Maine Hiking

The concept of functional exercise came from a bunch of exercise physiologists and physical therapists who noticed the obvious.  They noticed that doing leg extensions in a machine didn’t help their patients walk again.  They noticed that a lot of what we do today in gyms doesn’t really help the body function in its natural environment and therefore doesn’t really help us much other than by gaining muscle mass.  There’s nothing wrong with gaining muscle mass, but if that’s all you do then your training is incomplete.

For my own story, I got to a point where I was deadlifting over 450lbs and only had about 8% bodyfat.  But when I went to play some recreational soccer, I found out that I couldn’t change direction well at all.  I was slow and uncoordinated.  This confused me because I was the strongest I had ever been.  Strength in the gym automatically means strength in real life, right?

Well, no.  The body responds to exactly what type of exercise you put it through.  I didn’t realize the full implications of that until about a year ago, and I don’t think many other people understand what the big deal is either.

The big deal is that exercise should be improving your quality of life.  It should be making your movement effortless, your body injury resistant, and making you capable of doing activities of daily living easily.  But do your intense sets of machine leg extensions really make walking easier?  Sadly, no.  I know, I know.  It’s what everybody does, and it seems like it should work because we think a stronger muscle will result in easier movement.

But if you tell a Physical Therapist your hypothesis that a stronger muscle means better movement, they’ll tell you that it can, but it only can if the body has been trained for motor control as well.  Essentially, the central nervous system has to know how to coordinate the muscles to create movement, and it can only learn that if the muscles are exercised in the way that we want them to perform.

The moral of the story is that in order for an exercise to make activities of daily living easier, the exercise has to mimic the movement you’re trying to optimize as closely as possible.  If you’re using your leg extensions for muscle building, that’s great.  However, if you’re an athlete or somebody struggling with everyday functionality, then you have to train your legs how they’re used.  You have to train the hip, knee, and ankle all at once, you have to have your main resistance be your own body weight, and you have to use a single leg.  Why?  Because that’s how humans move.  When we walk or run, we do it one leg at a time, we’re carrying our body, and we can’t help but use the hip, knee, and ankle all at once.  That’s just how we’re designed.

You don’t have to throw out all of your muscle-building exercises, but you need to add in at least some level of exercise that mimics activities of daily living.  Things like single-legged squats, single-arm push ups, and single-arm recline pulls become your bread and butter.  If those are too hard, only do your single-legged squats to a high surface so you don’t have to go down as low.  Only do your single-arm push ups with your hand on a wall.  Only do your single-arm recline pulls with your body close to vertical.  Just make sure that some of your exercises use multiple joints at once, move your own body weight as resistance, and involve only one of your arms or legs.  You’ll thank yourself as your activities of daily life become easier than you ever thought possible, and you start dominating everybody else on the field.