What Kind of Exercise?

Defining the Terms

Before we get into the physiology of exercise, it’s prudent to take a step back and look at the big picture.  In the fitness realm, there often seems to be a fairly large dichotomy between people training “functionally” and people training “conventionally”.

Typically, we think of people training “conventionally” as bodybuilders doing their exercises on machines or using barbells.  The “conventional” trainers typically have a lot of muscle mass, but their athleticism is limited.

Typically, we think of people training “functionally” as the person standing on a BOSU ball with one foot while doing an alternating dumbbell military press.  These “functional” trainers typically have little muscle mass, but they are relatively athletic.

That’s the old way of thinking.  It is my opinion that that should be abolished in favor of labeling everything as “functional for ::fill in the blank::”  Functional means that something does what it was designed to do.  A functional toaster toasts while a dysfunctional toaster does not.  A functional quarterback throws a football fast, far, and with accuracy while a dysfunctional quarterback lobs a football blindly in no particular direction.

So, for our purposes, I’ve chosen to disregard the “conventional” vs. “functional” debate as fairly inaccurate descriptors.  What is typically thought of as “conventional”, I will call “functional for building muscle mass”.  What is typically thought of as “functional”, I will call “functional for activities of daily life”.

Purposes of Resistance Training

So, before addressing the exercise itself, we must identify what the purposes of resistance training are.  First, resistance training helps the body build muscle mass.  Secondly, resistance training helps the body perform activities of daily life well.

1. Gaining Muscle Mass

In the US, we’re obviously in an obesity epidemic.  One-third of us are obese and two-thirds of us are overweight.  We’re watching highly preventable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer become the predominant killers in our society.  Years ago, we died of infectious diseases.  Now, we die of diseases that are largely brought on by our sedentary lifestyles.

One major contributor to all of these problems is excess fat mass.  The extra weight creates extra demands on our bodies that our bodies were never designed for.  The human body was not designed to be overweight.  The excess fat in our diet that is not metabolized ends up in our arteries.  These arteries become clogged due to too much fat build-up, and we die of a heart attack.  The excess fat on our body blunts our cell’s insulin response so that we can no longer get the carbohydrates out of our blood-stream and into our cells.  This means that we become dependent upon insulin shots or we die.

Consequently, being overweight is a major contributor to all preventable disease.  The question our society has faced for quite some time is, “How do we lose this fat?”.  A critical part of the solution to losing fat is increasing your metabolism by building muscle mass.

One pound of muscle mass requires fifty calories per day in order to maintain it.  So, if we look at things in the long-term, it is possible to gain around ten pounds of muscle mass per year.  If someone were to take on this endeavor, at the end of the year, their body would need an extra five hundred calories just to maintain itself.  Considering that dietary recommendations are created with a 2,000 calorie allowance for women and 2,500 calorie allowance for men, this means that within one year, a person could increase their metabolism by 25%!  Then, if you’re like me, you’d think about year two.  It is possible to continue the trend and end up with a metabolism that is 50% higher.  That would mean your body would need another 1,000 calories, and it would be much easier to eat less than you need at that point since you would still be eating more than you did before gaining muscle.

All of that is merely to say this, gaining muscle results in an increased metabolism.  An increased metabolism means that you get to eat more while losing fat.  It’s a pretty cool gig, and it results in dramatically lowering your risk of preventable disease.

2. Preparing for Activities of Daily Life

The second major purpose of resistance exercise is to prepare your body for activities of daily life.  That means that we’re preparing the body in order to do activities of daily life like walking, carrying groceries, getting into a car, putting up groceries, etc.  These activities involve dealing with gravity, 360 degrees of motion, momentum, and ground-reaction forces.

In reaction to these forces of our physical environment, I agree with Juan Carlos Santana’s deduction that our body’s movements can be divided into the “four pillars” of locomotion, level change, pushing and pulling, and rotation.

In locomotion, we’re simply moving along a horizontal plane.  In level change, we’re moving our body in a vertical plane.  In pushing, we are moving an object away from our body.  In pulling, we are moving an object towards our body.  In rotation, we are moving something from side to side.

If we are effectively able to train the body in these four pillars, then we will be able to teach the body how to respond to its natural environment in the most effective manner currently known.  We are coaching the body by training it in its most direct application to activities of daily life.  This means that we primarily use our body-weight as resistance, we’re always using multi-joint movements, and we are typically trying to progress these movements to a single limb.

One of the essential components of training the body for these functions of daily life is to train the body using its own weight rather than by using external loads like barbells and dumbbells.  The only time an extra weight or resistance of some sort will come into play is after the trainee has been able to master their own body-weight in the exercise.  This makes sense because when we train using external loads, our bodies are typically stationary.  In real life, we are typically moving our own body-weight.  Even when we move an external object in real life, it’s rarely how we would in a gym.

For instance, let’s say that we’re pushing.  In a gym, pushing typically means a bench press where our whole body is stabilized against a bench except for our shoulder girdle, shoulders, and elbows.  Also, in a bench press, we’re lifting the barbell vertically and therefore fighting gravity vertically.  If we’re pushing a table (or an opponent, a sofa, a chair, a fridge, etc.), we’re fighting gravity’s vertical force by using a horizontal force.  In such a case, we must be able to not only stabilize ourselves and create force with ground reaction force from our feet, but we must also produce enough force to break gravity’s hold on the table.  In addition, we’re no longer in a position where our bodies are stabilized.  We’re in a position where we have to use our legs, core, and pushing musculature in order to achieve our task.  It’s a whole-body endeavor.

In order to train the body for its natural environment, we use multiple-joint movements.  This is because we never stop and perform movements by moving at one joint at a time.  Even in a movement as simple as eating an apple, we have to flex our wrist, flex our elbow, and bring our upper-arm forward in order to get the apple to our mouth.  Furthermore, in the basic movement of walking, we use the hip, knee, and ankle all at once rather than extending the hip, then extending the knee, then plantar-flexing the ankle.  Because of that, we must take time to train the body in multiple-joint movements.

Next, we try to graduate these multiple-joint movements to a single limb as well.  Especially in leg exercises, it is critical to do at least some level of single-legged work.  Why?  Because that’s how we move.  We use one leg at a time when walking, and we should train the body that way.  If we constantly use two-legged exercises, we are not training for the function of activities of daily life….  That is, of course, unless your locomotion method of choice is two-legged hops in order to train for your upcoming gunny sack race.  🙂

For the rest of “The Simplified Science of How to be Healthy” go here.