In the 90’s, the Nike shoe corporation begged the question in a clever ad campaign that featured volleyball superstar Gabriella Reece, shown in a TV ad casually dining with friends. When a nearby patron began choking, the super-fit athlete nimbly jumped a chair rail to deliver a “spike” to the victim’s back, heroically saving the stranger’s life. Sure, the American Red Cross probably cringed at the technique applied, instead of the Heimlich maneuver, but the essence of the marketing message was that being strong and fit can enable you to react and confidently perform in situations that may occur in every day life.
Perhaps unbeknownst to the marketing strategists at the time, this campaign seemed to herald the beginning of a significant trend in fitness, commonly referred to as “functional training”.
Few of us have aspirations of Olympic gold or even lesser goals of competing in any sport, except for maybe a friendly game of golf or tennis. Most of us just want to look good and feel good, and as we get older, “feeling good” becomes a lot more important than even the “looking good” part. Eventually, we just want to get through our day without a lot of pain.
While many turn to exercise as a means for weight loss – after years of trying to prove the experts wrong on the whole “sensible diet WITH exercise” notion – there’s a vast mystery associated with what you need to do and confusing information circulating in the media on the “right” way to exercise. But what is “right” is largely dependent on the answer to the question – “what are you training for?”
If you are a born and bred couch potato with a penchant for snacking and weight loss is your goal, beginning with a circuit type workout may be a suitable start. In that anything you do is better than nothing, and you will most likely see results.
But the tough thing about exercise, aside from the getting started part, is that after a period of time your body adapts and you reach what is known as a fitness plateau. Boredom is usually a sign that you are there, along with any means of measurement that cease to move in one direction or the other. If a simple circuit is all you’re willing to do, maintaining is certainly better than the circuit you previously did between the couch and the fridge.
However, you should understand that, while consistent exercise is important, exercising the same way for an extended period of time can lead to overuse injury, so it is also important to change variables in your fitness program. In other words, once you get the hang of one way of working out, there eventually comes a time when have to do something different to continue making gains and avoid injury.
From such a base level of fitness, you can choose to go in many directions. Some people get hooked on the feeling of empowerment associated with strength training and others get into the endorphin release of pushing their cardio to new levels. But what if you are not interested in body building or running the New York marathon?
For the vast majority of people, simply training for everyday function eventually becomes the answer to the “what are you training for?” question.
In cardio fitness, it means increasing the strength of your cardio respiratory system and varying it with improved endurance – sometimes you work just a little harder and sometimes you just work a little longer. This varied approach can provide important long term health benefits, and allow you continue to accomplish some of the functional things in life, like climbing a flight of stairs without having to rest at the top. But for the most part, functional training relates primarily to aspects of strength and flexibility training.
Traditional strength training, particularly with machines, focuses exercise on working muscles in “isolation”. Functional strength training removes the external support provided by the machine to work multiple muscle groups in “integration” – as the body is intended to move. An important aspect of this training is “reactive” – where muscles “fire” in a pattern, with primary “moving” muscles and secondary “stabilizing” muscles all working together in a sequence to execute the movement. Central to this concept is the automatic engagement of a strong and stable “core”, or torso muscles, from which all safe and effective movement occurs.
Balance is another key element of this type of training – not just balance between strength and flexibility or between agonist and antagonist muscles, but also what you might think it means. Simply standing on one leg and being able to move other body parts without falling over is an important “reactive” aspect of this training. This is of particular importance as we age, yet often neglected in traditional means of exercise.
The final aspect of functional training is that the body is designed to perform in a multitude of movement planes – not just the more commonly trained forward and back and side to side planes. Ignoring rotational and diagonal planes of movement used in everyday activity can result in life’s aggravating injuries – like tweaking your back when you reach behind the car seat to pick up your coin-heavy purse, or in that occasional game of golf or tennis.
A well designed program, often offered as a functional strength class, will gradually progress from “isolation” with heavier weights and move into “integration” with lighter weights. It also borrows from and further builds on the best aspects of other exercise programs like the core, balance, and integration of strength and flexibility associated with Yoga, particularly with standing postures, and the core-focused movements of Pilates mat classes and stability ball training. Ultimately the results of functional training are a body that is strong and stable, yet mobile and flexible, and perhaps most important, reactive and injury free.
Training for everyday function can offer extended quality of life and allow you to continue to enjoy the simple things – many of which we tend to take for granted in our youth. Maybe you won’t be able to nimbly leap a chair rail, but hopefully you can look forward to life-long mobility to age gracefully into one of those “active seniors”, and in the meantime, enjoy simple moments like catching a child when they run to leap lovingly into your arms.
It’s whats worth training for…the simple pleasures of a quality life!