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Functional exercise explained…

The term ‘functional exercise’ is popping up everywhere, but what is it all about? Harry Normand from Spark Movement Studio gives us a rundown.

Functional exercise seems to be taking over the fitness and sports coaching world, but what is it? In short, it’s about moving the way your body is designed to move, and selecting exercises that load your body in a similar way to the demands you might expect to meet in real life.

A well-structured functional movement coaching program can be adapted and progressed to meet anyone’s needs, from acute or chronic injuries all the way to an elite athlete looking for the slightest advantage.

“It focuses on developing deep structural strength, crucial for staving off the effects of a desk job or carrying your joints safely through the changes of pregnancy”

It focuses on developing deep structural strength, crucial for staving off the effects of a desk job or carrying your joints safely through the changes of pregnancy. Functional exercise has a positive carry-over to your life, whatever your situation.

Now, you can take that simple concept and go in two very different directions:

1. You can go hard right now…

You can just take these functional exercises and keep applying the go-till-you-puke approach, and that’s fine if your movement quality is up to it. But although the movements are natural enough, they demand a high degree of coordination in your nervous system, which is a problem for a lot of us because our changing habits at work and at home (e.g. too much sitting) have eroded some natural movement skills.

Add together your unique history of layers of old, ignored niggles, the complex requirements of these movements, and the fatigue of a dense training session, and you could be looking at the perfect mix for the development of a complex injury or chronic pain.

2. …Or you could play a longer game

An exercise isn’t functional if it breaks you, but that’s not to say you should never do it. A movement assessment will show you the imbalances that are leaving you exposed to injury. If you work on those elements, and then integrate them into your movement, the same exercises that would have laid you up four months ago are now reducing your risk of injury and building strength and functional capacity at the same time. Then you can ramp up your training intensity as far as you like.


Good start…


You should have stopped by now…

Take it slowly

So functional exercise has to come with a warning: Break yourself into it gently. Think about the huge recent movement towards ‘barefoot’ or minimal-support shoes. The idea is to stimulate the natural mechanics of your foot, to restore good function to all of those joints, but every shoe comes with a warning that says you should break them in, or rather break your feet in, gently. Too much too soon, and you’ll overload the foot joints and end up with a very fiddly and hard-to-fix injury.

Functional movement training has to be approached with the same care. There are so many elements in each of the movements that even though it seems, and feels, like you’re doing it right, there’s likely to be a concentration of force in one or more joints. To use a very common example, your lazy glutes may be failing to stabilise your pelvis, leaving your hip, knee and lower back exposed to a potential repetitive injury, and you won’t even notice it because your nervous system is just doing the best it can with your imbalances.


20 of these are a lot better for you…


… than 400 of these.


If you want to develop your movement skills, you have to know where you’re starting from. Get a movement assessment, work on your instabilities, and then add intensity as appropriate. Spark’s posture and movement assessment maps out how any movement deficits formed over time, understanding the process so we can start unwinding them.

If it’s a complex history, we can work 1-on-1 to start the unwinding process, but most situations respond very well to our four-week Movement Basics course. The course runs monthly, and effectively teaches self-assessment and corrective exercises to improve function wherever you’re starting from on the movement scale.

Get involved

Check out Spark’s ‘Function, Sweet’ blog series to get more detail and see how the more advanced coaching programs can spark your nervous system to its full potential. The next four-week Movement Basics course starts on June 13, 2015: Find out what’s involved here.

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Harry Normand

Harry Normand

I’ve been redefining fitness ever since a surgeon told me I would never play sport again after I had smashed my hip. A standard PT fitness approach did not equip me to deal with that, but over eight years I have gradually rebuilt my hip as I’ve developed and used my integrated approach to health, rehabilitation and performance coaching. At Spark Movement Studio, I thrive on seeing people gain their own freedom and even unearth old dreams as they notch up their results, just as I did. My studio has a great atmosphere with a small coaching team to not only educate and inspire, but encourage a laugh or two along the way.

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