You feel fit and firm. Yesterday you had a great workout benching more weight than you have ever lifted before. The day before you ran 6 miles with little effort. Today you bend over to pick up your cat and your back goes out. You might be toned, tight, and ready for the beach, but are you ready to lift your toddler out of his car seat or hoist the water bottle onto the dispenser? When humans began planting crops and building societies after nearly 2 million years of hunting and gathering, we betrayed our genetic dispositions. And as technology has improved — from elevators to email — we've only done ourselves a greater disservice by becoming more sedentary. We've made up for it with a misguided exercise industry focused on marketing rather than health. Now we run for hours using the same repetitive motion or do endless repetitions on the gym's crunch machine. Neither of which makes you ready to do what our ancestors did--hunt, gather and defend ourselves. Functional fitness and functional exercise focus on 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.
The US Marine corps addressed this dilemma of modern exercise when they instituted the Combat fitness test (CFT) in 2008. It was believed that the current physical fitness test (PFT) that consisted of running 3 miles in shorts and running shoes, pull-ups and crunches didn't reflect the physical demands of combat. The Marine Corps intended the CFT to keep Marines ready for the physical rigors of contemporary combat operations. First of all Marines are required to be in battle dress uniform not running shorts. They sprint a timed 880 yards, lift a 30-pound ammunition can overhead from shoulder height repeatedly for two minutes, and perform a maneuver-under-fire event, which is a timed 300-yard shuttle run in which Marines crawl and sprint then carry 30-pound ammo cans for 75 yards, while zigzagging through a series of cones. They then Drag a casualty equal to their bodyweight for 10 yards, while zigzagging through several cones. Then lift the casualty and carry him/her at a run for 65 yards. “It sucks. It hurts. And I work out a lot. A whole lot,” said Lance Corporal Antonio Young of Decatur, GA. “The third part is hell on wheels. It’s so long it wears on your mind more than your body.” The pain that LCPL Young felt was the body adapting to the integrated demands of functional fitness-total body endurance, balance, core strength, flexibility and explosiveness.
The key to functional exercise is integration. It's about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently and it requires to core to be strong to connect the lower body with the upper body. So what's 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, holding the weight in one hand with your arm hanging straight down, and then pulling the weight up as your elbow points to the ceiling, finishing with your upper arm parallel to the ground.
"That's an exercise that will build the muscles of the back, the shoulders, the arms, and because of its nature will really work your whole body," says exercise kinesiologist Paul Chek, MSS, founder of the Corrective High-performance Exercise Kinesiology Institute in California who has advised the Chicago Bulls and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"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 to adjust your carburetor. Anyone doing a bent-over row will find a carryover in things you do in normal life."
Contrast that with the seated row: You're sitting in a chair with your chest pressed against pads, and you pull two levers back. "You may be strengthening certain muscles, but your body's not learning anything, because you don't have to activate your core stabilizer muscles or the stabilizers of your arms and shoulders. The machine's doing it for you," says Chek.
"In functional fitness, most of the time, you should be standing on your own two feet and supporting your own weight when you lift anything."
"Forget the concept of cardio," said Mark Sisson, a former marathoner who has written four books, including "The Primal Blueprint," and who blogs about ancestral living.
"Lacing up your shoes for a 5- to 15-mile run every day is antithetical to health," he said. "It's a concept some people have a tough time embracing, because they think they have to go to the gym and burn 450 calories on the elliptical machine or they're a bad person." Instead, do as our ancestors did: walk. He suggests walking at least one to three miles a day, plus maintaining a low level of activity throughout the day. Walking or walk-running can be combined with body weight exercises and plyometric exercises to create an ideal integrated or functional workout (see slide show). Bench press max doesn’t matter here, and fancy equipment isn’t needed. Basic movements, like running, jumping, pushing, pulling, lifting and squatting are the focus. . If you can’t do an exercise with weight, just concentrate on the form. If you can’t do a pull up, just lean back and pull yourself up on a set of rings, while keeping your feet on the floor, but lift your body weight in some fashion. "We were born to walk, migrate, climb, forage — all these things that are low-level aerobic activities," Sisson said. "We were not born to be carbohydrate-munching sugar burners."
Types of workouts that emphasize functional training are P90X, Crossfit and boot camp classes. Crunch fitness offers a fireman's class where hoses are pulled and heavy mannequins are carried up the stairs to simulate rescuing someone--very similar to the Marine Corps' CFT. One system of functional exercise that has been around for thousands of years is Yoga.
Yoga requires that a personal maintains her balance and lifts her body weight through various postures in a continuous fashion. The Ashtanga form of Vinyasa yoga in particular is very rigorous and develops incredible core strength and neurological function. The most important functional aspect of Ashtanga Yoga is the mindfulness required of it. This attention to how the body functions and moves through space is mediated by a special breathing technique called "Ujjayi" or victory breath. The Vinyasa form of movement improves neurological function, balance and physical performance while reducing stress. As Ashtanga yoga yields a muscular endurance stimulus, flexibility stimulus, and apparent cardiovascular stimulus, it provides all three components of physical activity recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). It also integrates these effects functionally. Although it is likely that yoga may not be the most effective means to increase strength or the most effective means to increase cardiovascular fitness, the fact that this one form of physical activity can train all aspects of physical fitness concurrently, while improving mental health, makes it a very efficient exercise modality.
Functional fitness can be applied to any person with any level of fitness. If you are a wrestler or a retiree. How is that possible? A wrestler must be able to pick up and drive their opponent to the mat. A retiree may have to lift and dump a 50-lb bag of topsoil in their garden without wrenching their back. Same movement, different applications. Finally, if you simply want a good body then remember the adage, "form follows function." If you are functionally fit then you will have a lean, strong attractive body because that kind of body is the most functional. Whether it is Ashtanga Yoga, Circuit Training, Crossfit or some other kind of functional workout you can become healthier, more powerful and less prone to injury if you train functionally.