Really Functional Fitness

Thanks for sharing this, Laura and Ben!

Really Functional Fitness

photo credit: laughingmonk

Don't you love the idea of Functional Fitness? According to Web MD, Functional Fitness means "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."

Functional fitness is supposed to be better than the usual, dysfunctional fitness we've grown accustomed to, because it uses compound movements rather than working individual muscles. The muscles then learn how to work together in harmony instead of being all aloof and snooty with each other. (And if you listen really, really closely after you're done, you may even hear the song "Kumbaya" emanating from your muscle fibers.)

Doesn't Functional Fitness seems like a great idea? Trendy, sure, but it's also down-to-earth at the same time. Instead of using huge cumbersome weight machines designed to isolate muscles, functional fitness is more likely to call for expensive personal trainers to show you what the hell you're supposed to do simple equipment like free weights, wobble boards, stability balls, elastic bands, or kettlebells. Or better yet, you can use nothing but your own body weight, with exercises like push ups or pull-ups.

Totally makes sense, right, to exercise your body in ways that are natural and practical, rather than artificial and frivolous?

But... just how functional are these moves for your life?

Be Prepared!
Kelly at Fitness Fixation, who is a fan of functional fitness, once wrote an amusing post explaining how incredibly useful many of these exercises can be in real life. She lists typical scenarios in which they come in very handy. For example, on pull-ups:

"In your secret agent job, you end up doing battle with the evil villain on a flying helicopter... the villain pushes you out of the grab onto those bottom landing thingies and manage to pull yourself back up into the craft while dangling above the Golden Gate Bridge. Thank god for those pull ups, or you’d never have the upper body strength to do that!"

(Other scenarios start with "A clown car drives up..." "A gigantic boa constrictor drops out of the foliage and lands on your shoulders...").

So yeah--some of these functional exercises aren't all that similar to real life needs. For example, I can't remember the last time I was required to balance myself on a big round inflatable object. Call me crazy, but when I need to reach somewhere high, like to change a light bulb, I climb up on a chair or a ladder, not a stability ball.

Exercises for Real Life
What would be more practical? Well, how about some exercises that more closely resemble real life challenges?

1. The Toddler Toss.
"Busy Moms" are often held up as a prime example of people who can benefit from functional exercise. And lifting their offspring is a frequently-cited example of the kind of activity they need to build muscle for. But how does working with a puny medicine ball prepare you for a real life squirming, constantly-growing child?

Equipment required: One wriggly toddler; one or two parents; assorted barbells, soup cans, or other heavy weights; duct tape, scissors.

Step One: First you take the toddler, the weights, the duct tape and you wrap...

Oh wait, sorry, the phone's ringing...

Crabby, a word, if you please?

Whoops! That was the Cranky Fitness Legal Department. Um, perhaps we'll move right along and cover this exercise some other time.

2. The Pickle Jar Twist
Has this ever happened to you? You spend hours at the gym, working with their fancy-ass equipment. And yet once home in your own kitchen, you discover you can't open a jar of pickles or organic grape juice* or pasta sauce without either injuring yourself or sheepishly handing it over to your Significant Other for assistance.

*(The grape juice jar is a real life example. I actually once sprained my wrist trying to open one. To this day, I still re-injure the same wrist sometimes. Curse you, fancy unopenable organic grape juice!)

The problem: wrist and forearm muscles aren't very sexy, so there are no special machines for them. But aren't these the sort of muscles we actually need to use?

Until gyms start offering fake plastic-coated, neon colored jars to open, and spandex-clad fitness instructors to demonstrate the proper form, you may need to buy a bunch of extra pickle jars for home. First screw 'em closed lightly, then open again; then work up until you can screw 'em shut medium tight, etc. Keep practicing until you can open even the most tightly screwed on stubborn jar lid. Then seek additional opportunities whenever and wherever you can find them to loosen and tighten sticky faucets, valves, lids, etc.

Worried that your boyfriend/husband will feel less useful not being the go-to guy on jar lids anymore? Here's one way you might introduce the topic:

"Honey, I just read on a fitness blog that I really should practice screwing more often. I'm supposed to find opportunities to screw whenever and wherever I can. Can you support me in that?"

Oh shoot, is that the phone ringing again?

3. The Bus Stop Sprint
Interval training helps with this task, sure. But the last time you needed to catch a bus, were you on a treadmill wearing workout attire, carrying nothing with you but a tiny iPod?

Of course not! To simulate real life conditions, take your work clothes to the gym, put on those high heels, skirt, trenchcoat, etc; grab a weighted briefcase, lunch bag, gym tote, and umbrella, hop on the treadmill and sprint!

For additional authenticity: drop your cell phone mid-sprint, and have a partner throw a little trash in front of your feet for you to dodge. It would help, too, if you could practice with diesel exhaust fumes blowing in your face, but this may present some logistical issues.

4. The Public Toilet Squat
Step One: Go to an overcrowded mall, a gas station, or anywhere that facilities are not scrupulously maintained.

Step Two: Innocently pick a stall and open the door.

Step Three: Gahhh!!! No Way. You don't really need to go that bad.

Step Four: Damn. Yes you do.

Step Five: Make appropriate clothing adjustments and assume squatting position. No need to worry about where your knees are in relation to your toes; just worry about where your ass is in relation to the toilet. For the sake of others coming after you, please do not pee all over the seat.

(Yep, this is a high-class blog. We even have an earlier post on the indignities of public restrooms).

5. Maybe Not as "Practical"
Here are some videos of folks doing "real" functional fitness. Not nearly as challenging as flinging heavily weighted toddlers into the air, but perhaps less likely to get us sued.

Note: For those of you who are interested in strength training but don't know where to start, we're hoping to have a slightly more informative post coming up Friday on Beginning Strength training. So stay tuned!

Do you folks prefer "functional" exercises to the other kind? What are some of your favorites?

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Daily WODTara Ross1 Comment