Well, it’s been a while since my last post, and I have been thinking about this post for a few weeks. Today I have a good story related to the topic, so that is motivating me to finally start writing again. We had a big storm and the power went out for about three hours this morning. We almost had a disaster in our house, but I’ll get back to that later.
So, what is functional fitness? Functional exercise has gotten quite popular in the past few years, but what do we mean by the term? Most people probably think it has to do with exercise balls and using free weights instead of machines, but they may not really grasp the full concept behind what they are doing.
I first heard the term, “functional exercise” over twenty years ago, long before it became popular. My tai chi teacher would talk about doing the form functionally. He told us that unless we are functional, we will lack power and we will be prone to injury. Mainly he was talking about proper alignment. For instance, if the knee is not pointed in the same direction as the toe you will eventually injure your knee. You also won’t have as much strength pushing off of that leg. When the skeleton is properly aligned the muscles require minimum force to generate maximum power, while ensuring the safety of the joints, tendons, and ligaments. Proper alignment not only increases power for martial arts, it also increases the body’s ability to generate healing energy, or chi.
It was at least fifteen years before I heard any one else talk about exercise being functional, and that’s when I started hearing about using exercise balls and free weights. The basic idea is that the old school of isolating muscles left the body out of balance. Some muscles never got enough exercise. Also isolation exercises do not mimic the way we use our bodies in the real world, so we are not training to be more effective at using our whole body at once. Using exercise balls forces you to engage all the postural muscles in order to maintain your balance. Free weights engage groups of muscles, rather than just one muscle at a time. When you lift your kid up you use your whole body, not just your biceps.
About three years ago I encountered Pete Egoscue and the Egoscue Method. The Egoscue approach is more like my old tai chi teacher’s approach. If you do not have structural alignment, you will be prone to injury and you will lack power. One of the main principles of the Egoscue method is “first straighten, then strengthen.” Most people have significant postural misalignments, that need to be corrected before seriously strengthening the body. Otherwise you are only strengthening the dysfunctions. For instance, if you are walking around with one thigh bone turned slightly inward, you are putting extra stress on that knee, and the knee probably won’t be pointing the same direction as the foot, a problem mentioned above. That may be due to a weak gluteus maximus muscle. Now if you are doing squats to increase your leg strength, it doesn’t matter if you use free weights or a machine, you will compensate for that weak gluteus muscle, and strengthen the dysfunction. You need to first re-educate the muscles to work together, functionally, then strengthen them together. And you can’t just strengthen that gluteus muscle, because it is never that simple. When there is a dysfunction, and resulting compensations, there are many muscles involved; some too weak, some too strong; some too short, some too long.
A few months ago I encountered the Crossfit folks, who have another definition of functional fitness. But let me tell my story now. Our house drainage system is not ideal, we have a sump pump. Luckily it only runs when we get a lot of rain. Unfortunately, big storms, like the one we had this morning, not only bring lots of rain, but also lots of wind. Wind tends to knock out power. So when the power went out at 5:45, this morning, I started to get the generator ready. Just last week I ran it for an hour to make sure it was good for the season. This morning however, it would not start. After about twenty minutes of messing with it, I gave up, and my wife and I started bailing. The water in the sump was about an inch below the floor level, at that point. We have a bowl that just fits in the whole where the sump pump is. The bowl holds about three quarters of a gallon. So we would fill a five gallon bucket with the bowl, then take it outside and dump it. At first it was pretty easy. After about an hour my legs and arms were getting tired, and the water was about an inch below the floor level, exactly where it was when we started. My wife suggested I ask the neighbor to help with the generator. My fragile male ego hates it when she makes suggestions like that. So I told her I don’t need any help with the generator, I know how engines work. Then in my mind I continued to explain to her how they work, when a light went on in my head. I had a relieving and embarrassing realization. I went outside, opened the valve in the fuel line and started the generator. My arms are aching from all that work as I type this.
Back to Crossfit. These guys are training top athletes, police, firefighters, and the military. People who depend on fitness for their careers and lives. Crossfit’s definition of functional fitness includes everything I’ve talked about so far, but they go further. When they talk about being functionally fit they mean having the strength and stamina to deal with whatever life brings you. You may be thinking that the demands on your life are not the same as those on a firefighter or a navy seal, but you never know when you might have to pull your family out of a burning house or an overturned car. Or you might have to waste an hour bailing water because your husband forgot how to operate a generator.