So you’re actually one of the few people who make use of paying their monthly gym membership. You go three or four times a week to train. You have progressed with lifting heavier weights on all the machines. Your muscle mass is increasing and you feel good. You may even have a lovely ripped six pack now and killer legs. You’ve sweated for months getting your beach body ready, but then as you head down the stairs, carrying the holiday suitcases (that you’ve no doubt packed and repacked a million times), you put your back out. Just as well it was a ‘lie on the beach’ kind of holiday and not an action packed one, cause now, you’re good for nothing!
So what happened? You’ve been training for months. You look and feel the best you ever have. You’re fit! Well, most probably, you’re ‘gym fit’.
The type of training you do in the gym, most often revolves around isolating muscles. Think about the exercises you perform and I bet the majority of them are training one muscle group at a time (e.g. bicep curls). This not only takes a long time, but it can also be impractical. You may feel great that you can bench press the heaviest weight in the gym, but how often do you find yourself in that bench press position, required to lift that kind of weight, in that range of movement? Probably not very often in everyday life! Sure, you’ll be strong by training muscles in isolation, but you’ve most likely neglected the element of ‘functional fitness’.
Functional fitness involves training the muscles to work in a wider range of movement and alongside other muscles. So simply picking up a suitcase in one hand and placing it back down on the floor again may be no problem. But lifting that suitcase off the bed, in a rotational fashion while moving with it in a frontal and lateral plane, while walking down a staggered gradient, such as stairs, with your centre of mass constantly shifting, quickly becomes a whole other task!
In functional movements the activation of core stabilizer muscles is greatly enhanced. Exercise machines often take away the need for this as they support your bodyweight and in effect ‘turn off’ any stabilizing muscles. Training your body in a functional way can result in being able to handle real-life situations, for example, a manual job, scooping your child up quickly as they are about fall, decorating the house or even transporting those dreaded baby carrycot car seats! (Seriously. Who invented those?)
Bodyweight exercises can be hugely beneficial, not just for faster weight loss and muscle strength but because they train your body to work as a whole package. Most people can’t lift or control their own body weight (in a functional manner) but they rush to the gym and load the machines up with extra weight to perform isolation exercises (e.g. seated row or seated squat machine). However, they find it difficult to perform a full bodyweight squat while elevating their arms, or completing a one legged squat. Why? Because the muscles haven’t been trained to stabilize and to work together. Therefore carrying out everyday tasks like the suitcase dash can lead to injury as your body is not functionally strong. It doesn’t work together in a range of movements.
And the beauty of it is, once you can perform that one legged squat, it isn’t the end of the road. Just like increasing the weights on machines, bodyweight exercises can be altered too, so there is huge scope for progression. By introducing extra weight into the functional training, for example picking up and replacing a hand weight during a single legged squat , trains and teaches your body to work together, integrating your upper body, core and lower body.
The other ‘tool’ that can help progress bodyweight functional exercises is the stability ball. You may have one of these. It’s the vaguely spherical shaped object (mostly deflated by now probably) that is sitting in the corner of your room, covered in clothes. (Yes, that’s what it’s for! Dust it off, blow it up and get using it!)
By introducing balance to your training, you intensify the stabilizing core muscles throughout your body. This not only supports your spine, making everyday tasks much easier but it also helps you achieve a flatter stomach. And who wouldn’t want that?
Some people simply love gym machines, and without them, wouldn’t do any exercise at all, so obviously in these cases it is great! Other people may have injuries or weaknesses, who need to work on isolated muscles in specific ranges of movement at low weights with assistance, and the gym is a great place for this too. But for those of you who want to step it up a gear and get better results, in a shorter time, then why not try introducing some functional fitness training into your normal gym routine? Get off the exercise machines for some of the time, and maybe substitute a few of the free weight isolation exercises with combined bodyweight functional exercise movements instead. Yes, functional exercises are harder. They are more neurologically demanding and require more concentration and patience than isolation and machine work, but they often yield better results – and faster!
The added benefit is that it trains you to become more in tune with your body. So as you learn, feel and understand how your body works during functional training, you care less about your sets and reps and quickly start to focus more on your form, technique and quality, and so you ‘listen’ to your body for your optimal workout limits.
Bodyweight functional training can be extremely empowering, as you learn your own body’s limitations, weakness and strengths, and how to train it to its maximum potential. You often experience an enhanced feeling of reward when you see the results, because you know, you did that!
So the question is, are you happy being ‘gym fit’, or do you want to be ‘functionally fit’?
It’s totally up to you….but I know which one I choose.