Chris Zaremba, founder of Fitness Over Fifty continues with his view on functional and non functional exercises.

Missed out on Part One? Find it here at WatchFit.

Free weight exercises

So let’s look at some free weight exercises – squats and chest presses to start with – are these functional, using the definition of reproducing a daily life activity?

Well I would say yes, but up to limited weight only.

Going up stairs is a set of single-leg squats with your body weight – if you’re carrying a box, it’s a bit more – but the resistance is nowhere near the weight often used in gym squats, which develop leg strength beyond that needed for this daily life action.

Chest press

How about a chest press?  A use I can think of that in daily life is if you fall over and use a combination of chest and triceps as the prime movers in getting up again.  So its functional.  But the most you need for this movement is about half your body weight as the legs take over the get-up process.

So a chest press beyond that becomes non-functional, I assume.  And perhaps pushing open a stiff door? A vital function – but 100kg on a bench press isn’t needed to reproduce that.

Bicep curls

Bicep curls too – I pick up a shopping bag sometimes in a bicep curl-y kind of way, so I guess its functional.

But at 20kg per side as resistance in the gym, that weight hardly reproduces daily life in my High Street.  The least favourite exercise of the functional fans is probably the leg extension machine.

The main specific use in daily life would be to kick a ball (which I don’t do often, but I probably do more often than chopping wood).

So why do I do perform this, plus the other exercises from the non-functional camp, and indeed also do those functional exercises but at weight levels that take them to non-functional?


But first, let’s broaden that by taking an excursion into athletic – how about training to throw the hammer or the javelin?

Surely that’s not functional in the gym-designers definition (mankind in my neck of the woods hasn’t had to chuck a spear at animals for food for many years).  They do it just to get better at the sport, to throw it further, to improve their performance and to compete with peers.

functional or non-functional exercises_2And that’s why I do both machine and free weight resistance exercises – to get better at doing it – more reps, more weight, incrementing over time, competing against both my previous performance and that of others.

Plus performing any of my regular exercises gives me pleasure, I like achieving the targets I set for myself, and enjoy like the feeling of being fitter and more healthy.

Real world function

If you need me to prove real world function, then I can carry heavy things around at home, cycle faster uphill, put heavy things into and out of aircraft overhead luggage bins (OK, I should have checked them in) and even sometimes open a jam jar lid with my bare hands.

All through strength gained in so-called non-functional exercises.

Looking better

And, yes, I like the fact that I look better too. That made me wonder if it’s all a pretend vanity thing.  It’s easier to call something a functional exercise as some people would react adversely if aesthetics was a stated reason for doing it.’

Do this exercise because its functional’ sounds better to the gym punter than ‘Do this exercise because over time it will make your biceps look really good.’

I say ‘pretend vanity,’ because if it’s wrong to spend effort, money and time on looking good, can we all stop shopping for make-up and designer clothes, and all revert to the clothing styles of North Korea?

And that made me wonder if it’s all just those jolly marketing boys and girls up to their usual tricks.

Whether it means anything or not, being ‘functional’ just sounds good, it’s a good buzz word.  Especially as the unspoken ‘pointless’ as the opposite is probably lurking somewhere in the unconscious mind of the listener.

All exercise is good exercise

And I think that’s my conclusion – it’s just a marketing term to make gym membership sound more attractive.

I believe all sporting activity and exercise is good and has a function – I haven’t found one that isn’t a good use of time physically, emotionally, socially and mentally (still not sure about darts, though).

Every exercise activity indeed has multiple functions – whether it’s called functional or non-functional.

Finally, the really non-functional activities are those such as watching TV and computer games.

These really do have no function at the level we are talking about, and I support anybody who shifts their time from these activities to movement – and I’m happy to see them take on the exercise instead, wherever the activity chosen sits on the marketing functionality definition range.

Right, that’s that off my upper chest and I’m off to do some ‘non-functional’ heavy barbell presses, lat pulldowns and leg extensions!

Connect with Expert Chris Zaremba

Any comments or questions, email direct to Chris please on – assuming he survives all those non-functional resistance exercises!

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