Most of us asked that question at some point in our learning years. For most of us, it happened somewhere between trigonometry and calculus. But whatever the subject, our young minds questioned the purpose of learning – why do we need to know this? How will it serve us in real life?
As adults, we arrive at the gym through all sorts of twists and turns. Many people join a gym in their 60s, after a lifetime of hard work, to ease their achy joints. Others join to facilitate weight loss, whatever their age. Sometimes your doctor says you need to start exercising or your heart will explode – so you do it.
Despite these differences, we all have one thing in common: we want to enjoy our lives more. Feel better. Do the things we want to do without pain. So we join a gym, and we start learning how to exercise. But we never seem to question our trainers and class instructors – how will this help me in real life?
The best trainers (like the staff at Asheville Family Fitness, just for example) have already thought about that. You may have heard us talk about Functional Exercise, or Functional Movement. According to Wikipedia, the purpose of Functional training is to “adapt or develop exercises which allow individuals to perform the activities of daily life more easily and without injuries.”
Aha! But what does that mean?
Picture the leg extension machine at your gym. From a seated position, you extend your legs to a straight position, then slowly lower.
When performed with a light weight, this exercise is great for post-surgery or injury rehab. But at heavier weights, it has some flaws. For one thing, all that weight gets loaded onto the knee from the wrong direction. Your knees are built to bear your body weight in a DOWNWARD direction (from hip to foot). The hips, knees, ankles and feet are all part of a chain that absorbs and distributes impact. The leg extension isolates the knee and loads the weight from front to back – putting unnecessary pressure on the joint, which can cause or exacerbate problems in the future.
In this example, the knees and quadriceps work in a vacuum. Few, if any, other muscles or joints are recruited to complete the action. In real life, that just doesn’t happen. The same is true for most isolated strength exercises. Picture trying to walk using only your knees.
Now consider a functional exercise for strengthening the quads: the lunge. In a lunge, you take a big step forward, then drop down so your back knee approaches the floor. Push with your front heel to come back up to standing, bringing the back leg forward to meet the front.
This exercise mimics something we do every day: WALK. Anyone who’s done lunges will tell you – they definitely strengthen the quads. They also properly utilize the hip-knee-ankle chain, creating a safer and more effective exercise.
Similarly, a seated chest press is not functional. But a push-up is. Crunches – not functional. Planks – functional (activates the entire core, supports the spine).
How can you tell if an exercise is functional (i.e. helps you in real life)?
- Multi-directional movement – Functional exercise involves moving not only forward and backward, but laterally and or diagonally.
- Combination of stabilization and strength – Functional exercise requires stabilization of the core and joints as a basis for movement. Push-ups are a great example – you must contract your core muscles to support your midsection in order to complete the movement with proper form.
- Core strength – All good functional exercise incorporates core strength – this is your main source of power and stability. Imagine the leg extension again – you don’t need to activate your core in order to complete the exercise. But in a lunge, you’d collapse without engaging those muscles. (Just like in real life.)
- Mimics or exaggerates everyday movements – A lunge is just walking with an exaggerated range of motion. This helps strengthen the muscles you use to walk or run, thus improving that function. Squats, step-ups, and trunk rotations are other examples of exaggerated movements.
Next time you’re in the gym, ask yourself: How does this help me in real life? Ask a trainer for some new ideas.
Note: anyone can do functional exercise, regardless of age, fitness level, or experience. The goal is to enhance your daily life. So whatever you need to be good at, we can create an exercise for you.