6 Essential Functional Movements

Return to your ancestral roots with these six innate movement patterns to improve your functional and physique results.

The term functional traininghas gotten a bad rap, probablybecause of an inordinate number ofso-called influencers who performevery strength move while standingon one leg wrapped from head to toein resistance bands while jugglingSandBells and reciting the alphabetbackward then broadcast it. Whilethese circus tricks might become the next#bottlecapchallenge, theyre far fromfitness and far from functional.

Functional-movement patterns fall into six main categories: squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull and carry, with rotation as a bonus pattern that can enhance any of the other six.

By its true definition, functionaltraining should prepare you to liveyour life better; it should enhance andsupport your everyday movement andactivity walking, stretching, sitting,reaching, exercising in a sensible andcomprehensive way, no matter whetheryoure a competitive athlete, travel blogger,soccer mom or all of the above. When allis said and done, functional-movementpatterns fall into six categories: squat,lunge, hinge, push, pull and carry, withrotation as a bonus pattern that can beused to enhance any of the other six.

These are natural movements, says personal trainer Lalo Zuniga, CFSC 1 and 2.Toddlers squat, hinge, push and pull and so do elite athletes. A kid squatting down tocheck out a bug or a tennis player lunging for a shot are not hyper-focused on targetingtheir hamstrings or isolating their biceps; theyre just doing what comes naturally.

These are normalized, neurodevelopmental sequences that we see from birth on, saysJohn Rusin, DPT, strength coach and sports performance therapist. Its basically whathuman beings have to do in order to live life every day.

Categorizing exercises by movement pattern rather than by muscle group is a savvy wayto train, and by pulling an exercise from each functional bucket, you can create a trainingprogram with virtually unlimited variety. Rusin recommends hitting all six foundationalpatterns every week because neglecting one or more of them can result in muscleimbalances. So take a hard look at the functionality of your programming and see which ofthese essential six you should add to your bucket list.

1. Squat

If you have to change vertical levels in the courseof a day with both feet on the ground, youresquatting, and on any given day, you might copa squat in a chair, in a car, around a campfireor astride the porcelain throne. The squattingpattern requires a triple flexion and extension ofthe ankles, knees and hips which ideally work tothe same degree and at the same speed to loweryou down and then drive you back up.

An air squat is as basic as it gets gym-side, but once you master this foundational move, all other squats front, back, overhead or otherwise become that much easier.

Air Squat

  • Direct your gaze forward or at the ground a fewfeet in front of you. Looking up might feel like youregetting extra drive, but youre probably just archingyour back.
  • Initiate your squat by pushing your glutes and hipsbackward before you begin to bend your knees. Thisaligns and protects your joints and maximizes yourlifting potential.
  • On the descent, dont let your toes curl up or allowyour heels to lift. On the ascent, drive through yourwhole foot, not just your heels. If youre having troublefeeling these pressure points, squat without shoes orsocks and spread your toes to grip the ground.
  • Your hips, knees and ankles should all flex andextend at the same time to ensure a proper squatpattern. For example, if your knees extend beforeyour hips, youll moon the gym. Not a good look, andfor sure not a correct squat.
  • Your trunk and tibia should be parallel to oneanother at the bottom of the squat, so expect a slightforward lean. However, dont let your shouldersround to maintain alignment and protect your spine.
  • Dont press your hips forward at the top. If you wantan extra burn in your glutes, squeeze them isometricallywithout altering your hip position.

Squat Bucket List

  • Air squat
  • Front squat
  • Back squat
  • Pistol squat
  • One-legged squat
  • Split squat
  • Smith-machine squat
  • Sissy squat
  • Plyometric squat
  • Goblet squat

2. Lunge

Isnt a lunge just a traveling squat? Yes,it is, and many coaches group it into thesquat category. A lunge is essentiallyany asymmetrical or single-leg stancewith emphasis on the lower-bodyrecruitment, Rusin says. However, thelunge pattern requires more dynamicbalance and control than a squatbecause it trains one leg at a time versusboth simultaneously.

Training a forward lunge with just your bodyweight allows you to perfect your unilateral stability, balance and control without added resistance.

Forward Lunge

  • Dont take too big of a step forward.Maintain a 90-degree angle in your fronthip and knee, and drop your back kneestraight down, right underneath your hips,to avoid compromising your joints.
  • Use your entire forward foot to push offand return to standing. Pressing through yourtoes will shift your weight forward into yourknee and stress your patellar tendon, whileonly pushing through your heel narrows yourbase and can throw you off-balance.
  • If you have tight hip flexors, you might hingeforward a bit at your hips. This is OK as longas youre not rounding your lower back orusing this forward lean to generate momentumto return to standing a big temptationwith step-ups and walking lunges. Eliminatethe lean by slowing down the loweringphase to develop neuromuscular control.
  • If you lack flexibility in your toes especiallythe big toe your rear foot may externallyrotate in the down position, throwing off youralignment and balance. Loosen up your toeswith some slow calf raises.

