Most clients and athletes I’ve trained want to build an all-around stronger, more adaptable body that’s capable of performing at a higher level in any environment…not just inside the gym.
To accomplish this, I developed this list to emphasize the eight main functional movement patterns I generally use with all athletes as the basis for their weekly training. Field, court, and combat sports—as well as everyday activities—rely on specific movements for performance; all of these actions are derivatives of the following eight main functional movements:
- Jumping and Landing
- Throwing and Striking
- Knee bend
- Hip Hinge
The first four categories on this list (1 to 4) are athletic movements, and the remaining four are lifting movements (5 to 8).
There are so many exercise options to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. That’s why I listed my top lifting variations and the top three exercises in each of the lifting categories in my article on The 4 Mandatory Lifting Movements.
Here, I’m doing the same for the 4 Mandatory Athletic Movements. This following list allows you to simplify the programming process and specify the main athletic movements to focus on each week to improve your overall athleticism.
Cover each of these athletic movement categories by picking from exercises detailed in each section below. While these are broad categories, all exercises are merely variations of these eight main functional movements. It is important that the exercises you select (and deselect) from each category be based on your individual ability. Fit exercises to you, don’t fit yourself to exercises.
1- Jumping and Landing
Notice, it’s jumping and landing, not just jumping. You not only want to be able to produce force quickly, you also want to have the ability to more effectively absorb and efficiently redirect it.
A simple cue that I’ve used for years that works for jumping and landing drills is to, “takeoff like a cannon and land like a butterfly.”
The importance of regularly doing both some type of jumping and landing, as well as throwing and striking (covered in the next section), is explained in my book, Building Muscle and Performance:
“Movement-speed training focuses on improving your rate of force development—that is, how quickly you can use your strength. Remember: power = strength × speed. Therefore, the exercises used to improve your movement speed are the total-body power exercises. The heavier the load you’re working against, the slower your movement becomes. For this reason, the principle of specificity dictates that, in order to do all you can to improve your explosive power, you don’t just do exercises that involve moving against high loads (i.e., strength exercises). You also do exercises that require you to move at high speeds.
As you may recall from chapter 1, adaptations to training are specific to the demands that the training puts on the body. Therefore, regularly performing exercises that require you to move fast in certain directions makes your body more capable of moving fast in those or similar directions. With this principle in mind, the functional-spectrum training system includes exercises for each of the three pillars of power—vertical (or diagonal), horizontal, and rotational—in order to improve your functional capacity by enhancing your capability to move fast in multiple directions.”
For a great, practical example of jumping and landing exercises, I developed and use THIS 6-phase box jump and landing exercise progression.
2 – Throwing and Striking
Checking this box means throwing medicine balls, hitting a heavy bag or doing mitt work. If you aren’t able to perform medicine ball throwing drills like those in the videos highlighted below, (throwing either against a wall or into open space [e.g., field or parking lot]), just do a few rounds on the heavy bag. Or, even better, take a boxing, kickboxing or MMA class a few times per week.
Throwing and striking exercises involve a coordinated effort by the entire body (the individual muscles added together) to summate force in an explosive manner. Athletic movements—throwing a punch; swinging a bat, club, or racket; or sprinting and jumping—are driven not by power generated in just one specific area of the body, but by the combination of individual muscles producing power in a smooth, coordinated sequence.
The unique benefit these exercises offer your training is that they use as many muscles as possible in a sequential and explosive (i.e., fast) manner to obtain maximal force in multiple planes of motion, as compared to Olympic weightlifting that can be difficult to learn and trains only in the vertical plane.
These are some of my top medicine ball throwing exercises. In this video the exercises are done as a circuit for conditioning (power-endurance training) purposes. Of course, I often use only one or two of these exercises early in a workout, after a warm-up, for less reps as pure power training.
