Functional Exercise Progression
Advance your client systematically and safely through his exercises toward a strong, healthy body that not only looks good but also functions well for everyday life.
Like most personal fitness trainers (PFTs), you’ve probably found that you occasionally need a good blast of creativity to dust the cobwebs off your workout playbook.
Perhaps there is unrest among certain clients either because they’re bored with the same old workout or, even worse, because they’ve simply stopped progressing. How do you select exercises for your clients? How do you decide which ones will be effective or how to build the program sensibly? Do you have a system or process that steadily moves them toward healthy living?
For years, many of us have used our personal preferences and the cultural influences of what our bodies “should” look like to select exercises for our clients. However, as baby boomers age, their interest in quality-of-life issues sharpens. They want not only to look good but also to play with their grandchildren, maintain their independence and
do daily living tasks. Consequently, today’s trainers must both select exercises that are safe, effective and fun and purposefully use more functional movements that enhance quality of life.
Because inactivity and obesity prevail in the U.S., the government has asked Americans to consider new health objectives. One of the goals of the Healthy People 2010 program is to increase both the quality and the length of healthy life, which the program defines as one whereby individuals enjoy a full range of function from infancy through old age to be able to work, play and form satisfying relationships with other people (Nieman 2003). Furthermore, although today’s average newborn can expect to live 77 years, only 64 of these years will be healthy; government health officials hope to increase this to 66 years by 2010. Such goals are ushering personal trainers into an era of functional fitness, which will both demand attention to physical aesthetics and place high importance on overall health.
You may have heard that the popularity of the quantum theory is resurging in many circles, including health and fitness (Capra 1982). This theory states that the world cannot be dissected into isolated, independent elements. For example, a person may develop atherosclerosis—narrowing
of the coronary arteries caused by a buildup of plaque along the vessel walls—as a result of many different unhealthy habits, including a heavy diet, lack of exercise and excessive smoking. Surgical treatment of a blocked artery may alleviate pain and improve the person’s quality of life, but it will not make him disease-free. The surgical intervention merely treats a local disorder to alleviate systemic effects. Unless the person resolves the underlying problems by adjusting his lifestyle to include proper diet and exercise, the disorder could recur.
Applied to a fitness model, this concept amounts to training individual muscle groups instead of the core that houses those individual muscle groups. Unless clients also do total-body strengthening movements, they cannot use the strength gained via single-muscle-group training. (This is why the exercise examples beginning on this page move from isolation exercises to standing functional exercises.)
A client’s training time must bridge the gap between his workout and his quality of life. New research on weight loss and fitness has made it clear that the body aesthetic and true health are different entities (Gaesser 1999). To teach clients the value of continued adherence to an exercise program for permanent lifestyle enhancement, PFTs need to progress clients’ exercises to produce results from both a health and an aesthetic standpoint.
As our culture lulls people into more sedentary patterns, our challenge is to unravel these bad habits by “training clients for life.” This is not an easy task! One way to start is to understand the benefits of functional exercise
In the traditional sense, progression refers to progressively overloading the body’s systems and increasing the training stimulus over time to increase fitness adaptations gradually. In resistance training, depending on the type of training, changing the variables of frequency, intensity, duration and mode can make muscles gradually stronger; build endurance; and enhance neuromuscular control, coordination and balance. This article addresses the last variable: how mode, or type of exercise, can be progressed to produce gradual overload.
A colleague and I devised a method of categorizing exercises (Yoke 2003).
It had become apparent to us that PFTs do not have a “system” of analysis, making it difficult for program directors to evaluate the effectiveness of exercise selection in personal training. In contrast, our functional exercise progression system uses the following exercise continuum to suggest exercises from easiest to hardest:
“Less skilled” exercises require less balance, stability, proprioceptive activity and motor control. Such exercises are low-risk and generally safe for almost all populations and require the least trainer cueing. Many of these exercises are performed in a supine or prone position, require isolation movements instead of total-body movements and strengthen individual muscle groups. A few examples of these exercises are the supine triceps extension, prone scapular retraction for the rhomboids and prone hip extension for the hamstrings and lower back.
