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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Functional Training: Breaking the Bonds of Body Building

Look in the mirror today and ask yourself this question: Am I a bodybuilder? For most of us the answer is “”

Then look in the same mirror and ask yourself this question: Why do I go to the gym two to three days per week and train like a bodybuilder? (Three sets of 10-12 repetitions etc.) The answer to that question is not cut and dry.

Most people would say “Well, that’s what they told me to do at the gym.” or “That is what the muscle magazines say.”

Those of you that are fitness professionals might even talk about increasing lean body mass and raising metabolism, which is all true.

There are, however, more facts out there that most personal trainers and front desk staff at the health clubs aren’t going to tell you. The truth is that if you want to be fit, you don’t need to work out like a body builder. Let me repeat that: YOU DO NOT NEED TO LIFT WEIGHTS LIKE A BODYBUILDER. As a matter of fact, many exercises that you do in an attempt to gain muscle mass and become more fit (because “the magazines or the trainers said so”) are working against your true goals of INCREASED FUNCTION and INJURY PREVENTION.

Let’s just forget every thing we know, or think we know, about fitness and start from scratch.

We move every day, all day long, right? With this accepted as fact we can now define “how” we move. To do so, we put movement into categories or “pillars.” There are four basic pillars of human movement. Every movement that we do with our bodies falls into one of these categories.

Pillar # 1 : Bipedal locomotion. We move. We may go forward, backwards to the side but no matter what direction we go, we move.

Pillar # 2 : Pushing and pulling. Whether we’re picking up the laundry basket or pushing our toddler on the swing, we push and pull each and every day.

Pillar # 3 : Level changes. Tying our shoes, sitting down and getting up off the floor are daily activities which require us to raise and/or lower our center of gravity.

Pillar # 4 : Rotation. Almost everything we do requires rotation. If one foot is in front of the other we are rotating. If one arm or shoulder is in front of the other we are rotating. Stacking wood, shoveling the driveway, throwing a frisbee, all rotation.
The next question you should ask yourself is: The last time I lifted weights how many of the four pillars of human movement did I utilize? Before you answer please read on because there is another important lesson to learn about human movement!

To properly exercise your body you need to be aware of how our muscles act upon our joints. Most fitness people will be able to tell you that the muscle shortens to move a joint. This is very important. But, alas, there is more to the story. Our joints move through three planes of motion : the sagittal plane (front to back), the frontal plane (side to side), and the transverse plane (rotation). In the real world every time our joints move they move through ALL THREE PLANES of motion.

Now, the last time you worked out at the gym did you train all four pillars of human movement while utilizing all three planes of motion? Most people would answer NO. Do not fret, however, because there is an alternative out there. It’s called Functional Training.

Functional Training is not a new concept. In fact, it’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The essence of functional training is this : “When you work out you need to do exercises that will prepare your body to perform, injury free, throughout the course of your day.” With functional training you train movements and NOT muscles. In the gym we do various exercises that target a specific muscle group like the chest or the back. With functional training you would do exercises that integrate different PUSHING and PULLING moves. When we lift weights like a body builder, we work out and isolate muscles in an unnatural or nonfunctional way, just to increase their size. By doing this, we are limiting the muscles ability to perform when needed.

When you train a muscle functionally you train it in conjunction with other body parts and always with the CORE. If you train your muscles to be strong WITHOUT working the core you are setting yourself up for injury because your kinetic chain (a series of muscle, joint and nervous system actions that work in synergy to create specific human movements) is only as strong as your weakest link. Thus people may be able to bench press 200 lbs and still not be able to shovel snow for 30 minutes without pulling their back or hurting their shoulder.

Here is an example: In the gym we sit on a bench and push dumb bells over our heads. This traditional weight training exercise is called the overhead dumbbell press. Sometimes we even put our back against some sort of pad and do the same exercise. How does this exercise mimic real life? Do you ever lift anything with just your arms? Besides the fact that the compression on your spine is damaging to your back, the move just isn’t natural. In real life we always, always, always rotate and/or use our legs to lift things above our heads. Think about it.

The above described exercise is, of course, a shoulder move. When my trainers have clients work their shoulders we ALWAYS tie in another movement to make it both more demanding physically and more like a situation we may encounter in real life. Here are some variations of the same overhead press exercise (you can use a medicine ball or one or two dumbbells):
1) One arm w/full body twist
2) Two arm w/twist (A real burner!)
3) Curl w/press
4) Squat w/press
5) Squat, curl w/press
6) Squat, curl, press w/twist. (Gets the heart going!)

As you can see you can come up with quite a few variations if you think outside the box.