3 – Locomotion
Locomotion is defined as the ability to move from one place to another. No one can claim that we didn’t evolve to be able to move from Point A to Point B. From stalking prey to evading predators, we developed various locomotive patterns to ensure our survival. Unfortunately, after we lost PE class, few of these patterns receive any regular attention during our daily workouts.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of exercise options to fulfill the locomotion category:
Note: Many trainers crap on the agility ladder, but it has its value when used properly as I demonstrate in my article on Fitness Gone Wrong: 7 Butchered Exercises and Training Concepts
The above list is only a starting point, as there are many other forms of locomotion that improve general athleticism such as the variety of track-based warm-ups you see performed by track and NFL athletes before competition.
Locomotion and Loaded Carries
Many trainers have loaded carries in their checklists as a must-do exercise. I think loaded carries are a good option to use to check the locomotion box, but they become overrated or overused when they’re viewed as a standalone must-do category. Here is an analogy – there are plow horses and there are thoroughbreds. Every thoroughbred can perform loaded carries because they require zero athleticism, but not every plow horse can do things like skip, shuffle, or carioca with efficiency and fluidity.
That said, there’s no reason you can’t do both in the same workout. In fact, one of my favorite ways to begin a warm-up and to raise body temperature before doing mobility drills, is to perform the following circuit that includes both locomotion and loaded carries. Perform the following drills back-to-back, each for a total of about 40-50 yards. If you only have 20-25 yards of length to work with, doing one lap is 40-50 yards.
Sample Locomotion Warm-Up Circuit:
1a. Walking calf raise x ½ lap
1b. Backward jog x ½ lap
1c. Jog x ½ lap
1d. Long-stride backward jog x ½ lap
1e. Skip x ½ lap
1f. Backward run
1g. Side shuffle x 1 lap (½ lap left and ½ lap right)
1h. Carioca x 1 lap (½ lap left and ½ lap right)
1i. Dumbbell hip carry x 1-2 laps
Sample In-Place Locomotion Conditioning Circuit
You can also incorporate the locomotion component into your training in the form of conditioning.
Waist-resisted locomotion drills simulate the demands of moving forward more than simply running in-place without added resistance because you have to work to keep your hips forward (hence creating more glute activation) and to prevent the band from pulling you backward.
Here is a sample locomotion circuit that is ideal when space is limited:
Place an NT Loop Band above your hips and anchor the band between your knee and waist-level (I designed the NT Loop Band to be a far more comfortable and stable band to place around your limbs, waist, or hips than a traditional latex band). Walk away from the band to create tension against your hips, and remain the same distance from the band while performing the following three exercises back-to-back:
1a. Dumbbell hip carry with high-knee march x 30 seconds
1b. Skip x 20 seconds
1c. Sprint x 10 seconds (as fast as you can go)
1 round = 1 minute. Repeat for 3 to 6 rounds without rest.
- The dumbbell hip carry with high-knee march is your active-rest portion of each one-minute interval.
- Make sure to put the dumbbells down after doing the hip carry with high-knee march in a way that you won’t trip on them when doing the skips and sprints, but also placed so they’re easy to pick-up again to start the next round.
Locomotion is also a great way to get moving on your off days with activities like climbing, swimming, hiking or biking. Plus, it helps you improve your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)!
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the scientific term for the energy you expend during your occupation, leisure activities, standing, walking, sitting while fidgeting or toe-tapping, shoveling snow, playing the guitar, cleaning, and any other movement outside of conventional exercise.
Research consistently shows that NEAT represents the most variable component of daily total energy expenditure (TEE) within and across subjects in populations worldwide. In fact, it’s responsible for 6-10% of TEE in individuals with a mainly sedentary lifestyle, and for 50% or more in highly active subjects (1).
That said, one of my favorite terms is “sedentary bodybuilder” or “sedentary lifter” because there are many iron-enthusiasts who don’t do much, if any, other physical activity outside of the gym. Many of them actually want to lose fat or at least practice fat-gain prevention (FGP), but have a difficult time getting leaner without feeling like they’ve got to eat like a bunny rabbit.
