Monthly Archives: March 2013

Functional exercise, functional body (move it or lose it)

How can functional training make you a better human?

As you get older there are several processes occurring that diminish your ability to move as you could 10, 15 and 20 years prior.

Muscles lose their elasticity, strength and flexibility. Joints become less mobile or less stable (depending on their function). All of this adds up to less physical wellbeing.

The symptoms are often made worse by your body’s “history”. Something I heard a few years ago from a 90 year old man really struck me. He said “every bump gets recorded”. His contention was that, while the body can heal from knocks, when one is older those aches and pains come back to haunt us.

Modern society doesn’t help either — sitting down in hunched positions hour-after-hour, day-after-day ultimately trains the body into bad postures and poor function. We sit down for hours, use escalators when we could use the stairs and we slump down on couches for a few more hours to end the day. In short, everyday life is training us to be in bad shape.

strength as a skill versus strength for “show”

Functional strength is more than just about strength in the traditional sense (“look how much I can lift”). Functional strength is primarily about training the nervous system. Renowned trainer and Kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove”. In other words, strength is created through repetitive training of a specific sequence of movements. Strength is a skill as much as any other physical skill with a specific set of adaptations.

This is why athletes train radically differently to the average gym goer. Professional athletes typically get functional movement screening to see where there are deficiencies in their joint mobility, strength and flexibility.

Because athletes repeat specific sequences of movements at great speed and with great force generation, the risk of injury is always lingering. Minimising that risk while maximising the efficiency of movement is what modern physical training has become for athletes. This is the lesson ordinary humans can take from the pros.

Degeneration interrupted

One thing that always raises my eyebrows is the tendency of trainers to take on clients and give them a vanilla programme to help the client reach their fitness goals. For instance, it is not always a good idea to put a person straight into a weight training program when they can’t even move their bodies properly.

The purest form of functional training is bodyweight training — probably the most underrated form of training there is. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of guys that are gym strong but not functionally strong. This because moving an external load (barbells/dumbbells) is vastly different from moving your own body. External loads can force the body to move through problematic lines.

Someone may well be able to squat a 300 pounds but they probably can’t do a one-legged squat for 1 rep let alone 6-10 reps. As a general rule, why not getting people to train their bodies to move themselves properly before overloading the body with weights?

Relics of a bygone era

In the move from aesthetic, bodybuilding paradigms to a more functional, athletic training ethos, there are inevitable casualties and cast offs. Some exercises — once thought to be staples in any gym goers trick bag — are now relics of the past. Others are borderline but tough to get rid of because they’re so ingrained in the collective psyche.

Leg extensions, leg presses, peck deck flyes, chest flyes, machine squats, leg curls and bicep curls (heresy!) are often ignored by athletes. Why? For the most part, these exercises take the target muscle out of a position of strength, compromising the ability of the muscle to perform as it functions normally. Leg extensions and leg curls are two prime examples of exercises largely useless to athletes.

Functional rules of thumb

Muscles are evolved to fire holistically — as part of a sequence. In the previous example, both leg extensions and leg curls take quadriceps and hamstrings out of their strength and put them into isolation. This is also a way to create functional imbalances, which is a surefire way to invite injuries.

So with all that in mind, here are a few guidelines:

  • Forget isolation exercises (movements that involve one joint and isolates specific muscles).
  • Discard the body part approach to programme design and take a movement-centric approach instead.
  • Address structural and movement asymmetries.
  • Use bodyweight training to condition muscles, joints and tendons to move through full ranges of motion (a full depth squat is difficult for many people). Train the body to move through natural body motions.
  • Use progressive bodyweight exercise to increase functional strength (see Paul Wade’s excellent book: “Convict Conditioning” for more on progressing basic bodyweight movements. View some sample workouts).

The vision

I want to be clear about the last point — developing functional strength via bodyweight training. The main point is thus: If you can’t move your own weight properly then that’s where you need to start.

Bodyweight training will help you move properly, through full ranges of motion and stave off body degradation that happens as one gets older. Getting stronger in these movements will enable you to be the best human being you can be while avoiding the kind of self-induced “paralysis” that hits most people later in life. Move it or lose it is the name of the game.

The functional fitness revolution

Fitness and health is such a massive industry that the conventional advice is often never questioned. Despite this, a quiet revolution is happening in the fitness industry.

[This is the first in a 2-part series of posts on how the fitness industry has changed and how you can avoid bad advice and hokey marketing gimmicks].

It was bound to happen. After the heyday of the muscle bound bodybuilding hulks in the 1970s and 80s, physical training had to change.

When I began looking into training and physical fitness in the mid-1990s, pretty much the only resources you could find were of a bodybuilding nature. Many fitness programmes relied on weight training and a bit of aerobics to develop that cardiac-respiratory system (aka heart and lungs!)

While all this is great and the average guy or gal could improve their fitness, these routines were limited in scope and therefore may not have been entirely appropriate for the average gym goer.

Recalibrating fitness goals

Muscle growth in and of itself is great but there must be something more to training than that. Whether this was an overt observation of the fitness community or not I can’t be sure of. What I do know is that sports science and the study of kinesiology (how humans move) have come along way since weight training really took off in the period from the 1950s–70s.

The fitness industry as a whole owes a lot to the pioneers of bodybuilding and strength training. The musclebound hulk like figures (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Lee Haney) were poster boys for an entire generation of trainers.

Bodybuilding is awesome, but in some respects it is a victim of its own success. The huge bulging over-bloated bodybuilders that have become the norm now are such extreme outliers that most guys don’t want to look that way, don’t have the time and simply the perseverance to develop such massive physiques.

Muscle isn’t the end of the story

At heart, all guys are secretly wannabe superheroes. While bodybuilders no longer represent the ideal that most guys are after, professional athletes do inspire awe and respect in the general populace.

It is hard not to admire a Usain Bolt, a Sidney Crosby or a Lebron James. These guys inspire awe in what they can do, rather than in how massive their biceps are.

There’s nothing wrong with big biceps and this post is not an attack on bodybuilding. I’m keen to bloat my chest, shoulders and biceps through training as much as the next guy. An awesome physique is well, awesome! But there is something about a guy who can move like a cheetah, jump like Mike or power his way through opponents like a charging rhino.

What is this functional buzzword anyway?

Modern life combined with the growing realisation that training for just muscular development has led to this functional fitness revolution.

So functional simply refers to the idea that the average person can reach their physique potential in size and ability. Guys can be powerful athletes; ladies can be nimble like a dancer. In fact, these are powerful reasons for why training has gone the functional way — people play sports, hike, cycle, mountain bike and run marathons. Unfortunately for many of us, we spend hours a day de-training ourselves for basic movement by sitting hunched over desks or other suboptimal arrangements.

The sea change in the way training is done can in part be attributed to a number of popular gym disciplines: Pilates, Yoga, Military training approaches and the emergence of Crossfit. Popular exercise magazines are Men’s Health/Women’s Health and Women’s Fitness/Men’s Fitness magazines. There are many more but these publications capture the essence of fitness as a lifestyle rather than an aesthetic only.