This functional training idea sounds good but how do I implement it into my training routine? Well, it can be very simple or it can be very complex depending on your level of creativity and knowledge. Try this simple move to get a taste. Next time you work out your chest, instead of doing the bench press or the chest press find a nice mat on the floor. Go into a push up position with your arms and legs straight and your core tight. Hold that position for 30 to 60 seconds (you’re working on stabilization strength here!). Then do a push up but instead of doing another push up, lift one hand way up in the air until your arm and body are perpendicular to the ground and hold for a split second. Bring the arm softly back to the mat, do another pushup, and repeat on the other side. Try doing 20 repetitions. Try doing this same exercise with dumbbells in your hand. Try doing 100 repetitions WITHOUT the pushup. Easy? Try it!

Let’s look at your back. Most weight training routines will include some sort of rowing exercise. Usually your sitting straight up on a bench and pulling on a handle from a big selectorized machine. How can we make this a more functional exercise? Pull ups are an excellent way to work the back muscles. Most people can not do unassisted pull ups, but with the help of a competent trainer almost anybody can do assisted pull ups. A recline pull is an exercise that takes some creativity based on what you have for facilities, but it can be a fabulous core and back workout. First you find a place where you can lie down on your back and reach in front of you to grab something solid (I’ve found a Smith Machine or a squat rack works well). After doing a quick isometric hold, keeping your body straight, pull yourself up as many times as you can.

Some of the best exercises you can do for your core and your back involve resistance tubing. With a light resistance band wrapped securely around something solid, grip the handles and raise one arm straight up in the air while you bring the other arm straight to your side. It is called the Alternating X and it really makes the backs of your arms and shoulders burn!

For another good exercise start standing up holding the resistance tubing in front of you. First, bend straight over at your hips (Not your waist). If you keep your back straight you feel an awesome stretch in your hamstrings and lower back! Proceed by standing straight up and then executing a basic row. For some variety you can do a twist at the top of the motion by simply pulling with one arm like your pulling a bow to fire an arrow. Do three or four exercises with 15-20 reps each and your back will be plenty fired up.

Let’s now look at how you could spend your time at the gym without being bored and dreading your workout. Here is a quick routine that will last 15 minutes or less and will make your heart pound and your muscles work. Execute this circuit with as little rest as possible between exercises. If possible go right from one to the next with NO REST!

1) Warm-up: Leg Crank Circuit, 1 ½ to 3 minutes
- Body weight squats - 24 reps
- Front lunges (alternating long step to the front while bringing your back knee close to the ground) - 24 reps
- Jumping lunge (just like the lunge except JUMP from left to right) - 24 reps
- Squat jumps - 12 reps (same as squat except with a jump at the top)

2) Dolphin Circuit: 5 minutes (repeat circuit 3-5 times)
- Plank (hold 60 seconds)
- Pike (from plank position push hips in air and return to starting position) 10 reps
- Hip drop (from plank position drop hips almost to floor and lift to starting position) - 10 reps

3) Push - Pull circuit: 5 minutes (repeat circuit 3 - 5 times)
- Pull ups (assisted or unassisted) or recline pulls - 10 reps
- T-stab push up - 10 reps
- Bent over row with twist (resistance tubing) - 10 reps
- Dumbbell chest press from stability ball bridge - 10 reps

4) Cone run: 3 minutes
- Place 2 cones on the floor 10 to 30 feet apart.
- Start in the middle and see how many times you can touch each cone running back and forth between then (sidestepping in the frontal plane) in 30 seconds.
- Rest 30 seconds then repeat and beat your score or challenge your friend.

This routine is, by no means, thorough but it is a quick way to try out functional training in the gym or even at home. Do it with a friend and you’ll have some fun! When you get away from the principles of body building and start to think outside the box you will really see results as soon as you start.

Functional Training is not about “working out” its about preparing you body for the expected and unexpected challenges you face when you leave the gym. By implementing functional training you will see that you don’t need the “Nautilus Circuit” or the bench press to be truly fit. Your remarkable body can be used as resistance to make your workouts really mean something. By adding just a couple of very simple tools such as resistance tubing, stability balls or medicine balls you can create a workout that will both challenge you and prepare you for what your health club dues do not: The real world.

Take one last look in your mirror now and ask yourself one more question: Will I benefit from functional training? Here’s your answer: YES.


  1. This was REALLY helpful!!! I have been looking for some ideas to do in my home that cover core and body workouts! Thanks for the ideas and continued guidance!

  2. Thanks for all the info!! My work out consists of alot of everyday work, plus intence MTBing. I feel doing hard trails were you are constantly pulling pushing twisting all at the same time. I ride everyday, some days are just a easy commute to work. I try to always change things up. As for work, I do alot of different things, that work different muscles. Housework, yardwork, farmwork (trim horses feet when I do this I feel it in different muscles) gardening, I am setting up a human powered lawn care service. Oh yah and working at bike shop, where I mop floors, break down boxes, all the grunt work. My question to you would be, is riding everyday ( at different intensity) to much or if it works for me, keep doing what I am doing? I feel better now than when I was 26.