functional muscle conditioning

By utilising bodyweight exercises and elements of momentum and rotation, you can incorporate functional muscle conditioning into any group fitness workout, says Marietta Mehanni.

‘Functional’ and ‘functionality’ have become popular buzzwords in the fitness industry over the past 10 years. While isolation exercises are still prevalent, compound and multi-planer movements have demonstrated effectiveness with enhancing everyday movements that would otherwise cause injury to an ill-prepared body.

Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles mean that our genetically engineered highly mobile bodies are immobile for several hours a day and thus we develop not only postural weaknesses, but also strength deficiencies for activities like gardening, household duties, and recreational pursuits such as bush walking, playing sport and family activities.

Traditional muscle conditioning workouts provide a unique opportunity to not only deliver exercises that challenge the body by using a variety of stimuli, but also to educate participants on quality movement that requires nothing more than their own body weight to perform.

Bodyweight exercises

We often marvel at the amazing ability of circus performers, gymnasts and other athletes to shift and hold their own body weight. In fact, being able to lift their own body weight is often used as a measure of strength.

Bodyweight exercises are ideal for several reasons:

1. They require no equipment

As such, these exercises can be performed anywhere and at any time as lack of equipment can never be used as an excuse!

2. They promote multi-jointed, compound exercises

Often bodyweight exercises require more than one joint action to be performed, meaning that more muscle groups are incorporated. Let’s compare the humble push up with the bench press. When performing the push up, either on the knees or toes, the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints are all involved. This means the muscles of the upper torso are incorporated in the exercise. The abdominals and erectus spinae are also integrated to stabilise the torso, and then, finally, the muscles of the lower body maintain an isometric contraction to keep a strong lever for the arms to lift up and down (especially when the push up is performed on the toes).

In contrast, with the bench press, the body is well supported by the bench and the weight is lifted up and down using the shoulder, elbow and, to a lesser extent, the wrist joint. The muscles of the torso play a smaller role with assisting the exertion phase with forced expiration. Depending on how heavy the weight is, the lower limbs may or may not assist with an isometric contraction to assist with the lift. It is clear, therefore, that there is much more involved with the classic push up than with the bench press.

3. Manipulation of lever length

By manipulating the lever lengths of the upper and lower body, range of motion can be adjusted to either increase or decrease intensity, i.e. a longer lever will have a greater range of motion and thus increase intensity considerably. Another factor to consider with lever lengths is that taller participants will work harder than shorter participants when performing the same exercise. For this reason, providing options is necessary to cater for different limb and torso lengths.

4. Challenge to balance through points of contact

Points of contact refers to how many bodily parts are in contact with the floor. The more points of contact, the more stable the body is during the exercise, the fewer points of contact, the greater the challenge to balance. An example of this concept is a straight leg deadlift. As there are no additional weights being used, intensity can be increased by incorporating balance. Traditionally a deadlift is performed with both feet on the floor, but it can also be executed with one leg. The opposite leg is lifted up behind the body as the torso lowers to the floor. It is interesting to note that this is actually how a lot of people pick things up from the ground, by lifting one leg behind to counterbalance the torso weight being lowered forward. Whereas a standard deadlift works the erectus spinae, hamstrings and glutes, balancing on one leg incorporates the muscles of the feet, calves and stabilisers of the ankle, knee and hip. It is very functional, and a great balance exercise.

Another example of a classic hip extension exercise is the all fours donkey kick (photos 1 & 2). To intensify this exercise, incorporate the muscles in the quadriceps and increase recruitment of the torso stabilisers, by lifting the knee off the floor to move into a ‘plank orientated’ position. It is important to ensure that the pelvic floor and transverse abdominal muscles are contracted as the leg is extended back, and then relaxed as the knee returns back to the chest.

5. Removes mental barrier of ‘weight lifting’

The idea of using weighted resistance, i.e. lifting weights, can be a barrier for some participants and prevent them from lifting a weight challenging enough to create muscle stimulus. Many women, for example, have the perception that weight training will make them ‘big’. This reluctance is not apparent, however, when they are required to lift their own body weight. In fact, the reverse is often the case, with many women seeing it as a positive accomplishment to be able to perform the required repetitions.


Momentum is an interesting concept in fitness as it has always been something that we have discouraged participants from doing – and with good reason. Momentum with weights or body weighted exercises can be potentially dangerous when working with untrained bodies and those unfamiliar with this type of movement pattern. Here is the conundrum; momentum is part of everyday life. In fact, it is a natural way of achieving more with less energy, such as when lifting a heavy bag out of the boot of a car, placing a backpack over the shoulders, or even performing household chores like cleaning a window or mopping a floor. All of these require some momentum to complete the action with ease. This makes for an argument to consider using momentum safely, so that exercises are performed with more function in mind. Being able to control momentum is an important skill to master to avoid future injuries. Hence, introducing controlled momentum in a functional muscle conditioning workout would make sense.


Traditionally, muscle conditioning exercises moved only in the frontal or saggital planes. Rotational movements, or moving in the transverse plane, was relegated to oblique-specific exercises. When we look at most of the muscle fibre arrangements in the body, we can observe that a considerable number of muscles fibres are arranged diagonally and hence create rotational movement.

For example, gluteus maximus not only extends the hips, but also externally rotates the hip. Latissimus dorsi adducts, extends and medially rotates the shoulder. External obliques unilaterally rotate the torso, and thus it is interesting to note that most of the large muscle fibres of the torso perform rotation. This becomes clear when we look at the body in motion, as in walking. We can see that the body not only moves saggitally, but the torso also rotates to assist with swinging alternate arms and legs forward and back to create the motion.

Therefore, it is not surprising that when we observe everyday activities, rotation plays a huge role in transferring power from the limbs to the opposite side of the body. When considering what is appropriate for a functional muscle conditioning class, therefore, rotation presents itself as a necessary component, and one which can be applied to most exercises.

Lunges forwards or to the side, for example, can include a rotating upper body action (photos 3 & 4). Even the plank can include rotation when each hip is lowered to the floor in turn. Always ensure that you provide your clients or participants with options when it comes to rotation, and consider limitations due to injury. The session you deliver, of course, is not a rehabilitation program, so the responsibility lies with the participant and their ability to choose their own exercise intensity.

Functional muscle conditioning can be incorporated into any group fitness workout and be effective in developing the overall fatigue necessary to ‘satisfy customer demand’! It can also freshen up your existing exercise repertoire by bringing new functionality to classic exercises.

Marietta Mehanni
Marietta is an award winning presenter and Australian Fitness Network Ambassador with over 20 years of teaching and presenting experience in both land- and water-based group exercise. Co-creator of ‘Tricks, tools and trades of Program Coordinating’ and mentor for over 70 instructors and presenters, Marietta is passionate about inspiring others to lead and share their skills and talents to create a better fitness experience for all. For more information visit

Join Marietta at FILEX 2014 in Melbourne where she will be sharing her wealth of group exercise and training skills:

  • Dynamic dumbbells! • A1U
  • HIT – H2O intermittent training (with Maria Teresa Stone) • B3W
  • Surf it, skim it, scoop it – kickboarding 2014! • C3J

For more information on Marietta’s sessions check out where you can also register for the convention or the all-inclusive Gold Pass packages that include access to the essential Business or PT Business summits and breakfast events.