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Working out for Real Life Functions

Functional fitness may be among the latest buzzwords in gyms these days, but for good reason. It's about training your body to handle real-life situations.

Control and Balance the Body

In fact, to get started with functional fitness, you might want to forget about the weights entirely at first. "Most people can't even control their own body weight," says Roskopf. "They can't do a one-legged squat without falling over." Try it now; can you?

"They could lie down on a leg-press machine and press 500 pounds, but they don't have the muscular control for a one-legged squat because they don't have the stability or the muscles working together." That's why, when we walk downstairs or reach up to get something out of a high cabinet, a lot of us have pain.

Your first step, Roskopf says, should be to teach your body to control and balance its own weight. "Start with simple movements, like the one-legged squat, and other balance exercises. Then try standing on one leg on a step-stool that's perhaps eight inches high, and then lower the heel of your other foot to the ground, while controlling your body weight as you go down and back up." Switch sides during each maneuver to promote balance and muscle integration on either side of your body.

Once you can control and balance your own body weight, then you can start working with added weights. "Put a five-pound dumbbell on a level chair, and then do the same one-legged squat, but this time pick up the dumbbell as you come up," suggests Roskopf. "Next, pick up the same weight from the ground while doing the squat. That's challenging your total body integration, and teaching the upper body to work with the lower body."

Other popular tools that promote functional exercise are things like stability balls and the "wobble board," both of which force you to work your core to keep your body balanced while you're lifting a weight.

Function Follows Form

So should you abandon the weight machines at the gym for a program that's all about free weights and balance? Not necessarily.

"If there are isolated weaknesses, they'll cause a detriment in functional movement," says Roskopf. "If you don't address integration, strong muscles get stronger and the weak ones stay weak, and you create a pattern of compensation. If you blend the two together, functional exercises teach isolated muscles how to work together."

Jumping into functional exercise may startle some people used to working on machines alone: It's a lot harder! "Functional exercise is much more neurologically demanding than machine exercises," says Chek.

"You can't do functional exercise with the same levels of intensity and short rest periods as machine exercise. And unlike traditional weightlifting on machines, with functional exercise, if you 'train to failure' [until muscle fatiguefatigue], you train to fail. Instead, your set ends when you can no longer perform the exercise with perfect form."

Finding a trainer with a background in functional exercise shouldn't be hard -- most gyms now have them, says Roskopf. And he advises caution. "Don't try to go too fast," Chek cautions. "The longer you've been away from exercise, the more time it takes to build your body back up."

Published Aug. 12, 2003.

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Reviewed on August 11, 2003

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