In yet another lazy day of Wednesday Workout, instead of actually working out, I am going to set a few things straight. There are many buzzwords in fitness, they change as often as the season. Think “core, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), plyometrics, circuit training, periodization, dynamic, Zumba, fusion, aerobics, toning…yes, I probably can go on forever.
The buzzword that I hear most often lately is “functional fitness” or “functional exercise.” Most of us in the fitness business use it frequently. You may use it too. But what does it mean? Some of us in the industry, when we hear the word used so often, start to assume that everyone knows what it means. But do they?
There is a good reason that functional fitness has become the top buzzword in fitness. It’s about training your body for real life situations. Imagine this: You’ve been working out at the gym three days a week. You are bench pressing more weight that you ever have before, and you just increased the weight on the seated row machine. You’re feeling pretty good, ready to show off your six pack on your vacation. You pick up your 60 pound suitcase and throw out your back. What happened?
Chances are you’re not doing enough functional exercise, which focuses on real life bodies exercising in real life positions, not lifting a standard weight in some imaginary posture created by a gym machine. The point of functional exercise is to teach all the muscles to work together, as they do in real life.
Let’s compare. We’ll take a rowing exercise, a standard machine in all gyms, where you sit with your back and feet braced while pulling on two levers or a cable. Yes, you may be strengthening some muscles, but you’re not teaching your body anything. You don’t have to activate any stabilizing muscles in your core, shoulders or arms, so these muscles aren’t learning to work together.
Now let’s examine a bent over row, the kind where you bend over a bench with the weight hanging down in one straight arm, where you pull the elbow up bending it until your upper arm is parallel with the ground. Think about what is happening. Your core is activated because you are bent over at the hips. The muscles in your arms and shoulders must work to stabilize the movement. Compare this to any kind of bending and lifting movement that occurs in real life.
Using that same thinking, compare a leg press to a squat. A chest press to a push up. A leg curl to a lunge. The first exercise in each example is a common gym exercise, which is designed to work a certain muscle or muscles, while the machine does the stabilizing. But a squat, a push up, or a lunge, all require you to recruit many muscles, including your small stabilizing muscles, to do the work, and they all translate to real life movement.
If you are just starting with functional exercise, it is actually a good idea to lose the weights altogether, while you work on balance and stability. Sure, you may be able to leg press a lot of weight, but can you do a one-legged squat without falling over? Go ahead and try. I’ll wait.
If you can’t it may be because the muscles in your body are not used to working together and you need to work on balance and stability. Practice that one legged squat. When you can do it (on both sides), add a light weight on one side. Then try picking that weight up from the ground as you do the squat. Each step adds a little challenge as you build balance and stability.
If you are a gym rat and used to pressing heavy weight, your thinking will have to undergo a paradigm shift. No longer will you push to failure, grunting out those last few reps, increasing weight at regular intervals. Now, the set will end when you can no longer keep perfect form. Instead of increasing weight regularly, you will increase the muscular challenge. Take that squat to an uneven surface, extend a leg in the air as you do your push up, twist or reach as you do your lunge.
Does that mean never doing another gym workout? Probably not. If you have weakness in certain areas that can be detrimental to functional form. If you don’t balance those weaknesses before performing functional exercise, the stronger muscles will take over and get stronger, while the weaker muscles will stay weak. If you blend both styles of exercise together, functional exercises will teach the isolated muscles how to work together.
If functional exercise is new to you, finding a qualified trainer with a background in functional fitness is an excellent idea. It shouldn’t be hard. As with all fitness buzzwords, good trainers try to keep up with the trends, educate themselves and pass their knowledge on to you.
Do you incorporate functional fitness into your training? (If you do some of my Wednesday Workouts you do, most of them are quite functional.) What is your favorite exercise and what real life movement to you relate it to (a test!). What is your favorite fitness buzzword? How about your least favorite?