At the other end of the continuum are exercises that require a great deal of skill and the ability to maintain joint integrity, especially in the spinal joints and those involved in core stability (ideal alignment of the neck, spine, scapulae and pelvis, however difficult the exercise). These difficult exercises also place high demand on the proprioceptors and neuromuscular system for smooth coordination. Therefore, the ability to perform challenging exercises safely depends on the exerciser’s
specific experience and overall fitness level. Many sport-specific exercises are categorized at this end of the continuum. A few examples of these difficult and controversial exercises are dead lifts, plyometric lunges, handstand shoulder presses and V-sits. Although these exercises are considered difficult and higher-risk, a very fit person with excellent core stability may be able to perform them safely and appropriately. Be sure to assess your client thoroughly before progressing to these types
P.O. Astrand (1992) once hinted at the emergence of the functional training movement, writing, “If animals are built reasonably, they should build and maintain just enough, but not more, structure than they need to meet functional requirements.” In a more recent article, C. Wolf (2001) stated, “training movements and not muscles may be the paradigm shift needed for today’s functional conditioning.”
In functional training, the muscles are trained and developed in a manner that makes everyday activities easier, smoother, safer and more efficient. Functional exercises improve a person’s ability to function independently in
the real world, underlying perhaps
their most important fitness benefit: improvement in quality of life.
The functional exercise progressions in this article are intended to enhance everyday function for both the general population and more advanced clients. The order of the exercises is key; it creates an appropriate progression. Many of the exercises at the beginning of the continuum do not require the core stabilizers (such as the transverse abdominis, which compresses the abdominal contents but, unlike the rectus abdominis and obliques, does not flex the spine). First, individual muscle groups are isolated for strengthening. Then comes core training with isolation exercises. Afterward, the core is overloaded and destabilized with more complex movements performed together.
The system is organized in six levels from easiest to hardest. See “Putting
the Continuum Into Practice” throughout this article for sample exercises
and photographs that show the progression for both upper- and lower-body muscle groups.
LEVEL 1: Isolate and Educate
At this level, focus on muscle isolation and train the client to contract individual muscles selectively to build confidence and body awareness and increase the basic levels of muscle function. Exercises at this level are often performed supine or prone, and as much of the body as possible remains in contact with the floor or bench to lessen the need for stabilizer muscle involvement. Therefore, these exercises are generally quite safe; just about anyone can learn to do them effectively with minimal risk of injury.
To enhance the client’s muscle awareness and education, gravity is usually the main form of resistance applied. Basic exercise at this level triggers the mind-body connection before outside stress (resistance) is added.
LEVEL 2: Add External Resistance
Use machines, weights, increased lever length, elastic bands or tubes while minimizing stabilizer involvement. In many cases, the actual exercise is the same as in level 1. Notice that, in both level 1 and level 2, safety and alignment cueing by the trainer is minimal. It’s simply easier to perform these types of exercises safely and effectively while maintaining proper form.
LEVEL 3: Add Functional Training Positions
Select exercises that progress the body position to sitting or standing, both of which are more functional for most individuals. Sitting or standing reduces the base of support and increases stabilizer challenge. In most progressions, the targeted muscle group is still isolated as a primary mover while the stabilizers assist.
This is often the stage at which trainers begin to introduce free-weight exercises. Free-weight exercises are quite useful. For example, whereas a variable-resistance bicep machine does not train the core muscles to help one pick up things, a free-weight bicep curl does.
LEVEL 4: Combine Increased Function and Resistance
Increasing the overload on the core stabilizer muscles in functional positions maximizes the resistance from gravity, external weights, machines, bands or tubes. Most of the exercises
in this level are performed in a standing position to use the core stabilizer muscles. These exercises begin overloading the muscles to prepare them for the stresses of daily living.
LEVEL 4: Use Multiple Muscle Groups With Increased Resistance and Core Challenge
In this level, multiple muscle groups and joint actions are used simultaneously or in combination. Resistance, balance, coordination and torso stability are progressed to an even higher level.
The emphasis at this level is challenging the core stabilizers to a greater degree. For example, doing an overhead press with dumbbells while performing a squat definitely challenges the core more than does either of these exercises independently.
LEVEL 5: Add Balance and Increase Functional Challenge, Speed and Rotational Movement
At this level, exercises may require balancing on one leg, using a wobble board or stability ball, applying plyometric movements, rotating the spine while lifting or some other sport-specific maneuver or life skill. For example, training to improve one’s golf swing requires rotation, speed and power movements, as does training to vacuum one’s house. Risk of injury is potentially greater, so trainers must be prudent. Depending on health history, fitness level and personal motivation, your client may perform these exercises
with very light weights.
Increasing speed and rotation may
be less safe but is how we live. Sensible progress to this level first produces aesthetic changes that eventually transition into needed “life skills.”
Try this progression model with colleagues or the personal trainers on your staff. In addition, brainstorm exercises and innovative equipment use in your own facility; you will be surprised at how this mental exercise helps freshen your training sessions as well.