Lunge Bucket List

  • Stationary lunge
  • Forward lunge
  • Reverse lunge
  • Lateral lunge
  • Walking lunge
  • Rear-foot elevated lunge
  • Lunge with rotation
  • Switch lunge
  • Curtsy lunge
  • Around-the-clock lunge

3. Hinge

The hinge is one of the most underused functionalmovement patterns, perhaps because weve always beentold to lift with our knees. But if you have a strong core,hinging is arguably a safer movement pattern for lifting aheavy object from the floor than squatting, and it certainlymakes more sense to your body: You have far more muscleattached to the back of your legs than to the front, allperfectly positioned to raise your torso like a drawbridge.

Every time you bend over to pick up the newspaper or the groceries or to pet your dog, you're probably doing a deadlift.

Romanian Deadlift

  • Maintain your neck and upperbackalignment by gazing at thefloor not in front of you or in themirror in the starting position. Thenpack your shoulders into your backby drawing your scapulae togetherand squeezing your armpits.Descend only as far as you canwhile maintaining a neutral spine.The moment your lower back startsrounding, youve gone too far andare putting your spine at risk.
  • If you have very tight hamstrings,bend your knees a little to give thema break and increase your range ofmotion, but dont make the moveinto a squat; the desired movementpattern is hinging like a door thatfolds at your hips.
  • Forceful hyperextension canoverstress your joints and really isntnecessary to activate your posteriorchain, so dont overextend yourknees at the top. They should bestraight but not locked out.
  • For extra glute activation, dontpush your hips out in front of yourtrunk, which causes your lowerback to arch. Instead, tuck yourpelvis under at the top and imaginepulling your pelvic bone toward yoursternum (not launching your hoo-haacross the gym.)

Hinge Bucket List

  • Romanian deadlift
  • B-stance deadlift
  • One-legged deadlift
  • Banded kneeling hip thrust
  • Bench hip thrust
  • Kettlebell swing
  • Kettlebell clean
  • Glute-ham developer
  • Reverse hyperextension

4. Push

The upper body really has two types ofmovement patterns pushing something awayfrom the trunk or pulling it closer. Push and pullare further divided into two more categories vertical and horizontal. Because pushingand pulling are functional opposites, the keyis to program them to create a balance in yourup-and-down and front-to-back strength.

Horizontal push exercise: Push-up

Horizontal Push:Push-Up

  • Create stiffness in your core, hips and thighs byactivating your abs, glutes and quads, which helpsyou maintain alignment from head to heels.
  • Prevent your shoulders from shruggingby engaging your lats and squeezing thearea under your armpits to rotate your elbowpits forward.
  • Shoulder protraction and retraction are partof this pressing pattern, so at the top, pushdown into the floor to spread your shoulderblades apart without rounding your upperback (protraction). And on the way down,draw your shoulder blades together (retraction)but not so tight that your chest sticks out or yourlower back arches.
Vertical push exercise: Narrow overhead shoulder press

Vertical Push:Narrow Overhead Shoulder Press

  • The narrow press with your palms inward isa lower-risk position than a traditional militarypress with your palms forward: The shoulder hasmore stability against rotation, making it easier tomaintain stability with the weights overhead.
  • Dont allow your rib cage to flare outward andyour lower back to arch as you extend your armsoverhead. Instead, really focus on tightening yourcore to keep your ribs down.
  • Youve probably been told to keep yourshoulders down and back with overheadmovements. However, there has to be someupward rotation of the scapulae otherwise,youd get stuck halfway up. Simply be cognizantof the range of motion, and make sure that yourshoulders are not shrugging to your earlobes and youre good.

Push Bucket List


  • Flat/incline/decline push-up
  • Plank
  • Flat/incline/decline bench press
  • Straight punch
  • Cable press (high and low)


  • Overhead shoulder press
  • Handstand push-up
  • Squat thrust
  • Arnold press
  • Windmill
  • Wall ball

5. Pull

Rows can be done seated or standing with anything from a resistance band to a cable to a machine.

