How Functional Exercise Gets You Fitter, Faster, Stronger

Girl using Resistance bands Functional Exercise

Functional exercise? Fitter? Faster? Stronger?

How about broken, half-comatose, and weak? I’m writing this article sprawled on the floor of my gym after exercising for 30 minutes. In a Mark Wahlberg movie, he’d still have his shirt on. That’s how short my workout was. But, my glutes. My hamstrings. My iliopsoas. Wait, you didn’t know you had those? You have those. They start at the bottom of your spine, lay across the hipbones, then attach into the muscle group at the top inner part of your thigh. When someone says I have sore muscles I didn’t even know I had these are them. I know. I can’t move mine.

I blame my personal trainer, Jesse Berg. Three times a week, he drives me through a brief misanthropic torture method called functional fitness and I hate him.

OK, I do not hate my personal trainer!

I fear him. Berg’s about 5’6″, weighs about 80 pounds soaking wet, and is a beast. Berg ran up 94 floors of the Hancock Tower in Chicago in 10 minutes and 19 seconds, which is about how long I’ve been lying here thinking of painful ways to murder him. It gets worse. Berg is 47 years old. His secret? Functional exercise.

Berg doesn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger his way through the gym. He does weirdo exercises with rubber bands and straps and kettlebells. I mean, he makes me do that. I have no idea what Berg does. I assume he was born a little too close to a nuclear reactor. I’m saying he might be a mutant.

However, mere mortals like you and I don’t have to be mutated beasts to be in good shape. Fit does not equal bulk. Fast does not equal mass. Strong doesn’t mean big.

Fit means you’re able to move yourself.

Take a look at this typical guy at the gym. He’s fat. He can barely lift his chubby, dimpled hand high enough to point the remote. He breathes heavily just thinking about getting out of a chair. I’m not fat-shaming this guy. I’m not … it’s me. I’m talking about myself. And I’m only exaggerating a little. I can get out of a chair. But if you ask me to run up and down a flight of stairs, do me the courtesy of providing me with a cigarette and a blindfold because it’s essentially a death sentence and OK, I’m exaggerating again.

Look, I’m out of shape. I’m overweight. My heartbeat sounds like a Cuban percussionist falling down a ladder. None of these are indicators of being fitter or faster or stronger. They’re indicators of a lifestyle that would make a sponge look fast.

I assumed when I hired Berg, that I’d be lifting weights and running track, but I don’t do any of that. I do stupid exercises. I don’t look cool at all. I look like I got lost. I look like I can’t decide if I’m training for karate, dairy farming, or competitive snow shoveling.

Because functional exercises are based on real human activities.

Functional exercise activities that are normal functions of being a person in the physical world. Pumping iron only works one or two muscles. Functional exercise, like yoga, works related groups of muscles resulting in less bulk, but more capability.

“We train the movement,” says Berg. “instead of the individual muscle.”

Three Exercises to Make You Fitter, Stronger, Faster

OK. Maybe they don’t correlate perfectly to actual activities outside the gym, but here are three exercises my evil, malicious, sadistic trainer tortures me with that will make you fitter, stronger, and faster. In the privacy of your own home. I mean castle. I mean quarantine.

Most functional fitness exercises are based on using the weight of your own body. Naturally, there are movements and routines that cross over into yoga, cross-fit, and calisthenics. Probably more. Like all those other programs, you don’t really need much in the way of tools or equipment except some open space and a decent headphones. However, there are a few things that can broaden your range of exercise.

  1. Kettle Bells. They’re versatile and effective. They don’t take up a lot of weight and you can move them around without having to reorganize an entire room.
  2. TRX Home2 System. You may have seen the pro version of these yellow suspension straps at your gym. The base for the straps locks onto the top of any door in your home.
  3. Medicine Ball. TRX also sells this monster slam ball. It’s like a medicine ball and a tractor tire had a baby.
  4. This thing. Resistance bands are a simple, effective way to add tension throughout a range of motion. Versa Cuffs take that idea and turn it into a deeply painful self-torture device wherein you cuff your ankles then walk sideways across the room and oh my god, I’m going to cry just thinking about it.

1. Functional exercise makes you fitter by strengthening chains.

What does fitter even mean? I think it means being able to move through the ordinary physical challenges of your day without breaking down or breaking a sweat. Mostly we pick things up, bend over, reach for stuff, and propel our corpses up, down, and around. When you perform any of these movements, you’re not using a single muscle, but a coordinated chain of them. When you reach for a can of beans on a high shelf in the pantry, your body does many things. It balances you. It plants a foot solidly on the floor. It reaches and grasps. Then holds and retrieves. Then returns to normal. That all sounds like no big deal–unless you’re unfit. Then every one of the muscles working for that 15 oz tin of fruit will reject the idea, give up, and you’ll crash into the bread pans.

Try this: Kettle Bell Clean and Jerk.

2. Functional exercise makes you stronger by focusing on your butt.

Mostly through a seemingly endless variation of squats. It helps because your butt and your thighs are your powerhouse muscles. If they’re underdeveloped, you’re not going anywhere. Not up a flight of stairs. Not down a flight of stairs. You won’t get out of your chair. At least not easily. Doing squats and deadlifts and that weird sumo-stance thing that hurts so much builds these muscles. When they’re strong, they support every action your body performs—especially walking and lifting. When you carry a basket of laundry up a flight of stairs your butt’s doing most of the work.

Try this: Kettle Bell Sumo Stance

3. Functional exercise makes you faster by training your muscles as teams

Because no muscle is an island. When you leap out the way of a careening shopping cart at Target, you want to be quick. By training the chain of muscles that helps you leap, you are prepared for these kinds of typical real-life low-key emergencies. Of course, you’ll be able to run faster, but you’re probably not a sprint racer. You’re probably a normal, mostly healthy, everyday kind of person who would like to play with your dog without throwing out your sacroiliac.

Functional training will get you there.

Try this: Skater Lunges

Image © iStockphoto
BULL Garlington

Bull Garlington

Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. His books include “The Full English,” “Death by Children.” He writes about Wine for Chicago's Local Traveler and the "Analog Attorney" column for Attorney at Work. He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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