With the rising emergence of “movement training” in both the fitness industry and high performance athletics, it begs the question… Does movement training actually produce results?
Here’s why you should probably take the hyped up movement training trend with a grain of salt, especially if you are focused on improving fitness and function. There are better ways to get fit, fast, strong and powerful, and they don’t involve becoming a functional training guru.
Defining The Un-Definable “Movement Training”
In order to clearly evaluate the benefits and pitfalls of movement training, we must first define the term. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive answer. The definition of movement training will differ from coach to coach, trainer to trainer, and athlete to athlete. Some may consider movement training the motor patterns and exercises specific to their respective sport, while others consider it the ability to express your body freely by adopting a multitude of complex movement patterns.
One of the most polarizing movement training specialists is of course Ido Portal, coach of UFC superstar Connor McGregor. So, what does he have to say about movement training? Ido describes movement culture as a “contemporary paradigm shift in physicality, moving us away from main culprits in movement and fitness as well as the separation between health, aesthetics, performance and art”.
Athlete and former UFC Interim Champion Carlos Condit has also been working with MovNat post-ACL injury. MovNat, much like the Ido Portal Method, believes in a “mindful approach to the full range of natural human movement abilities”.
Lastly, Naudi Aguilar from Functional Patterns is another name I can think of that falls under this category of “movement training”. I think we all know Naudi’s name by now after his explosion onto the scene after a rather fire filled exchange with the glute guy Dr. Bret Contreras a few short years ago.
Why’s Movement Training So Damn Popular In The First Place?
Movement training is becoming more and more popular in athletic performance and fitness mainly because:
- Trainees are getting bored with traditional weightlifting exercises such as the squat, bench press and deadlift and seek more variation in their training
- Trainees and the general population are buying into the touted benefits of movement training
- Trainees have been convinced that traditional resistance training and rehabilitation exercises are “nonfunctional”
- Let’s admit it. It looks pretty cool. People are drawn to ideas that are polarizing, different, flashy.
The Truth About “Functional” Training
Although it’s unfair to group the Ido Portal Method, MovNat and Functional Patterns together, they do have one thing in common. They do not believe that the current paradigm and landscape of movement is sufficient for sport performance and health.
The principle of specificity always plays a role when discussing anything performance or health related. Gurus who preach that movement training is all you need and anything in the sagittal plane sucks, is most likely trying to sell you a product by downplaying their competitors.
Many traditional weightlifting and bodyweight exercises (squat, presses, deadlift, cleans, snatches, pushups) all occur in the sagittal plane, but have been shown to be very effective for muscular growth and strength. In addition, these gurus often claim that these exercises are not “functional”.
This naturally leads us into the discussion of functionality, and the question…
What is functional? Do we really need to be rolling around on the ground or balancing on a wobble board?
Too many times have people defined functional training as exercises on a Bosu ball or on a balance beam. While these exercises may serve a function, functional training should be defined as exercises that meet the demands of a specific goal.
Balancing on a bosu ball may be functional to one population, while completely useless to another. For example, balancing exercises on unstable surfaces have shown to be effective for developing stabilizer muscles in injured populations or post-stroke patients. However, may be completely useless to a power athlete looking to improve strength and power as exercises done on unstable surfaces actually reduces force output and does not carry over to the field, court, or platform.
As Mel Siff once said “There is no such entity as a truly functional exercise, except for the actual sporting or daily movement that we are trying to enhance by training”.
So why train at all? The answer is improving skill transfer.
The point is to perform exercises that have a high amount of transfer to the movement or quality we are looking to improve, whether it be biomechanical, neuromuscular or metabolic. With that said, let’s evaluate how well movement training transfers to different populations, which populations can actually benefit from movement training and which populations should stay away from movement training.
Movement Training In Sports Performance
Athletes must practice and be able to perform a variation of movement patterns in order to prevent over-use injuries, and to develop weaknesses to improve sport performance. While I’m a believer that athletes should aim to progress beyond the traditional lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, power cleans, power snatches), I’m not convinced exclusively performing movement training is the perfect solution.
The amount of movement variation that is required by an athlete depends on factors such as previous and existing movement base, type of athlete and type of sport. As an athlete, how much time should be allotted to movement training (if any at all…) and how much time should be allotted to sport-specific training and traditional strength & conditioning.
Optimizing sport performance is about pushing the human body and mind to the upper limits, as well as experimenting with different training methods. It would be foolish to state that movement training is completely useless or has no place being performed alongside a smart strength & conditioning protocol.
Contact Sport & Mixed Martial Arts Athletes
Running as a form of recovery or long slow distance (LSD) training is often utilized in various sport performance programs. However, the large eccentric component of running unnecessarily stresses the lower body joints and can hinder recovery. This is especially true for athletes in contact sports like MMA and rugby, or in sports that already have a large running component to them, such as soccer.
For this reason, water-jogging/running, swimming, cycling and other activities with concentric-dominant muscle actions are preferred over running. In this case, I propose that: movement training can replace road-work (running) as a form of integrated aerobic and mobility training.
Here’s How To Implement It With This Population:
Use a heart rate monitor (chest-strap preferred). Find or develop your own bodyweight movement routine that focuses on low-impact, and mobility-focused exercises (deep lunges with a chest-stretch/opener, Spiderman/alligator crawls, shoulder rolls, transverse plane rotation drills, etc)
Keep heart rate at 50-70% of your Max Heart Rate, for most people this is a heart rate of 100-135BPM (lower end for recovery, higher end for aerobic adaptations).The key is to keep heart rate under lactate/anaerobic threshold.
