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Is Functional Training Really Functional?

As part of the Diverge Gym Personal Training Team I am excited to be part of the inaugural issue of SDGLN.com. Biweekly one of our team members will contribute an article related to exercise, wellness and nutrition that can help you kick start an exercise program or accelerate the results of your current plan.
- Derek Heintz

Diverge Personal Training Gym opened in 2008, but its roots within Hillcrest span over 10 years. As co-owners, Brian White and I have been helping the community with their fitness goals since 1998. We take great pride in the fact that we have created a fun and distinct training facility that fuses both traditional and modern styles of training. We have also created an excellent training team of top notch trainers with many years of experience.

If you haven't been to a gym in a while you might feel like you mistakenly entered a rehearsal for Cirque De Soleil: fitness enthusiasts standing one legged on a balance board while juggling medicine balls and being asked to name current billboard hits is not unusual. This is a far cry from the traditional and stable nautilus machine based training like using a machine leg press.

Functional simply means that an exercise has a functional benefit to everyday life. Whether you are helping someone move into a new apartment, working in the yard, or playing a game of tennis all these activities are three dimensional and require balance and stability, not just strength or power. Functional training is designed to benefit these particular activities.

Trainers often define any exercise that requires balance and places a large emphasis on the core as a functional exercise. Yet as you will see later, this may not always be the right definition. Functional training has been around for a long time, but really became popular at the turn of this century. Exercise pioneers like Paul Chek started to present the idea of exercise for life and not just look. Before this change to a more “real life” approach people would primarily use machines and weights to target specific muscle groups.

Fellow gym members would ask each other, “what muscle group are you hitting today, back or chest?" The function wasn't about getting better at moving pots around your patio without injuring your back, but simply looking better in a swimsuit.

So what is the right way to train, and is functional training really functional? At our facility we look at these three ways:

1.) Efficient movement and injury prevention- No matter your goal, you better choose some exercises that benefit real life movements. During your workouts you have an opportunity to prevent musculoskeletal issues in the future. Even if your goal is to simply look better, you will have trouble maintaining your appearance if you get injured.

There are basically six movements to life that you should be skilled at: squatting, bending, lunging, pulling, pushing and twisting. So even if you have created a workout with an aesthetic emphasis you should still make sure you have some variation of all six movements. This will, at the very least, help you prevent injuries that can happen inside and outside the gym.

2.) Your Goal- This goes back to the purpose of exercise for you. People exercise for many reasons, yet we should be able to identify at least one major goal. If someone wants to increase muscle and develop a larger frame then isolated training like a dumbbell bicep curl while sitting on a bench is very effective. In this case, the goal is to simply challenge and target a very specific muscle group, therefore allowing other muscle groups to relax.

If someone wants to lose body fat and define their body, I would recommend using functional, multi-planner exercise. You still get the great benefit of efficient movement and injury prevention while targeting many muscles together. The more muscle you integrate into a movement the more calories you burn. And if you want to shed body fat and get defined- you should be focusing on burning as many calories as possible. In this is the case I would change the stable, dumbbell seated bicep curl to bench step ups and dumbbell bicep curls integrated together.

If I have a tennis player as I client we would be incorporating exercises that mimic movements on the tennis court. We call this specificity. Remember, an exercise like a machine leg press will serve as no benefit to someone that needs to bend, lunge and twist while stabilizing their body at the same time.

3.) Enjoyment- One of the reasons so many people struggle with exercise is they don't know how to make it enjoyable. Have you ever seen a kid go to a playground and say, "this is just too hard, I don't want to do this today?" No, and believe me, these kids are certainly exercising and burning calories. Somewhere along the way as adults we took the play out of exercise.

We are not saying it does not require work or effort, but if you choose an exercise that feels more like a playground movement than you might enjoy it more! Integrating movements together and circuit training can help to make a workout more enjoyable. Instead of working on a set of machine leg presses and then sitting around waiting for your next set, try doing a set of squats with a medicine ball in your hands. As you squat up lightly throw the ball upwards and try to catch it as you head back down. Obviously, get instruction first and start with a very light medicine ball (2 lbs.), but you will be surprised how much more fun your workouts can be. This “playful” choice might not be ideal for building bigger quads, yet it certainly activates the core, burns calories and carries over to everyday life.

Always go to the gym with a purpose and review your goals. Ask yourself, “What am I really training for, and are my exercise choices relative to these goals?” If you are organized with your workouts while trying to have some fun you will certainly stick with the “function” of your training and goals and become successful.

Throughout the months we will highlight exercises with their particular benefits: muscle building, functional, calorie burning, etc. This will help you get a better idea of the “function” of certain exercises and how to fit them within your routine.

So next time you enter the gym and see a trainer asking their client to balance on a Bosu Ball while throwing a medicine ball and singing at the top of their lungs ask yourself if this exercise is functional? I would say absolutely if he or she is getting ready for America's Got Talent, but most likely not for the average exercise enthusiast... but wait, if they are having fun and burning calories, and that is their goal, it certainly qualifies!
If you have any questions feel free to send an email to info@divergegym.com.