym rat needs comfort and consistency for a happy workout.

The Most Functional Movement of All

Next, I ask our classes to think about the most common movement they all perform. I get answers like squats and deadlifts. But really, how much do you do that during the course of a day?

The answer I am looking for is walking.

Did you have that hit-the-forehead moment? Me too. If we look at walking, we have elements of many different movement patterns that most would mention as part of a training program. I bring up walking because most of our real human activities are not a singular motion that we would find in the gym, but a combination of many movement patterns. 

I know, walking is simple, but a swing or snatch is complex, right? Everyone can walk, not everyone can do a Turkish get up. But not everyone walks well. To put things in perspective, the snatch is considered one of the most complex lifting exercises, and has five phases. Yet most experts will tell you there are 6-8 phases that constitute the act of walking.

What we consider the simple act of walking requires stabilization in all three planes of motions at once, as well as single leg transition and reciprocal arm swing (each arm swings with the opposite leg). Walking requires us not only to push down into the ground, but also to project our bodies forward.

Drills for Better Human Movement

The movement progressions in the video below do not just make you stronger in the gym, but help you toward the goal of becoming better moving humans. For this video, we are going to look at the hip hinge and lunge, two powerful movements that have strong correlations to the complex and fundamental concepts of walking, sprinting, and jumping.

The Next Evolution of Your Training

How does this apply to your strength training? We live in a value system where heavier weight is always considered better, and forget what more complex movements can do for our bodies.

But lifting more for the sake of lifting more doesn’t do us any good unless it increases our capability. Dr. David Frost, a researcher at the University of Toronto, came up with a great philosophy at the NSCA TSAC conference: “Keep the standard, change the condition.” He proposes that the goal of training is to learn how to perform the standard of a movement pattern. Once the movement pattern is established, the goal becomes to challenge our ability to maintain the movement pattern under a variety of conditions.

You may recognize many concepts here, like load, speed, and range of motion. Other concepts may be less familiar, like load position, body position, and plane of motion. These variables allow us to create drills that challenge normal training conditions, and improve the qualities that make up our fundamental human movements.

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Teaser photo courtesy of Shutterstock.