Horizontal Pull:Row

  • Aim for full range of scapular motionfor each rep a little protraction at thestart and full retraction at the top. Asyou pull your shoulder blades together,simultaneously contract your abs tokeep your rib cage down and preventyour lower back from arching.
  • Besides your shoulder bladesand arms, no other parts of yourbody should be moving. Imagineyour elbows and shoulders are ona conveyor belt and can only slidebackward and forward to preventexcessive movement.
  • You may feel like youre pulling yourshoulder blades backward, but inreality, youre only jutting your chinforward. To prevent this, use a lighterweight and tuck your chin straight back.
Vertical pull exercise: Pull-up

Vertical Pull:Pull-Up

  • First, grip the bar right whereyour first knuckles meet your hand,then wrap your fingers and thumbaround it. This presses the barstraight into your palm rather thanpulling the spin on your palmsupward, which can give youcalluses or even tears.
  • Dont shortchange your reps:Let your shoulder blades slideupward toward your ears at thevery bottom, then initiate the pullby drawing them together andpacking them into your back beforedriving your elbows downward.
  • Theres no harm in crossing yourfeet at the ankles, but it might temptyou to arch your lower back orswing your knees upward to createmomentum. For a true measure ofyour pull-up prowess, keep yourlegs straight and together with yourtoes slightly in front of your torso.

Pull Bucket List


  • Seated row
  • Single-arm row
  • Bent-over row
  • Reverse-grip row
  • Lawn-mower row
  • Renegade row


  • Pull-up/chin-up
  • Lat pulldown
  • One-arm pulldown
  • One-arm wide lat pulldown
  • Scapular push-up
  • Active bar hang

6 Carry

Kettlebells, groceries, backpacksand pouting children gettingthem from point A to point Bwithout teleportation requires asolid carry, yet its an oft-ignoredtraining tool. With a carry,you wont feel the burn in onearea, but its the foundation ofdynamic stability, Zuniga says.More likely, youll feel a full-bodystiffness as you traverse theground with your arms and legsmoving in opposition.

Being vertical is not essential when considering a carry. "Crawling with a weight on your back or using the Airdyne bike fits under the 'carry' umbrella," Rusin says.

Farmer's Walk

  • Proper form is essential notonly during the carry but alsobefore and after: Use anotherfoundational movement pattern either a lunge or a deadlift topick up and set down the weightsto protect your spine and joints.
  • Take short, quick steps forward,planting each foot solidly, and dontlet your stance get too narrow.That decreases your base of support and unless youre training towalk a tightrope, you want to haveas much support as possible whencarrying heavy things!
  • As you fatigue, you may betempted to shrug, engaging yourtraps to help carry the load, but thiscan put undue tension on your neckand upper back. Instead, depressyour shoulder blades, imaginingsliding them down into your backpockets, to engage your biggerupper-back muscles.

Carry Bucket List

  • Farmers walk
  • Overhead walking lunge
  • Waiters walk
  • Suitcase carry
  • Racked carry
  • Unilateral sandbag carry
  • Weighted bear crawl
  • Sled drive/pull

Bonus: Rotate

Throwing, hitting, kicking,swimming and running (yes,running) all involve rotation,which is the best way to transferpower from your lower halfthrough your core and outthrough your upper half. Thispattern requires head-to-toestability and teaches yourbody to work as a single unitrather than as separate halves.Rotation is the glue that holdsother movement patternstogether such as a squatplus a push or a hinge plus apull and helps create a full-bodyfunctional movement,Rusin says.

Add rotation to any of the other six movement patterns and immediately up the ante and feel the fire.

Band Rotation

  • Dont stand flat-footed. Comeup onto the balls of your feet, andas you rotate, pivot from the startto the finish. This ensures that themove involves your whole body including your hips and trunk which is how rotation typicallyoccurs in real life.
  • Brace the core but allow somerotation of the spine, especiallyat the end ranges of motion. Butnote: You should feel a little stretchin your obliques but should notallow your trunk to flex forward orextend backward.
  • The farther your arms areextended from your body, thegreater the challenge to yourcore as it works to stabilize yourshoulders and trunk. But makesure that your shoulders moveas one unit with your torso, asif welded to your trunk. Somerotation may occur in the upperback (which is fine), but avoidpulling and/or pressing the bandwith your chest and arms.

Rotation Bucket List

  • Cable/band rotation
  • Woodchopper
  • Oblique medicine-ball toss
  • Plank to side plank
  • Hook punch
  • Throwing (balls, rocks, etc.)
  • Swinging (bat, golf club, etc.)

Pop Quiz

Are the lat pulldownand the bench pressfunctional opposites?

ANSWER: No. A latpulldown is a vertical pull,and the bench press isa horizontal push. Theopposite of a verticalpull would be a verticalpress like a dumbbelloverhead press, whereasthe horizontal push is bestopposed by a horizontalpull, like a row.