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Making Muscles Work Together continued...

Contrast that with the seated row: You're sitting in a chair with your chest pressed against pads, and you pull two levers back. "You may be strengthening certain muscles, but your body's not learning anything, because you don't have to activate your core stabilizer muscles or the stabilizers of your arms and shoulders. The machine's doing it for you," says Chek.

"In functional fitness, most of the time, you should be standing on your own two feet and supporting your own weight when you lift anything."

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.

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