The average gym goer probably goes into the gym with a plan but no real why behind what they’ve planned for that day. They assume that just working out is enough. Although this is better than the alternative ...it's not the best approach. Without a clear metric of what it means to improve, working out just becomes getting sweaty, throwing around some weights, and hoping for the best. Sure you look better than you did last year, you’ve gained some muscle and lost some weight but are you really any fitter? Can you do more work this year then you could last year? Rather than being general, I’ll narrow it down with an example. Let’s say you have to help a friend move furniture and heavy boxes all day and you’ve been doing is bench press, biceps, and some elliptical work 3 days a week in the gym. Carrying heavy objects over long distances up and down stairs is going to be totally foreign. You’re muscles have not been trained to work synergistically so you’ll waste all kinds of energy because you have not trained yourself to move efficiently. A great example of this is the super buff dude we all know who can’t scratch his own back or run from the store to his car in the rain without sucking air for 5 mins straight afterwards. Contrast this with the farm kid you knew in high school who could outlift the rest of the football team, practice with them, and still not be tired. Why is this? The one guy trained to be big and look great, the farm kid was simply working all the time. He threw hay bales, carried buckets, moved feed bags, chased animals, over and over again. He did functional movements that increased his overall work capacity. He had a higher level of General Physical Preparedness.
Since our workouts should make us better at everyday life and the word work is in the statement working out shouldn’t the training in the gym resemble and make us better at work in general. In this case the word work refers to everyday tasks. The CrossFit community has this style of training down to a science and has given significant clarity to the definition of what fitness really is - “ increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. “ If this is our best workable definition of fitness, then the job of our training is to help us do one thing - get more fit. When was the last time you picked up and carried a box using nothing but your arms? I’ll tell you when. Never. You used your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, upper back, biceps, triceps, shoudlers…..you get the point. You used your whole body to do one simple thing. The same thing goes for getting off the couch, going up stairs, or opening a door, daily activities use your whole body. Deductive reasoning would tell us that in order to get better at moving with multiple muscle groups involved, we should practice things using our whole body. Functional movement is a term that has been coined for multi joint training that mimics regular daily movements and carries over into everyday life. Based on your current training regime, where could you incorporate these kinds of multi-joint movements? If you’re someone who’s training style consists of 80% machines and treadmills and you want to increase your functionality, you’ll simply switch to more free weight training and do compound movements such as deadlifts, bent over barbell rows, overhead press, front, and back squats, heavy carries, box jumps, and sled pushes or sled pulls before, after, or during your regular workouts.
Now that we know the purpose of our training and have laid the foundation of what fitness is, what does it look like to train for functionality? Functional movement based training is going to be focused on raising your GPP ( general physical preparedness ). This means the bulk of your training will be multi joint weight lifting movements, body weight movements, odd object training, and monostructural movements such as biking, swimming, running, and rowing. This training will help you build overall strength along with conditioning whereas doing things such as “ arm day “ would only focus single joint isolation movements. These movements do have their place and when used correctly will make you better at the multi joint movements and help shore up weaknesses. As you begin to adapt to the training demands and become more functional, everyday tasks will get significantly easier and your quality of life will go up. Assuming you’re someone who does a full body split and today is legs you could finish with hill sprints or sled work instead of the seated calf raise machine. If it’s back day you could do 5 sets of 3 on deadlift and 3x6-10 on bent over rows focusing on form and moving heavy weight well before you started working all of the machine or the dumbbell rack. You could perform a barbell overhead press with heavy weight to start shoulder day. You get the picture? You can work these functional movements into your routine slowly over time to increase your overall fitness. What if you just want to go all out and make the switch to functional movement training as your primary? I would highly recommend joining a local CrossFit box with a solid on ramp program. Make sure you learn all of these movements before attempting to add significant amounts of weight. Also, you can always do single joint movements in addition to CrossFit style training or functional movement training in general. I have personally met people who compete in physique shows and CrossFit comps regularly and do well in both. In closing, weather you apply this or not is up to you, but at the very least, set some goals, get out there, and get moving!
All that being said, when was the last time you picked up and carried a box using nothing but your arms? I’ll tell you when. Never. You used your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, upper back, biceps, triceps, shoudlers…..you get the point. You used your whole body to do one simple thing. The same thing goes for getting off the couch, going up stairs, or opening a door, daily activities use your whole body. Deductive reasoning would tell us that in order to get better at moving with multiple muscle groups involved, we should practice things using our whole body.
Take this dude and put him on an elliptical and he might be a little out of breath, but you probably won’t fatigue him with it. Take the big buff guy and have him throw hay bales and chase animals for a few hours and see how quickly he can rest, recover, and repeat it. It won’t go well.