What were you doing the last time you injured yourself? Dead lifting in the London Olympics? Benching 300 pounds.....? Or were you actually just lifting the weight plates up to the bar?
If I were a betting gal, I’d bet it was the latter. And in fact, it’s just as likely that you were unloading something from your trunk or merely getting up from your desk when all of sudden...WHAM!...your back went out!
But wait, you work out all the time! How can it take so little for your body to break down?
The short answer is that traditional gym work outs don’t translate to good physical function. Depending on your routine, you’ll probably get stronger, maybe leaner, or in better cardiovascular shape or even better overall health, but you won’t get in better “functional shape.” Something gets lost between the gym and real life. So you may be able to out-bench press Mr. Universe only to throw out your back lifting your children. You may be able to run on the treadmill for an hour but then twist your ankle stepping off a curb. Put another way, most exercise gets us in shape to do more exercise (e.g. heavier weights, longer treadmill runs), but does little to improve our ability to do basic, everyday activities without injury or pain. That might seem discouraging, especially for those dedicated enough to put in the time and effort to exercise. But that’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can exercise in ways that improve your ability to perform those basic, daily activities. The even better news is that it doesn’t have to be at the expense of all your usual goals of working out--big muscles, less fat, healthier heart. You can achieve any and all of those while improving your function at the same time. It’s simply a matter of being more purposeful in your exercise choices and infusing basic elements of function into your routine. Ultimately, it’s about getting the most bang for your sweat.
Those more traditional goals of working out--weight loss, mood, heart health, etc--all reflect the more traditional categories of health: general medical health, mental health, and cardiovascular health. I’ve even come to appreciate a category of health I’d call vanity health, that all-too-alluring category focused on looking good, with results that are generally measured in inches-- as in 32 inch waist and 18 inch biceps. Frankly, even vanity health has value. Looking good is a powerful motivator and imparts its own slew of benefits.
But my primary focus in this space each month will be on an aspect of fitness that’s just starting to get widespread notice. It’s something I refer to as Functional Health. Functional Health isn’t a new kind of exercise so much as a whole new category of health, the only one directly concerned with the mechanical well-being of your body. More specifically, Functional Health is about keeping your muscles, bones, nerves, and joints in proper working order so that your body can perform how it needs to while minimizing any risk of pain and injury.
There’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to your body’s functional design--as far as machines go, the human body is an absolute marvel of engineering--but knowing even just the basics of that design can bring you a long way towards better Functional Health.Focus on Function will be a go-to resource for exactly that kind of information.
Better Function Comes From Working With Your Body’s Design Not Against It
Naturally, improving your body’s function requires at least some understanding of how your body functions. (You wouldn’t try to fix a car engine without first learning how an engine works, right?) Like any high performance machine, the body has a very intricate and deliberate design and clearly functions best when it is allowed to work according to that design. It goes without saying that optimal function requires the underlying mechanics--all the parts and their connections--to be in proper working condition.
Exercising with the goal of enhanced function really boils down to exercising in ways that work with the body’s design not against it. A few of the issues to keep in mind when working towards improved Functional Health (and that will be addressed in more detail through this column over the coming months):
- Are you improving, or worsening, muscle imbalances?
- Are you training, or neglecting, your nervous system (a key to optimal muscle function)?
- Are you exercising in ways that reduce, or increase, the stress on your joints?
- Are you training your muscles for all the functions they’re designed to perform (hint: they do more than just move your bones...)?
- Are you training your muscles in the ways they’re actually meant to work in real life, or in ways that just make them look better in the mirror?
On that note and with all due respect to “muscleheads” throughout the world, it has to be stated that no muscle, no matter how impressive it is, was created to look good on the beach. Every single one of them is there to serve a function. Unfortunately, from a functional standpoint, a big muscle is not necessarily a useful one, and depending on the muscles you choose to focus on, you can create imbalances that actually worsen functional health. In other words, being “ripped” is not the same as being functional. You can be both, but you cannot substitute one for the other.
The Bottom Line
As we all become more sophisticated regarding our approach to fitness, the goal of function should be front and center in the quest for good health. Functional training not only provides the most practical benefits, like minimizing injury, avoiding common aches and pains, achieving an athletic edge, it is also the only fitness approach that can achieve all health goals at once: weight loss, improved general, cardiovascular, mental, functional and of course, vanity health. So let Focus on Function show you a different way to think about your body, your fitness routine, and your goals. And let me help you better connect the dots between the gym and real life.