By Patrick Curtis
For Senior Voice 

Fitness training and the pillars of functional strength


April 1, 2020

There are many ways to train our bodies to be strong and no shortage of available advice on how to do so. Seeking this advice can quickly get complex given the wide variety of ways to work out and equipment available for purchase. This fitness professional finds it helpful to break down some key exercise concepts into simple descriptions that can be applied to any form of workout.

Around 15 years ago, the fitness industry turned its full attention to the concept of functional training— performing exercises that more closely resemble the way we use our bodies in our everyday lives. Fitness equipment, group instruction, personal training and even gym design all now include functional training as a primary focus. Think of your normal daily activities: Do you often find yourself on your back, pressing weight upward? Or do you more likely push and pull doors open from a standing position? The Pillars of Functional Strength are movement guidelines prompting us to ensure we are practicing for life as we work out.

Push and pull

The first pillar is push and pull, with the exercise equivalents being upright chest press and seated row, preferably using resistance bands. Isometric training — pushing and pulling against a fixed object and holding for about eight repetitions per set — can be a very effective modification for a beginner or exerciser with limited strength.

Raise and lower

Second is raise and lower, referring to body weight. Squats, lunges or machines that replicate these actions are the general “raise and lower” exercises. Functionally we use this movement when sitting down and standing up. Performing slow chair-sits or wall-squats are ways to work this pillar without special equipment.

Changing directions

The third pillar is changing directions. A gym class example is the shuttle run, moving back and forth across a designated path. Multi-directional lunges are a great way to address this pillar. The feet may be moved farther apart or closer together to adjust for the exerciser’s ability. A fixed object may be used for support. Instead of only lunging forward, step to the side and diagonally to train the body to be ready for challenges that do not occur in a straight line.


Approximately 60% of injuries occur in the transverse or rotational plane, which brings us to our final pillar, rotation. This pillar may be added to the others to create compound exercises that replicate life demands such as getting into a car or playing sports.

A standing chest press may be modified with a lunge stance and rather than pressing straight forward, press with one hand at a time to the opposite corner rotating the body slightly into the press, keeping the abs tight. Side lunges may be modified so the feet rotate to the right or left as you step and lower your body into the lunge.

Fitness professionals are happy to share information and offer suggestions and there is much to be gained from taking classes and working with a personal trainer. Understanding some of the basics ourselves also puts a strong motivational tool in our kits that can help us stay more active, healthy and well.

Patrick Curtis is the Programs and Wellness Director at Anchorage Senior Activity Center.


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