Today, you lift a 60-pound suitcase to carry it downstairs -- and throw your back out. What happened? In all likelihood, you're not paying enough attention to your functional fitness. You might be toned, tight, and ready for the beach, but are you ready to lift your toddler out of his car seat or hoist the spring-water bottle onto the dispenser?
Functional fitness and functional exercise are the latest gym buzzwords. They focus on building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine.
Making Muscles Work Together
"Conventional weight training isolates muscle groups, but it doesn't teach the muscle groups you're isolating to work with others," says Greg Roskopf, MS, a biomechanics consultant with a company called Muscle Activation Techniques who has worked with athletes from the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz.
"The key to functional exercise is integration. It's about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently."
So what's an example of a functional exercise? Think of a bent-over row; not the kind of row you do on a seated machine, but the kind you do leaning over a bench, holding the weight in one hand with your arm hanging straight down, and then pulling the weight up as your elbow points to the ceiling, finishing with your upper arm parallel to the ground.
"That's an exercise that will build the muscles of the back, the shoulders, the arms, and because of its nature will really work your whole body," says exercise kinesiologist Paul Chek, MSS, founder of the Corrective High-performance Exercise Kinesiology Institute in California who has advised the Chicago Bulls and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"Compare that motion to a carpenter bending over a piece of wood, a nurse bending over a bed to transfer a patient, or an auto mechanic bending over to adjust your carburetor. Anyone doing a bent-over row will find a carryover in things you do in normal life."
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.
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.