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Train Your Body, Train Your Brain

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Get stronger and smarter with this functional routine that improves balance, coordination, power, and mental acuity.

Your musculoskeletal system isn’t the only part of your body at work when you throw a ball or lift a weight. Any time you move, your brain coordinates which muscle fibers should fire and when, allowing you to perform complex actions efficiently and effectively. It makes sense, then, that if you want to get stronger and move better, you need to exercise your neuromuscular system, too.

Enter PNF. Short for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, PNF addresses entire motor patterns to improve com-munication between muscles and joints. It’s also a functional way to increase coordination and promote a balance of mobility and stability, says Brett Jones, ATC, CSCS, an athletic trainer who uses PNF with his clients.

“The idea is that regional groups of muscles fire more and better together,” he says. “Getting certain muscles to fire in a movement pattern causes other muscles around them — muscles that may not have been performing up to snuff — to fire better.”

PNF is especially effective with large diagonal and spiral movements that cross the body’s midline. Full-body movements, like the chop or lift, for instance, impose a load through the arms and require the core muscles to control it as it moves across the body, says Jones.

For many people, factors such as a sedentary lifestyle, pain, or imbalances elsewhere in the body can lead to reduced firing from the core and prompt compensation from other muscles, he explains. By facilitating a core response, PNF helps restore stability and mobility and prevents further dysfunction.

Jones, who designed the following workout, describes it as “both a chance to have fun and a learning opportunity — a chance to check in with left–right imbalances that are essential to everything we do in our daily life and athletically.”

The Workout

These exercises incorporate PNF in a full-body, neuromuscular strategy that is both enlightening and fun.

Mindfulness is crucial to performing this workout correctly; it will help you recognize imbalances and recruit your nervous system. So be aware of your posture, position, and breath, as well as any differences you notice from left to right.

Perform three rounds of the following exercises as a circuit. For each exercise, do the recommended number of repetitions on each side of your body.

If one side is noticeably more challenging — a sign of asymmetry or an imbalance in strength — double up your sets on that side.

For example, if the instructions say to perform three to five reps on each side for three rounds, and your left side is weaker, add a set on the left side in each round.

Chop From Half-Kneeling

Chop From Half-Kneeling

Why it works: Activates the core musculature by imposing a load diagonally across the body and improves rotational stability.

Setup: Attach a medium- to heavy-resistance band to a secure high object at least 2 feet overhead when you’re kneeling (approximately face height when you’re standing). Hold one handle of the band in both hands, palms down, and take a step to the side to put enough tension on the band to perform full, clean reps of this move.

Instructions

  • Assume a half-kneeling position with your inside leg (the one closest to the band) in front. Hold the handle with arms extended and to the outside of the shoulder nearest to the band.
  • Exhale to engage your core, and then begin to pull the handle diagonally down and across your body. Do not allow your hips or knees to move; limit the motion to your upper body and arms.
  • Inhale as you slowly reverse the motion, returning the handle to its starting point.
  • Perform three to five repetitions per side, building to 10 per side.

Lift From Half-Kneeling

Lift From Half-Kneeling

Why it works: Activates the core and improves rotational stability.

Setup: Attach a medium- to heavy-resistance band to a low, secure object. Hold one handle of the band in both hands, palms down, and take a step to the side to put enough tension on the band to perform full, clean reps of this move.

Instructions

  • Assume a half-kneeling position with your outside leg in front. Hold the handle in both hands, low and near the band’s anchor point.
  • Exhale to engage your core, and then begin to pull the handle diagonally up and across your body, past your outside shoulder. Do not allow your hips or knees to move; limit the motion to your upper body and arms.
  • Inhale as you slowly reverse the motion, returning the handle to its starting point.
  • Perform three to five repetitions per side, building to 10 per side.

Turkish Get-Up

Turkish Get-Up

Why it works: Applies PNF to a functional, full-body movement and focuses on creating balance on both sides of the body.

Setup: Beginners should practice this movement with body weight only; advanced exercisers with kettlebell experience may use a kettlebell in the extended arm. Use a yoga mat or knee sleeves to protect your knees.

Instructions

1. Begin by lying on your back with right leg extended and slightly angled away from your body, right arm out to your side, and left knee bent with left heel on the floor. Raise your left arm toward the ceiling, while keeping your shoulder blade down, or “packed.”

2. Drive your left heel into the ground as you lengthen through your right leg. Then press your right elbow into the ground as you begin to sit up, leading with your chest, and simultaneously reach your left arm toward the ceiling.

3. Shift your weight from your right elbow to your right hand, keeping your chest up and out. Drive your left heel into the ground to activate your left glute and lift your hips.

4. Sweep your right leg back and place your knee on the floor directly under your hip. Continue to keep your chest up, shoulder packed, and spine neutral (do not arch or round your back).

5. Hinge into the hips slightly to shift your weight over the down knee, and lift your right hand off the ground as you rise to a half-kneeling position. Then slightly rotate your right leg so your right knee faces the same direction as your left.

6Drive your left heel into the ground to rise to standing.

7. Perform the reverse of these motions to return safely to the ground (not pictured). Complete one to three repetitions per side.

WEB EXTRA!

Two Advanced PNF Moves That Will Progress Your Workout

If the first portion of the workout is challenging for you, or if you have a significant left–right imbalance on the chop, lift, or get-ups, continue practicing these three exercises before incorporating the following two moves into your workout. Once you get the hang of the earlier exercises, add these two moves to progress your training.

Crossover Step

Why it works: Challenges core and hip stability and mobility and helps balance left–-right asymmetries in the lower body.

Setup: Start with just body weight until the movement becomes smooth and balanced (you can perform the same number of reps with ease) on both sides. To add resistance, loop a resistance band around your waist and anchor it to a secure surface at waist height.

Instructions:

  • Stand with feet at hip width and arms at your sides.
  • Shift your weight onto your right foot, making sure to stay upright and not leaning to your right. Then step your left foot in front of and to the outside of your right foot. Keep feet squared forward and torso upright.
  • Step your left foot back to the start position to reverse the movement pattern.
  • Perform five to eight repetitions per side.

Diagonal Medicine-Ball Slam

Why it works: Applies a solid foundation of movement established through PNF patterns to a power move, enabling better coordination and force production.

Setup: You will need a moderately heavy medicine ball and a wall that you can slam it against. The ball may or may not bounce.

Instructions

  • Stand with the left side of your body facing a wall, about 5 feet away, and hold a medicine ball at your right shoulder. Start in an athletic stance, with feet at hip width, knees slightly bent and weight on the balls of your feet.
  • Rotate your torso away from the wall, moving the ball toward the outside of your right shoulder and shifting your weight onto your right foot. Your left foot may pivot here as you rotate.
  • Exhale as you rotate to your left, shifting weight to your left foot and slamming the ball downward and against the wall.
  • Perform one to three repetitions per side.

is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill. She blogs at www.mamasgottamove.com.

Photography by David Ellis Photography

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