In life, the majority of our movement is done with what's called a "gait pattern." Most or all of our body weight is on one leg, while the opposite leg is traveling. With each step, the position of the entire body changes. Your foot position changes your pelvic position, which changes your spinal position, which changes your shoulder position. They're all interconnected through layers of connective tissue.
This is the norm everywhere except the gym, where more often than not, we put two feet on the ground, two hands on the weight, and push like that's the most natural thing in the world—often while sitting.
For years, I trained in this conventional bodybuilding style, which helped me to add muscle, but often left me feeling stiff, lethargic, and anything but athletic throughout the day. Only once I started making my training match the way I move did I discover the type of results and athleticism I had always wanted.
Despite what some will say, making training more "functional" or athletic doesn't have to be complicated. Here are four moves you may already be doing, but which can be made better and more effective by the simple addition of a strategic step. Plug them into your program and prepare to be surprised.
1. Forward-Step Chest Press
This movement builds upper-body horizontal pressing strength and plenty more. Far from simply "activating" your core, it teaches it to maintain tension while the arms, legs, and pelvis move. This is essential to spinal health—but make no mistake, your pushing muscles of the chest, triceps, and shoulders still get all the challenge they could want here as well.
How to do it
- Set up two cable pulleys slightly above shoulder height. Start with both resistance handles back near the underarm.
- Find balance and control in your starting position. To do this, I start with my right foot forward and my left foot behind me, with my heel up. I keep my heel up to apply pressure through the forefoot to engage my core. This is what I like to call an activated starting position.
- Drive both feet into the ground. Step forward with your left foot while maintaining core engagement and muscular tension through your right leg.
- While simultaneously stepping forward with your left foot, create consistent core tension and press both hands forward to perform the dynamic chest press.
- From this position, complete another rep of the chest press while driving your rear foot (right foot) into the ground.
- Slowly step back to your starting position through your right leg, while keeping core tension as your left foot steps back.
- Perform six steps to complete one set. Perform two sets starting with your left leg forward, and two sets starting with your right leg forward.
2. Rear-Step Front Squat or Goblet Squat
This movement has a lot going for it besides the most obvious, which is to increase single-leg strength. For one, training the leg and pelvis to pivot around a stance leg is essential to athletic strength and performance. By training multiple positions of the squat in the same sequence, you also mobilize and strengthen your hips and glutes. Holding the load in front of your body also engages the muscles of the core better than, say, a back squat.
How to do it
- Start in a bilateral foot position with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag, or medicine ball at shoulder height.
- Perform one "normal" bilateral front squat or goblet squat.
- Step your left foot backward slightly while keeping the left heel off the ground. Keeping both knees bent, lower into a right-leg dominant squat, and raise back up using the hamstrings and glutes.
- Perform 1-2 squats in this position, and then press yourself back to the original starting position while bringing your left leg forward.
- Perform another bilateral squat.
- Step your right leg back and perform a left-leg dominant squat.
- Perform 6-8 steps to complete one set, and 3-4 sets of the movement.
3. Rear-Step Deadlift to Overhead Press
Hip hinging and overhead pressing are two fundamental movement patterns and lifting techniques. You may have combined squats with overhead presses in the past, but hinges and presses? Probably not. But this move has a huge payoff. It engages the posterior chain in a number of positions to improve single-leg and hip strength, while also engaging the muscles of the core and maintaining spinal stability as the legs, arms, and pelvis move. This exercise is challenging, especially on the non-dominant side.
How to do it
- Start in a bilateral stance while holding two dumbbells outside of your hips with your glutes and core active.
- Lower your upper torso into a hip hinge (deadlift) while bringing your right foot back, and using your left leg to control the weight and momentum. Focus on driving your left leg into the ground.
- After eccentrically loading your left leg through the hip hinge, continue to drive your left foot into the ground. Propel your body through the concentric portion of the deadlift into a forward step, while pressing the weights overhead. During this concentric phase, it is essential to create tension through all of your extremities and core.
- Perform one overhead shoulder press with your right leg forward. Be sure to maintain core and full-body tension through the eccentric and concentric portion of the press.
- After performing one overhead press, step back into a rear-step deadlift in a controlled manner.
- Perform eight steps to complete one set. Perform two sets starting with your left leg forward, and two sets starting with your right leg forward.
4. The "Grincee"
This unilateral version of the classic burpee mobilizes and activates the glutes, hamstrings and core, while replicating the powerful starting position of a sprinter. I recommend it before lower-body training to improve single-leg power and stability.
How to do it
- Start in a high plank position with your shoulders over your wrists, your feet together, and your core engaged.
- Complete one push-up, and return back to a high plank position.
- Step the right foot up to the right hand, focusing on pressing this foot into the ground before lifting up the hands. This ensures glute, hamstring and core engagement.
- Drive yourself up to standing while bringing the left knee up to hip height. Focus on driving the stance leg into the ground for full hip extension.
- Before lowering yourself down, find a stable and strong position. Then slowly bring yourself back down into the high plank by controlling through the right hamstring of your standing leg.
- Once in the high plank, perform another push up and repeat the stand up with the left leg. Alternate left and right leg for 1-3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Build Strength Through Integration
With all of these movements, it's essential to stand tall, with an actively engaged core and strong posture. Focus on integrating and aligning your entire body. Watch out for excessive pelvic tilting or slouching, both of which can cause excessive force to leak into the lower back and spine.
The goal here isn't just to work certain muscles, but to train your body to work as one dynamic, integrated unit. You're strengthening your extremities, while also creating consistent core tension. This tension is essential to being able to control and protect your spine and pelvis no matter what you're doing, inside the gym or out.
Try these movements with an open mind. The strength they build is the type you can use now, you can see in your results, and you can count on to help you get even stronger moving forward.