What do you go to the gym for? This may seem like a stupid question but really it isn’t. Why do you exercise? What’s the point? You might find that quite easy to answer but there are a large percentage of gym members who will struggle. In reality there is only one answer to that question. We go to the gym to help us improve our lives outside the gym.

Whether we want to become better at a chosen sport, look good or simply just to function better in everyday life, the gym is essentially a tool that helps to make these things possible. So now ask yourself another question. How much do you do in the gym that’s actually useful? I was working in a local health club recently training a client and I made a startling discovery.

It was a busy Monday night and the gym was buzzing. The treadmills were full, the resistance machines were packed and there was enough testosterone in the free weights area to start a rugby match!While my client had a little rest I let my eyes scan the resistance side of the room and suddenly it hit me.

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Everyone was either pushing or pulling weights. I checked out all the resistance machines – the pec dec, leg extension and the hamstring curl. These are all machines that require you to push weight. Then there’s the seated row and the lat pull down machines that require pulling.

In fact the only machine that provides the option to do anything other than push or pull is the cable machine but there was a guy using that for biceps curls, a pulling exercise! I looked over at the free weights area where people were doing chest press, shoulder press and triceps dips. Again, all movements that require pushing or pulling.

“The movements we make outside the gym require some pulling and pushing for sure but what about twisting? How about shifting, lifting and rotating or movements that require elements of two or three different movement patterns together?”

Now here’s why all this totally amazed me. Think of the movement patterns you make every day that involve a degree of strength. Do they all require you to pull or push exclusively? What about sports like rugby, football, tennis and golf? How many there that involve just pulling and pushing?

The movements we make outside the gym require some pulling and pushing for sure but what about twisting? How about shifting, lifting and rotating or movements that require elements of two or three different movement patterns together?

Here’s my point. Does what we do in the gym really help us at all? OK, I’ll admit it’s better than sitting on your butt in front of the TV but if you are going to the gym for whatever reason wouldn’t it make sense to train your body to become better and more efficient for your everyday life? Shouldn’t we all be training our bodies to function better? Shouldn’t every exercise we do be a functional one?

Matt Wallden is the MD of Primal Lifestyle (the UK distributor for Vibram Five Fingers) as well as being an osteopath, naturopath and Chek practitioner. He describes functional exercise like this “Look at an isolated biceps curl. That’s very functional if your objective is to grow bigger biceps. A Pec Dec is functional if you’re trying to increase your pectoral muscles.

If you’re a body builder and the function you require is to grow muscle through hypertrophy stimulus then they are both very functional exercises. But functional exercise is typically utilised as something that has a carry over to daily living or sports”.

I was talking to a guy in the gym recently and asked him what he was training for. He told me he was a hooker in his local rugby team and wanted to improve his performance on the pitch. When I asked him what exercises he was doing today he listed the pec dec, triceps extensions and shoulder press. Then I asked him how many of those movements he used when he was playing rugby.

Shouldn’t he be practicing some jumping, lunging, running, rotating and throwing instead? Someone else who believes many people may be missing the point is Mike Boyle, author of the book, ‘Functional Training for Sports’ and owner of a strength and conditioning facility in Boston which was recently named as one of America’s top gyms.

“Functional training is important because you’re training muscles based on purpose. It just makes sense to do total body exercises that use the muscles in the way they are used in real life. What doesn’t make sense is to exercise sitting down on a machine. We spend too much time sitting as it is.”

”So what’s happened to us? Why do I see so many people training in the gym and not really doing anything that’s going to have a benefit on their life outside?”

Matt Wallden: “In recent years the focus has become very much on training muscles and not movements. Your body doesn’t work like this. It doesn’t think ‘I’m going to contract my quadriceps so I can stand up’. When we stand up there’s a harmonious, orchestrated and synergistic contraction of many pairs of muscles that get you up together and enables you to twist and pick up your cup of coffee or whatever.

functional exercise_2

Whereas the gym industry has been more focussed on the muscles. So you’d have a machine that trains your quads and another for your hamstrings. It’s important to recognise that this isn’t how the human body moves and it isn’t how the nervous system activates your muscles. If you’re training these muscles in isolation then you’re not training them to talk to each other”.

“So where did the fitness industry get it so wrong? Why are most health clubs filled with machines that clearly don’t help us to move func tionally at all?”

I have always believed in this principle as a coach. It doesn’t matter if I’m training a runner, a tennis player or someone who simply wants to be able to dig the garden without getting back ache. All I’m doing is helping someone to function better and that’s all most people want to achieve. So where did the fitness industry get it so wrong? Why are most health clubs filled with machines that clearly don’t help us to move functionally at all?

Matt Wallden: “Around the middle of the 20th century when there was still quite a high instance of Polio, a lot of physical therapists were spending time attempting to rehabilitate patients. They developed lots of isolation based machines so they could activate specific muscle groups that had become dystonic, inhibited or paralysed.

Many of these machines were initially developed for a medical purpose but bodybuilders began seeing that you could use them to condition muscles in a healthy person. For that purpose they are ideal but they are not so ideal for general health and fitness.

There’s also a simplicity to these machines that allows people to come in and use them with relatively little training and to do so quite safely. So you can see how it all evolved and became the norm in the 80’s and 90’s especially. But around 15 years ago, people like Paul Chek and others began to expound the benefits of using things like balance devices, free weights, kettlebells and ropes to enable us to train movements rather than muscles”.

Let’s go back to my original question. What do you go to the gym for? Is your answer a little different now? The next time you’re digging up the garden, ask yourself what movements you do in the gym that help you? The next time you have to carry heavy shopping from the car, or lift a baby from the car seat and up to your shoulder ask yourself if you’re doing the right exercises to help make that possible without hurting yourself. The same applies to any sport you take part in. Are you making all the right moves in the gym to help you function in life?

Making your work out functional.

So how do you change your current workout so it becomes something more functional for you? Mike Boyle: “Think push, pull, legs and core. Think about training standing up, training on one leg. Think about picking things up from the ground. Now contrast that to an exercise like the leg press. When would you ever be on your back pushing up with your feet? Functional training just makes sense. The benefits should be obvious.”

Squats

Great for running, jumping, sitting down, getting up again. There are far too many functional applications for the squat to list here but we perform this movement every day. Some do it better than others. Have you ever pushed yourself from a chair with your hands making a groaning sound? The full squat (also called the potty squat for obvious reasons) is something our primitive ancestors did all the time and at every stage of life. Most of us lose the ability to do this in early adulthood as we spent more of our time using chairs to sit on.

Lateral Lunge

Great for any racquet sport, team sports like rugby, hockey and cricket. The lunge is a movement we should all be able to do in multiple directions for many every day functions. How many lunges can you do when you load the dishwasher or washing machine? Try counting up how many times you move in a lunge-like pattern during your day (apart from at the gym).

Woodchop

Great for any racquet sport, team sports like rugby, hockey and cricket, golf. The woodchop is amongst the most basic of rotational exercises with so many variations to make them even more appropriate to specific functions. Every time you move something from one side of your body to the other you’re performing a variety of woodchop movement. Think loading shopping into the boot of your car from a trolley. Think putting a baby into a car seat.

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