Craig Valency, CSCS

Part 7: Functional Training in Action – The Next Level

Degrees of Functional Training
There are degrees of “functional.” Lifting heavy things is functional. But lifting heavy things and carrying them to another place, especially if they don’t have comfortable ergonomic handles, is a higher level of functional carryover to real life.

Here’s an example. If you lift a heavy barbell and repeatedly hinge at the hips 10 times, you have actually only lifted the weight once. To lift it, you must grip hard, brace your core and pull. Once you have the bar lifted, you just have to maintain grip and core stability. This is not bad or good, it is a shift in focus to core and grip endurance, and strength endurance for the hip extensors. To actually work on the function of lifting, a good option would be to set the bar down each time. Now you have to re-grip and re-brace the core each time. This is a set of 10 lifts, rather than one lift with 10 hip hinges.

Meet Judy
Judy has been training with me twice a week for the last 6 years. She is intense and works hard. If she doesn’t complete an exercise due to fatigue, or if she loses her balance, she goes back to it until it is done perfectly. She is tenacious, and she doesn’t shrink from the challenge of lifting really heavy things.

Judy can perform deadlifts with 60 pound dumbbells in each hand, and she does it with perfect form. At first, the thought of even trying it seemed impossible and scary – for both of us. She couldn’t even hold on to the weights and maintain her grip when we first tried. But in classic Judy style, she did not give up; and in a few weeks, she was not only holding them, but she busted out 10 deadlifts!

Judy is goal-driven, so her workouts are about achieving the completion of the program as efficiently and quickly as possible. We usually have a goal of completing 24 sets of strength training (3 sets of 8 different exercises) after her warm ups, mobility, and activation work. She usually finishes early, and she often does extra sets.

When Judy first started with me, her goal was to lose her belly and look good. About a year into our training, she approached me and said, “Craig, I just want to thank you . . .” I was starting to puff up my chest, proud that she was about to credit me with her new slim, sexy body, but instead she continued, “. . . for making me so strong. I can now lift boxes at work that none of my (younger) co-workers can handle, and I can do heavy lifting in the house and yard without having to ask for help.” Wow! I was blown away. In this culture of vanity and body dysmorphia, I never thought I would hear a client express that she values the functional carryover of our workouts. (That is every trainer’s fantasy, by the way. Thank you, Judy, for making my dreams come true!)

As much as I’d like to take full credit, however, the truth is that I had little to do with Judy’s inspirational success. Her mental toughness and determination are the driving forces behind her growth.

Whenever I give Judy a new exercise or advice on how to do something, she questions it. She wants to know the purpose behind every exercise. Without knowing it, she is really asking what the functional carryover is.

Are You Functionally Strong?
The best way for me to gauge how functional my client has become is to observe them putting away or picking up a weight or implement before and after they perform an exercise. This is where all body awareness and form can fall apart.

Last month, Judy and I spent one hour doing a functional workout. It wasn’t just any workout – I had promised it would change her life. Judy loves lifting heavy things for a set number of repetitions. On this day, we worked on her ability to roll on the floor, crawl, get up and react, lift, and carry objects of all shapes and sizes to various destinations in the gym. After the warmups and carries in parts 1 and 2 of the workout, my special, functional program with Judy in part 3 was basically comprised of that crucial moment of every workout: putting the equipment away! I do not do this on a regular basis as part of her workouts, but rather, I use it occasionally as a test and teaching tool to make sure we were on the right track. Here’s a glimpse into what we did:

The Ultimate Functional Workout

I. Warm up From the Ground Up: I used a developmental approach, recreating patterns we all learned (and forgot!) as a baby.

  • Supine hip extensions – She started out on the floor, lying on her back. She drove her hips off the ground with her knees bent and ankles dorsi-flexed. She also did single leg hip extensions to balance her weaker side.
  • Core rollovers into flexion and extension – She then progressed to rolling over using only the core, without pushing off with arms or legs. This worked on reflexive, deep core, sequential muscle firing. This is the exercise everyone needs to do before they start “core stability” work with front planks and side planks. You can cheat a plank and mask inner core muscle deficiencies. The roll reveals this deficiency.
  • Plank reaches – Once the innermost core muscles were turned on, we then worked on the next level of core stability. To do this, she did front planks with the added element of alternating forward reaches to a cone. Going to three points of contact forced her to work on resisting rotation.
  • Birddogs – So far, Judy had started on her back and rolled to her front. She now came up to her knees to do the birddog, or opposite arm and leg reach. This simulates a baby’s desire to explore the world and reach out and grab anything and everything that is not tied down. The opposite leg reach is added to stimulate a reciprocal arm and leg movement pattern that will be needed for locomotion, as well as for creating full extension through the hip.
  • Bear crawl pivots – We then worked on crawl patterns. She elevated herself from the floor with her knees just above the ground and did bear crawl pivots, where she moved the right leg and left arm forward at the same time then immediately backward. She did this back and forth “grooving” pattern 10 times on each side.
  • Multi-directional bear crawls – Next, it was time to move! She bear crawled forward, backward, and sideways. This worked on contralateral arm and leg movements, as well as core and shoulder stability. She worked on keeping her knees elevated but close to the ground. Her back stayed as level as possible.
  • Crawl kicks – Then Judy played a little and worked on a nifty break dancing move. From the crawl position on all fours, with her knees off the ground, she balanced on her right hand and kicked her right leg through toward the ceiling. She did this while balancing on her left foot and right hand, then she rolled back through the other way 10 times. This worked her shoulder range of motion and stability, as well as body awareness, spatial orientation and balance.
  • Core rolls with pop up and med ball catch – Then came a reaction drill, in which she had to do the core rolls on the ground again, both to the left and right side. This time, she had to pop up as fast as possible and catch an incoming 8 lb. med ball. This combined a reflexive core motor pattern with a reactive element and upper body power. We had to break this one down with first practicing pop ups from the push up position.
  • Turkish Get Ups (TGUs) – One of the most functional things you can do with seniors is work on the ability to get up off the floor. (We’ve all seen the awful commercial, ” . . . I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”) The Turkish Get Up (TGU) is one of the best overall exercises that teaches this skill while working the entire kinetic chain from the ground up. It develops core and shoulder stability and hip extension and mobility. With Judy, we did the half get up and worked on rising from the floor to standing separately. Here is a great example of the Turkish Get Up From Gray Cook.

