Functional movements involve complex actions used in everyday life or sport. However functional training is not just for elite athletes. Here is some advice on how to get started.

Daniel Comerford has spent more than 10 years helping elite AFL athletes improve their performance to play at the highest level. As an osteopath and accredited exercise physiologist, Mr Comerford has incorporated functional movements into the programs of footballers like former Brisbane Lions player Jonathan Brown.

“A lot of the movement patterns we would do with Jonathan were quite functional. For example, we would work his squat, which is a functional movement, while trying to get him to engage his stabilising core muscles in different directions,” Mr Comerford said.

Functional movements are global patterns of movement and give the body the ability to move with mobility and stability, according to Mr Comerford.

“The key thing is being able to perform the movement with accuracy and efficiency in your everyday life while also completing everyday tasks and trying to minimise the risk of injury,” he said.

Reducing injury with functional movements

Mr Comerford pointed out that the definition of an everyday task differs greatly among people, so new movements should be introduced carefully. He said while functional movements can decrease injuries, if not performed correctly they could cause injuries at a greater rate than basic weight training.

“Lifting a box is an example of a common functional movement for some people. Athletes can lift boxes efficiently because they are used to correctly lifting heavy weights in the gym. Similarly, removalists can lift boxes because they have developed efficiency and strength to avoid fatigue and injury in their everyday work,” he said.

“But someone who doesn’t exercise and works at a desk all day may not know how to hinge through the hips and may not have enough movement in the knees or ankles to efficiently lift a box,” Mr Comerford said.

Lack of familiarity with movements can also apply to athletes starting to practice new sports-specific functional movements. Mr Comerford said amateur athletes should not go too hard trying functional movements before they have a solid muscular base.

Mr Comerford recommends athletes who use their program consult an exercise professional to make sure they have enough joint mobility and efficiency to perform new movements.

Jules Burgemeestre is a strength and conditioning coach who works with national and international Olympic weightlifting and combat competitors, athletes needing rehabilitation and non-athletes with long-term injuries or disabilities. When thinking about movement, Mr Burgemeestre looks at the parts of the body in the context of what functions they need to perform.

“For example, we look at the functions of the shoulder. We ask the question, what does it need to be able to do? It needs to be able to move in a full range of motion. It needs to be able to manipulate objects and it also needs to support weight in various push and pull planes,” he said.

Understanding the emotional response to pain

However, Mr Burgemeestre said being able to function to the best of your ability is about more than just movement. It is also about understanding your emotions and educating yourself about your own pain.

“What the person needs to be doing is paying attention to their pain and the way their body feels and responds. Because we are so sedentary and so comfortable, we do not actually know how to read the way our body is feeling and therefore we cannot make decisions based off it,” he said.

Mr Burgemeestre said physical sensations can be confusing, saying that some sensations can feel uncomfortable or painful, even though the cause of the discomfort is not physically damaging (for example, standing under a cold shower). At the other end of the scale, sensations can feel painful and the cause of that pain will definitely injure your body; for example, putting your hand on a hot stove.

“This scale of pain needs to be applied to exercising,” he said.

The pain scale explains why some hardened athletes interpret damaging pain as mere discomfort and then continue exercising to push through the pain and develop serious injuries. It also explains why more sedentary people who are used to being comfortable can interpret discomfort as damaging pain and never extend themselves to improve their performance, he said.

Mr Burgemeestre said learning to understand the difference between these two extremes of physical sensation and how you respond to them is an important part of incorporating functional movements into your life.