By Dr. Chris Feil, Team Chiropractic and Rehabilitation of Ames
It has always puzzled me why when we sit at work all day, why people want to
go to the gym and sit more while they work out? The concept of functional
exercise has turned that idea of static isolated exercise upside down!
Functional Exercises principles focus on building a body capable of doing
real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount
of weight in a static posture created by a gym machine. Functional exercises
tend to be multi-joint and multi-muscle exercises, or what we call compound
movements. Instead of only moving the elbows, for example, a functional
exercise might involve the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles.
Not only is functional exercise fun, because you are up moving around, you also
get the benefit of exercising at higher intensities because you are using all
the muscles in your body during the whole workout. The more muscles you use,
the more calories you burn! Also, by performing exercises like kettelbells and
kickboxing that use several muscles groups, you start to train the neglected
areas of your body, without even thinking about it. Neglected areas, like your
middle back, hips, abdominals, and even your feet. When these areas are strong,
they help prevent injuries and make exercise and your everyday activities easer.
Where did the Traditional American Gyms Go Wrong?
Today traditional American gym workouts often focus on isolating and
challenging one specific muscle. Usually, one movement of a joint is preformed
in a controlled range of motion, while the rest of your body’s muscles remain
static and dormant. This mindset comes from the body building culture. When
needed to tone each individual muscle, he and his friends devised
sets of specific exercise to make their muscles "bulge" when he flexed on stage
or in the movies. There are several problems with that approach; traditionally
bodybuilding overdevelops certain muscles, like the chest muscles, biceps and
quads. When these muscle groups become too strong and out of balance with the
rest of our bodies, they pull our posture out of alignment and put increased
about of stress on our joints like shoulders, knees and the lower back. Because
functional exercise aims to perform exercises that are dynamic and balanced, you
don’t worry about creating imbalances after the initial phase of training.
Another big problem with the traditional isolation approach is it de-trains
muscles form working together. This concepts of muscle coordination is
important in everyday life, when you bend over to lift something, your brain
sends signals to thousands of different muscles fibers to produce that movement.
The key to functional exercise is about teaching all the muscles to work
together rather than isolating them to work independently. In functional
fitness, most of the time, you should be standing on your own two feet and
supporting your own weight when you lift or execute a movement, just like real
Are You Ready for a Functional Exercise Program?
Jumping into functional exercise may startle some people used to working on
machines or only running in a straight line on a treadmill for years: It's a lot
harder! Not only does functional exercise work your muscles, it works your
brain. It’s important to start slowly and focus on form. Receiving proper
coaching and instruction is paramount to getting the most out of your workout
and staying injury free. Coaching helps people understand how to use correct
form (body positioning) when performing a functional exercise program. Form
always comes before fatigue in a functional exercise program. I also recommend
starting with little to no weight, once you can control and balance your own
body weight, then you can start working with added weights.
In specific instances, when someone may have a preexisting injury or
continues to suffer from injury setbacks, consultation from a healthcare
provider who is well educated in functional exercise may be needed. As a
chiropractor and rehabilitation specialist, I always try to incorporate
functional exercises into my patient’s treatment programs. Patients enjoy the
functional approach, because they can see the direct improvement in their
ability to perform the motions and activities that caused them the pain to begin
with. They also tend to "get better" faster too. It’s empowering to help
relieve a patient’s pain, but even more so to know a patient walks out my door
with the strength and understanding to prevent their injury from reoccurring.