Perform this for 30-60 minutes, 1-2x a week. After training sessions and/or on rest days.
In this application of movement training, heart rate and work output is low enough not to interfere with recovery, all while challenging proprioception and putting muscles through a full range of motion. Movements utilized do not have to be specific to the sport, as we are only aiming to improve general aerobic adaptations and promote recovery.
Strength Athletes: Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman
Powerlifters need enough mobility to hit depth on their squats, be able to bench press and deadlift safely. Olympic weightlifters need a good amount of mobility and flexibility to be able to catch barbell snatchs and clean & jerks in a deep squat position. Strongman competitors need enough hip mobility to pick up heavy stones as well as possess decent shoulder mobility to overhead press safely and effectively. Outside these exercises, strength athletes are not required to practice a plethora of movement patterns. Because of this, movement training can come in the form of maintaining joint and muscular health.
Here’s How To Implement It With This Population:
Since the goals of strength athletes are so specialized – pack on muscle, improve strength and power on the main lifts, performing movement training may be a waste of time.
When it comes to cardiovascular conditioning for strength athletes, low intensity cyclical aerobic training like cycling or the elliptical machine may be the better option. MetCons can also be utilized for Olympic weightlifters and Strongman competitors.
Endurance Athletes: Triathletes, Runners, Swimmers, Cyclists
Many endurance sports are cyclical in nature, therefore implying low movement variation in competition and in training. Rather than utilizing movement training, endurance athletes should perform resistance training in conjunction with their endurance training program.
It is a common misconception that resistance training is detrimental for endurance performance or it somehow adds unneeded muscle mass to endurance athletes. However, it has been shown that resistance training can improve peak power output for short-event, anaerobic-endurance athletes as well as improve average power output and movement economy in longer-event, aerobic-endurance athletes.
General Health and Fitness Population
On the other hand, improving physical health and fitness is about reaching or maintaining a healthy lifestyle in a safe and efficient manner. I stress the term efficient because people who fall under this category most likely are not professional athletes, therefore training needs time-efficient. Can movement training improve bone density, blood lipid profile or other health markers? Yes. Can movement training improve these measures as effectively as traditional resistance and cardiovascular training? I’m not sure it can.
For populations looking to improve overall fitness, lose fat mass and put on muscle mass; movement training exclusively, will likely not yield the same results as performing a combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Stick to multi-joint, compound exercises, while carefully selecting isolation exercises to improve your weaknesses or fix muscular imbalances.
Here’s How To Implement It With This Population:
The following movement patterns should make up the bulk of a well-designed resistance training program:
- Hip Hinge Pattern (Deadlift, Kettlebell Swings)
- Squat Pattern (Back Squat, Split Squat)
- Lunge Pattern (Forward lunge, Lateral Lunge)
- Horizontal Push (Bench Press, Push Ups)
- Vertical Push (Overhead Press, Landmine Shoulder Presss)
- Horizontal Pull (1 Arm Dumbbell Row, Bent Over Barbell Row)
- Vertical Pull (Pull Up, Chin Up)
- Loaded Carries (Farmers Walk, Sled Pull/Bear Crawls)
- Isometric Core Exercises (Forearm Plank, Side Plank)
- Anti-Rotation Core Exercises (Pallof Press, Bird Dog Variations)
Performing variations of these exercises will help you develop stability, muscle mass, strength as well as build a well-rounded physique. Familiarize yourself with these movement patterns, progressively overload them, and form a solid base before dabbling in more complex movements like muscle-ups or dragon pistol squats.
When it comes to cardiovascular conditioning, 30-90 minutes of steady state aerobic training at 50-70% of your Max Heart Rate (100-135BPM for most individuals) as well as 10-20 minutes of moderate to high-intensity intervals can greatly improve cardiovascular health and aid in fat loss while performed in conjunction with a resistance training routine.
I say in conjunction because I believe everyone should strength train. Strength training puts on muscle mass. Muscle mass plays a role in whole-body protein metabolism, preventing pathologic conditions and chronic diseases such as sarcopenia, and is associated with longevity and lower mortality rates.
The Bottom Line About Movement Training
In terms of building muscle and strength, and improving overall fitness: progressive overload is king. The lack of clear cut progressions in movement training, the inability to load certain movements safely, and the inconclusive definition of the term itself makes it hard to implement effectively in populations seeking to improve general health and fitness.
Should we as humans aim to improve our flexibility, mobility and movement? Yes of course.
Should we spend time touching butts at the park (movement training reference) at the expense of exercises like squats, presses and deadlifts that have already proven to be effective for fat loss, muscle gain and strength? Probably not.
Movement training should be reserved for populations that already have an athletic base, whom are looking to promote recovery, improve mobility, balance and overall movement variation whether it be out of personal interest, or part of a strategically designed strength & conditioning program. For trainees looking for a safe and effective method of increasing their fitness and improving their health, stick to the basics.
About The Author
Geoff Chiu is a strength & conditioning coach and personal trainer. With a heavy interest in periodization, nutrition and all things strength & conditioning, he hopes to get people thinking critically and intelligently about exercise and dieting, while helping athletes reach their high performance goals.
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