II. Carrying the Heavy Load: These loaded carries work on grip strength and core stability during locomotion. They also create shoulder distraction, as the arm is pulled away from the shoulder socket; this is a counter to the crawl pattern shoulder compression forces, which together work to reflexively create scapular and shoulder joint integrity.

  • Symmetrical Farmer walks: Judy carried weight plates in each hand and walked 50 yards.
    • Set 1: 10 lbs/ each hand, Set 2: 25 lbs/ each hand, Set 3: 45 lbs/ each hand
  • Asymmetrical Farmer walks: Judy carried the weight plate in only one hand so she had to work on core stability as she resisted lateral torso flexion.
    • Set 1: 10 lbs/ one hand, Set 2: 25 lbs/ one hand, Set 3: 45 lbs/ one hand

III. Pick Up, Carry, Move and Put it Back! Finally, we put it all together. Judy had to pick up six different heavy objects of all shapes and sizes and carry them, one at a time, over to the specific spot from which they came. I pulled out each item in a specific order and put them in the middle of the floor. Judy had to memorize the order and remember exactly where they came from. This added element of cognitive demand put the “fun” in functional (at least for me!) and added a whole new level of complexity. If she lost focus by thinking too hard and dividing her attention, she could have dropped a weight or lifted it improperly. We did 3 unique sets with 6 objects each, and Judy remembered everything!

Set 1:

  • 30 lb. med ball – Lift and carry to the bottom shelf of a stand up med ball rack.
  • 45 lb. Olympic bar – Lift and carry to the squat rack and re-rack it.
  • Training bench – Lift, carry, and move to the other side of the gym.
  • 25 lb. weight plate – Lift, carry, and replace on the low rack of the Hammer chest press machine.
  • Bosu – Put it back into high position on the Bosu rack with a piece of equipment blocking her way.
  • 15 lb. sand bag – Lift and carry with one hand and put it in a box on a shelf.

Set 2:

  • 40 lb. med ball – Lift and carry halfway across the gym and place on the floor.
  • 65 lb. thick bar – Lift and drag to the stand up bar rack. Lift with both hands to get bar in rack vertically.
  • Hex bar: 40 lbs. – Lift and carry to the stand up bar rack. Lift with both hands to get bar in rack vertically.
  • 44 lb. kettlebell – Lift and carry with one hand to the kettle bell rack and place on the top shelf.
  • 15 lb. foot platform – Replace large squat foot platform on the Total Gym.
  • 20 lb. med ball – Lift and carry to the other side of the gym and place in the middle of a stand up med ball rack.

Set 3:

  • 50 lb. med ball – Lift, carry, and place on the floor near the back door.
  • Stand up heavy bag – Push heavy bag across the floor.
  • Pull down bar – Lift and carry to the stand up bar rack and put on top shelf.
  • 35 lb. Multi-grip bench press bar – Lift and carry to the stand up bar rack. Lift with both hands and place in vertical rack.
  • 30 lb. sand bag – Lift and carry with one hand and put it in a box on a shelf.
  • 52 lb. kettle bell – Lift and carry with one hand to the kettle bell rack and place on the bottom shelf.

By the time Judy got to the third set, I noticed a markedly different approach to lifting each item. She had a strategy; she kept it close to her body, hinged at the hip, kept her back straight and thought about how to hold it. Sometimes she dragged it, put it over a shoulder, or just gripped it in one hand. From an awkward first set to a confident and strong third set, Judy experienced a transformation her body will never forget.

On her next visit, she couldn’t contain herself as she talked about moving heavy boxes at work and carrying a 25-pound bag of dog food in one hand through the parking lot. The transformation was complete. The carryover of a gym workout to real life was accomplished, and functional training proved itself to be pretty functional.

Judy, thank you for inspiring me. Yeah, I’m the trainer, but I’ve been learning from you for the last 6 years. Keep on pushing, pulling, lifting, and giving me a hard time!

Thank you for joining me on this functional journey. This entire story is still being written, revised, and rewritten as new information and experiences inform my knowledge base. No matter how sure I am of my beliefs, they are only as good as my current understanding of the science. 

I look to this quote from Irving Dillard as a guide: “Of those qualities on which civilization depends, next after courage, it seems to me, comes an open mind, and, indeed, the highest courage is, as Holmes used to say, to stake your all upon a conclusion which you are aware tomorrow may prove false.”

I welcome your questions, thoughts, or challenges you have regarding anything in this series. Post a comment and let’s learn together.

To read the complete series start here for part 1: From Muscles to Movements