Giving clients a sense of purpose for exercise helps them live better. They will not only come back but also see how “conditioning” for life is no different from conditioning for a sport. A football player knows that he could easily incur injury by playing without proper conditioning, and the same is true in life. Remind your client that, if he doesn’t strengthen his abdominals and lower back muscles for lifting, his back may fail him the next time he lifts a heavy box.
It’s time for trainers not only to embrace the pleasing aesthetic changes that exercise provides but also to move into the era of functional fitness for health. It’s tough to deny that people will always want to “look better,” but that shouldn’t be the main benefit of conditioning. Even if our physical appearance doesn’t change significantly, our health will, and that matters most in the long run.
Upper-Body Functional Progression
A good way to illustrate the progression is to review the movements for a few muscle groups. The following sample exercises concentrate on the middle trapezius, rhomboids and posterior deltoids. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM 1998) position stand on fitness for healthy adults recommends the following resistance training guidelines: one set of 8 to 12 repetitions for clients under 50 or one set of 10 to 15 repetitions for clients 50 and older, at least twice per week, exercising 8 to 10 major muscle groups.
Level 1: Isolate and Educate
Prone Short-Lever Reverse Fly
Because it’s easy to isolate the muscle in the prone position, stabilizer muscle groups are minimized in this exercise:
- Lie prone with neck, spine and pelvis neutral and abdominals engaged.
- Place arms perpendicular to torso and flex elbows 90 degrees.
- Retract scapulae, lifting arms off floor.
- Contract middle trapezius and rhomboids.
Level 2: Add External Resistance
Reverse Fly With Variable-Resistance Machine
The primary objective of this exercise is to isolate the middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles. External resistance is added with a variable-resistance machine, and the client is seated to engage the stabilizers:
- Sit with spine and neck neutral and torso stabilized against pad.
- Contract middle trapezius and rhomboids and retract (adduct) shoulder blades.
- Avoid arching lower back
Level 3: Add Functional Training Positions
Standing Retraction With Band/Tube
This level uses a standing position to allow full activation of these stabilizers and adaptation of them to the other muscle groups. To allow the stabilizers to “catch up” with individual muscle groups, less resistance is used initially:
- Stand with knees soft; pelvis, spine and neck neutral; and abdominals contracted.
- Hold band or tube in front of chest with elbows up and scapulae depressed.
- Perform short-range-of-motion high row, retracting shoulder blades.
Level 4: Combine Increased Function and Resistance
Prone Reverse Fly on Stability Ball With Weights
This level begins overload in a functional position. Use the stability ball to help destabilize movement:
- Lie prone with stability ball under abdomen.
- Maintain long, planked line from heels to head.
- Place arms perpendicular to torso, keeping neck, spine and pelvis neutral and elbows slightly bent.
- Hold weights with palms down
- Retract scapulae and contract middle trapezius, rhomboids and posterior deltoids.
Level 5: Use Multiple Muscle Groups With Increased Resistance and Core Challenge
4-Count Bilateral Bent-Over Row With External Rotation
In this exercise, the rhomboids and shoulder external rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor) are used together. Because it is a free-weight exercise, it also utilizes the core muscles:
- With feet parallel and shoulder-width apart, spine and neck neutral and abdominals contracted, hinge at hips.
- Perform exercise in 4 counts:
- Row, bringing elbows up.
- Externally rotate shoulders (palms facing floor).
- De-rotate shoulders back to row position.
- Return to start.
Level 6: Add Balance and Increase Functional Challenge, Speed and Rotational Movement
Bent-Over Unilateral High Row on One Foot
This exercise is similar to the one in level 5, but performing it on one foot destabilizes it. Reduce the amount of weight used in level 5 until the body adapts to the overload:
- Balancing on one foot and keeping spine and neck neutral and abdominals contracted, hinge at hips.
- Start with arms down.
- Alternating one arm at a time, perform high rows, first with one side and then with the other.
- Maintain core stability throughout.
American College of Sports Medicine. 1998. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30 (6),
Astrand, P.O. 1992. Why exercise? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 24 (2), 153-62.
Capra, F. 1982. The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gaesser, G.A. 1999. Thinness and weight loss: Beneficial or detrimental to longevity? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 31 (8), 1118-28.
Nieman, D.C. 2003. Exercise Testing and Prescription: A Health-Related Approach (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Wolf, C. 2001. Moving the body. IDEA Personal Trainer, 12 (6), 24-31.
Yoke, M., & Kennedy, C. 2003. Progressive Functional Training. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning.
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