Elements of an Effective Workout PART 3: Functional Fitness and Neuromotor Training

In Part 1 of this series on the Elements of an Effective Workout, I talked about choosing the right exercises to achieve results most effectively without getting hurt. In Part 2, I describe a number of ways to progress your workouts, so you’re always challenging your body to become stronger, leaner and more efficient. This final Part 3 is all about functional fitness and neuromotor training – which may sound scary, but is really for everyone. I’ll also highlight two fitness tools I love that promote these concepts and are challenging and fun to use – the TRX Suspension Trainer® and the BOSU Balance Trainer®.

Functional Fitness and Neuromotor Training – what are they?

You’ve probably never given much thought to what allows your body to perform any particular movement. Yet it’s a complex process that happens in split seconds. Let’s say you decide to stand up from your chair. Your brain transmits millions of messages to receptors, called “motor effectors” in your muscles which tell certain muscles to contract in order to move the joints necessary to do this. Or consider the many different movements involved in walking – the feet, the ankles, knees, hips, and even shoulders must all move in specific ways to achieve this basic human function. Besides the signals from the brain to the muscles, there are also messages coming from the body back to the brain – called proprioceptive feedback – that tell the brain where we are in time and space.  

Neuromotor training helps to improve this two-way brain-body connection. The goal of functional fitness is to train the body’s physiological systems to make it more efficient in performing activities of daily life – in other words, the many ways we move, lift, bend, and twist thousands of times a day.  When you integrate neuromotor and functional training, you are teaching all your muscles to work together for a specific purpose, rather than in isolation.

Benefits of Functional/Neuromotor Training

Functional and neuromotor training significantly enhances overall fitness in two key ways:

#1 – It improves your brain’s ability to interpret and process kinesthetic feedback, meaning where you are positioned in space. This is a key component of balance, and frequently declines with age.

#2 – The focus is on movement, not just muscles. This helps develop more effective, skillful, safe and energy-efficient movement patterns. As a result, the quality of our movements improves,  through better body alignment and body awareness.

There are two unique pieces of fitness equipment that, in my opinion, are outstanding tools for functional/neuromotor training:  TRX® and BOSU®. I am a certified trainer/instructor for both of these tools and I frequently incorporate them into my clients’ training programs. Let me introduce you to each of these, starting with the TRX Suspension Trainer®.

[Disclaimer: I do not receive any form of compensation for describing or promoting either of these products, and I am not affiliated with either of these companies in any way. I just think they’re terrific!]

The TRX Suspension Trainer®

The iconic yellow and black straps with handles have become commonplace in gyms and fitness studios. The story behind how the TRX was invented is a testament to one man’s ingenuity. In 1997, while deployed, Navy SEAL Squadron Commander Randy Hetrick created the first TRX using only a jiu jitsu belt and some parachute webbing in order to keep his team strong and ready for a pending mission. In 2001, Randy earned his MBA from Stanford, then partnered with exercise scientists and physiotherapists to develop the first commercial version of the TRX. Today, TRX has millions of users all over the world.

TRX at its essence is a functional/neuromotor training tool. Here are some of the key reasons why I love using the TRX with my clients, and in my own workouts:

#1 – It’s for anyone. The TRX delivers a total body workout that you automatically adapt to your current fitness level. It’s used by everyone from professional athletes to patients with neurological disorders.

#2 – All core, all the time. The TRX is scientifically proven to promote core engagement on nearly every exercise. This comes from having your feet as the base of support, and then manipulating the position of your center of gravity. When your center of gravity changes, your core muscles must engage to keep you steady.

#3 – Promotes balance and strength. The TRX design incorporates a unilateral (one-sided) balanced approach to training. The straps’ single anchor point means you must resist rotation to stay aligned, both from side to side and front to back. This forces both sides of body to work together to maintain stability. The “equalizer loop” at the top creates controlled sway, meaning you have to provide equal pressure on both handles, or else one side will slip.

#4 – Promotes mobility and flexibility. When your core is strong and tight, creating “proximal stability,” then there’s greater “distal mobility” or range of motion in the hips, knees, shoulders and back. In a TRX squat, for example, the handles allow you to unload body weight to allow you to go deeper into the movement. The TRX straps can also be used for assisted stretching, using your body weight to gently move deeper into a stretch under your own control.

#5 – Portability. The TRX can be set up just about anywhere in your home, office, hotel room, or outside on a tree branch, playground equipment, or soccer goal posts. I personally anchor it to the top of a closet door (using the provided door anchor) inside, and outdoors I mount it to the pergola above my deck. When it’s not in use, it fits into a small mesh bag.

The BOSU® Balance Trainer

The BOSU looks like half an exercise ball mounted on a rigid plastic base. Pronounced “bow-sue,” the acronym stands for “both sides utilized” meaning it can be used on either side – the ball, or dome side, facing up, or with the flat, or platform side up and the dome on the floor. Invented by fitness expert David Weck, the BOSU® Balance Trainer debuted in 2000 and quickly gained popularity worldwide.

Today, the term “BOSU” has evolved beyond the product to now mean “Both Sides Utilized,” a mindful approach to exercise that is a step beyond traditional training. This clarity of who we are and what we want to offer inspired the development of additional BOSU® products and programming, all of which are grounded in exercise science and proven in real-life application.

Much like the TRX, the BOSU is really all about functional and neuromotor training and is grounded in exercise science as well as proven in real-life application. Here are the reasons I love working with the BOSU (and yes, many of these are identical to the TRX!):

#1 – Continuous core engagement. The BOSU provides an unstable environment (but the degree of instability is up to you.) To maintain balance and stability, your core muscles must engage constantly. Introducing instability makes simple exercises more challenging, and more functional. For example, a regular squat on the floor is very stable – but try doing a squat while standing on the unstable dome of the BOSU! Your core, as well as the muscles and connective tissues in your legs, must all work together to keep you balanced as you move up and down.

#2 – Promotes balance and strength. The BOSU, even more so than TRX, focuses on balance. Maintaining balance requires core and extremity strength. Just your own body weight is sufficient for many BOSU exercises, but you can also add dumbbells or stretch cords to add variety and challenge. Oftentimes, a body weight-only exercise on a BOSU requires more strength than a stable version with added weight.

#3 – Kinesthetic awareness. This is a fancy term for awareness of how your body is positioned, which often declines with age. The BOSU’s instability requires your mind and body to work together to complete a movement that would otherwise be relatively simple on the ground – in other words, neuromotor training.

#4 – Cardio/endurance. The BOSU is great for cardio intervals, metabolic drills, and plyometrics (e.g. jumping). Once again, the instability factor makes these drills even more challenging from an aerobic/endurance and strength perspective.

In summary, functional/neuromotor training is essential for everyone to be able to move better, feel better, and live better. The TRX and BOSU are two highly effective tools that deliver a myriad of benefits, and will help you achieve just about any fitness goal – whether it’s weight loss, increasing strength, improving balance/coordination, or building cardiovascular or muscular endurance.

Just one word of caution:  Although I highly encourage you to consider incorporating the TRX and/or BOSU into your fitness program, it’s important to recognize that these tools must be used properly to achieve the most benefit and avoid injury. Proper form is absolutely essential to ensure you’re not doing more harm than good, and not wasting your precious time either. If you’d like additional guidance about either the TRX or BOSU, please reach out to me directly. I can answer all your questions, help you choose which one is a better fit for you, teach you proper form, or even create a personalized training program to help you reach your goals!

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who works with clients virtually to help them transform their health and fitness. She takes a holistic approach to her clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques.  She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

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