Human movement can be reduced to three basic categories: pushing, pulling, and hip extension (squatting, jumping, running, and even riding a bike). Functional fitness begins with learning good form for this essential repertoire and then gradually adding weight and difficulty to build stability and strength. Doing these exercises correctly with five pounds, in other words, is better than doing them poorly with 100. In the words of Gray Cook, one of the founding fathers of functional training, "Don't add strength to dysfunction."
The strength in hip extension comes from your posterior chain, a string of connected muscles running from your hamstrings up through your glutes into your lower back. Nothing trains the posterior chain better – while protecting your lower back against the lumbar pain so typical of middle age – than the dead lift. Russian kettlebells make the perfect learning tool because even the light ones – use a 20-pounder to get the movement down – have handles high enough off the ground that you don't have to bend over too deeply to get started.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing outward 30 degrees, kettlebell on the floor between your feet, centered one inch in front of your shins. Weight should be on your heels, never the toes.
- Your spine should be straight, with shins perpendicular to the floor while you move your butt backward, bending at the hips. Once you can reach a kettlebell handle this way – without hunching forward in your lumbar spine – grab the handle with both hands.
- Drive upward by forcing your hips forward, not by pulling up with your hands.
Credit: Photograph by Terrence Darvin
- Barbell Dead Lift: Barbells are the dead lift tool of choice because they make it easier to adjust weight in tiny increments. Once you're comfortable with a 35-pound kettlebell dead lift, start using a 45-pound bar, adding plates as you get stronger (if using anything smaller than 45-pound plates, be sure the bar is being lifted from a rack at about mid-shin level to ensure