Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Things I've Learned - Part III

More random things I've learned in the gym.

"Functional Training" general isn't. It's rarely functional, and it's rarely useful training.

You'll see the functional label applied to all sorts of odd exercises, usually done on balls or Bosu balls, balance or wobble boards, "core trainers" and so on. They incorporate light weights, unstable surfaces, and emphasis on "balance." What they generally don't do, though, is actually make you stronger or fitter. They don't transfer well to actual balance or result in more "core activation."

What is functional, really?

Strength. Strong muscles let you pick up heavier things, handle lighter things more easily (great when additional problems crop up), and keep your balance better (many "balance" problems are just weaknesses manifesting under an uneven load). It lets you do more and last longer, and not just in the gym or on the field - strength lets you tote groceries, shovel snow, and play with the kids longer too. No one ever complains that they are too strong, and need to get weaker to be better at their daily tasks.

"Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general." - Mark Rippetoe. Mr. Rippetoe is right. Strong people are more useful in general to themselves as well as others. The hard to kill part is just gravy. Or perhaps not - fall-proofing your bones and muscles in old age by strength training is the difference between hip surgery/Life Alert commercials and just taking a little spill and getting back up no worse for wear.

Balance. Again, this is related to strength, but also your brain's ability to handle shifts in load and surface stability. You can get this more easily by training to be strong then by training balance directly, in my experience. Got a kid with balance issues? Get him stronger in the legs and you'll see those "balance" issues fade to a large degree. I've got a guy who can single-leg squat down to a 12" box and come back up with ease. How is that not making it easier for him to recover from a slip or slide?

Endurance. You just have to be able to last more than a few minutes, and it's easier to train this with higher reps, extra sets, longer duration, and harder work than by "functional" training. It's too hard to load unbalanced exercises usefully and keep something there in a fatigued state . . . which are two things that will help you develop some endurance.

The best way I find to train these qualities are fairly basic movements - squatting, picking up things off the floor (aka the deadlift), pressing, pulling, climbing, running, jumping, and pushing. Mixed ranges of repetitions and intensity for power (expressing strength quickly), strength, and endurance (expressing strength repeatedly). Balance just seems to come along with it, especially if you do lots of standing exercises and single-leg exercises.

In short, avoid exercises that sound too much like this:

"Look at me now!" said the cat.
"With a cup and a cake
On top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!
And look!
I can hop up and down on the ball!"

- Dr. Seuss, The Cat In The Hat

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