NEAT is a significant component of daily energy expenditure, so it makes sense to view (and use) it as an essential tool for fat loss and fat-gain prevention.
4 – Rotation
The anatomical characteristics of the human body dictate that it commonly functions in a crisscross manner. More specifically, the arm-and-shoulder mechanism on one side links diagonally through the torso mechanism to the hip-and-leg mechanism on the opposite side. Consider, for example, the motions used in walking, running, punching, throwing, and batting. Such cross-body linkages are foundational to human functioning and thus are also a big part of athletic movement. For this reason, a variety of dynamic rotational exercises should be regularly incorporated into your training.
There are two basic forms of rotation to incorporate each week into your workouts:
- Horizontal rotation
- Diagonal (high-to-low or low-to-high) rotation
Many trainers exclusively do anti-rotation strength exercises, which are just isometrics. However, isometric exercises (planks, side planks, Pallof presses) are only half of the complete core-strengthening puzzle. Why? Because the torso musculature doesn’t just transfer force and reduce force by limiting movement (through isometric action), it also helps to produce and transfer force by creating motion (dynamic movement) (2).
Many papers on pitching, golf, tennis, etc. have demonstrated that there absolutely is spinal rotation involved in rotational sporting actions. It’s referred to as the “x-factor,” which is the relative pelvis and shoulder rotation; so, the more x-factor, the more stretch through your abdominals to create a whipping action. “Peak x-factor” is the point where there is the most spinal rotation, because it’s the most separation between the shoulders and pelvis.
Here are two diagrams from research papers. The first, from a paper on golf swing mechanics; the second, from a paper on pitching mechanics (3,4).
The area circled in red illustrates that not only do the pelvis and shoulders rotate at different degrees to generate force to create a powerful golf swing, but also rotate at different speeds.
Most research papers, like the two referenced above, show that x-factor ability is a key contributor to swing power. These papers also show that excessive x-factor may be a risk factor for issues like low back pain, which is why you use anti-rotation exercises to increase stiffness. However, not having a well-coordinated x-factor (through training and practice) may lead to using too much arm and that could also be an upper-extremity injury risk factor; this is why you also need to incorporate dynamic rotational exercises.
I’ve seen trainers show still pictures of a baseball player or golfer at the point where they’re making contact with the ball as a way for them to attempt to show that that hips and pelvis have little to no relative rotation in these actions. This is cherry-picking because the major force of the swing was generated at the time it started – not at ball contact. Further, when you start a baseball or golf swing, there absolutely is spinal rotation, as demonstrated by the research and by simply watching sports in action.
With striking and rotational medicine ball throwing, you get momentum, speed, and explosive power all in one movement. Unlike cable or band-based rotation exercises like chops, there is no direct force vector pulling you back to the origin. It’s important to perform dynamic rotational strength exercises like multi-point cable chops that I show in my Dynamic Training for Abs & Obliques article because they provide a rotational strength challenge different from striking and throwing.
1 – Von Loeffelholz C, Birkenfeld A. The Role of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Human Obesity. [Updated 2018 Apr 9]. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000.
2 – J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):373-80. Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. Shinkle J, Nesser TW, Demchak TJ, McMannus DM.
3 – Yi-Ling Chiang and Wen-Tzu Tang. Rotation Characteristics Of The Shoulder, Torso, And Pelvis During Pitching For Taiwan Elite And Subelite Collegiate Baseball Pitchers. Graduate Institute of Coaching Science, National College of Physical Education and Sports, Taiwan. ISB XXth Congress – ASB 29th Annual Meeting July 31 – August 5, Cleveland, Ohio
4 – David W. Meister, Amy L. Ladd, Erin E. Butler, Betty Zhao, Andrew P. Rogers, Conrad J. Ray, and Jessica Rose. Rotational Biomechanics of the Elite Golf Swing: Benchmarks for Amateurs. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 2011, 27, 242-251 © 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.