FEATURE — Is your fitness functional? Is your fitness training helping you to build a body that is capable of doing real-life activities?
Let me explain what I mean by functional fitness with the following hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that you have been going to the gym for months. You’re seeing more definition in your body, and you can bench press more weight than you have ever lifted before. You are shocked when you are injured by lifting a 50-pound suitcase into your car as you prepare to go on vacation, causing you to spend most of your time off trying to heal a bad back. You can’t imagine spending time in the gym again because you are in so much pain.
Conventional weight training focuses on isolation of muscle groups, but it doesn’t teach the muscle groups you are isolating to work together. The key to functional fitness is muscle integration: teaching the muscles to work together instead of independently.
What is 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. Hold the weight in one hand with your arm hanging straight down, then pull the weight up as your elbow points to the ceiling, finishing with your upper arm parallel to the ground.
This is an exercise that will build the muscles of the back, the shoulders and the arms, and because of the nature of the exercise, it will really work your whole body. 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 a car to work on an engine. Anyone doing a bent-over row will find a carryover to normal, everyday activities.
Contrast this functional exercise with the seated row where you are sitting in a chair with your chest pressed against pads. As you pull the two levers back, you may be strengthening certain muscles, but your body is not learning anything because you don’t have to activate your core stabilizer muscles or the stabilizers of your arms and shoulders; the machine is doing it for you.
Most of the time in functional fitness, you will be standing on your own two feet and supporting your own weight when you lift anything. Exercises like these will strengthen your core and help you discover your center of gravity; they will also improve your balance and coordination.
How to get started in functional fitness
Most people have a hard enough time controlling their own body weight, so you might want to forget about the weights altogether. Try a one-legged squat right now. Can you do it without falling over? Most people can do a leg press with twice their weight, but they don’t have the muscular control to do a one-legged squat. They lack the stability and/or the muscles haven’t been trained to work together.
Teach your body to control and balance its own weight. Start with a simple movement, such as the one-legged squat or other balancing exercises. Try standing on a stool that is 8-10 inches high and lower one foot to the ground. Practice controlling your balance while maintaining muscular control. Switch sides to challenge yourself, and integrate both sides of your body.
Functional exercises are more neurologically demanding and require good form. Unlike using the weight machines, the goal isn’t to complete your repetitions to muscle fatigue; it’s to repeat until you can’t continue with good form.
Start slow and work up to more and more repetitions while keeping good form. Before long, you will start to notice that you are able to do more day-to-day functional activities, such as climbing flights of stairs, reaching without pain and bending without chance of injury.
If you are looking to add some exercises that will help you prevent injury and live the healthiest life possible, we can help. The LiVe Well Center at Intermountain Health has programs and classes to help you reach your goals. Call 435-251-3793 today so that you can live a functional life!
Written by TIFFANY K. GUST, MS, NBC-HWC.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2023 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.
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