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Functional Strength Training Debunked: How to Train and act Like a Pro

Honest Self Reflection

As depicted in the “Don’t be that guy!” video, everyone approaches exercise and the gym with different philosophies, backgrounds, abilities, and motivations. Differences are to be expected and, in fact, embraced, so I try not to mettle in people’s business while at the gym. After all, the last thing I want to be is #5 – The Coach. However, I think some aspects of modern day gym culture are well overdue for some constructive criticism. I encourage you to consider the details of this article and then make your own informed decision about how to proceed with your regimen. For those unwilling to take a good long look in the mirror (on this occasion at least), put your headphones back in, slam your gorilla growth hormone concoction, and proceed with your 13 consecutive sets of bench. If you’re in search of a functional, athletic, and healthy body then read on my compatriots.

Understanding True Strength

So what is functional training anyways? It is a term that gets tossed around a lot without being clarified or explained successfully. Think of the most commonly done exercise in the gym – the bench press. I assume there must be a lot of mechanics out there with faulty lifts, as a car falling on you while you are supine is about the only practical application for the bench press. Does it isolate the chest? Sure. However, true pushing ability in real life circumstances is a function of our core strength and certainly has a great deal to do with our legs – you know, those things attached to your pelvis – your only point of contact with the ground (at least for the last few million years).  Without strong legs and a strong core (think pelvis to sternum) it would be impossible to apply large force to anything while standing. There is a reason that NFL linemen have legs like tree trunks. While many may have bellies, I can assure you there is sheath upon sheath of muscle hiding beneath the fat tissue that allows them to take full advantage of their upper body strength.

Welcome to the New School

A new focus on developing functional strength and real athleticism has emerged in the field of health and fitness over the recent years. While gyms are still dominated by machines that promote single joint exercises like knee extensions that isolate one muscle group, the benefit of functional strength training is supported by those on the forefront of the industry. This new school thinking is supported by the emergence of minimalist box gyms and the Cross-Fit craze. In these environments that operate without the aid of benches and machines that brace and support us, our bodies are forced to stabilize and load muscles through many different joints and planes of motion, leading to greater gains with real life application. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you race out and try Cross-Fit right away as these core muscles need to be developed gradually to avoid injury, especially if you are somebody that frequents machines when at the gym. Adaptation to imposed demand takes time and should be a progressive process carried out with discipline. This means educating yourself on current research delivered by professionals (not the monster in the Popeye’s singlet), setting goals, and systematically pursuing them.

Kick it up a Notch

There’s simply no nice way to put this – lose the pants, lay off the mean mug, and, for goodness sake, put form on a pedestal.  If you are able to wear pants throughout your entire workout, you are doing something wrong.  If you are embarrassed of your scrawny pegs, maybe it’s time to make a change in your routine. Don’t be the brunt of the “Friends don’t let friends miss leg day” joke. While high intensity circuit training might force you to finally shed your pants, you will be able to make crazy big gains and unleash your full potential. If you maintain a high intensity regimen, it can act like cardiovascular interval training and allow you to kill two birds with one stone. Sometimes there’s just no time for cardio. I once had a client tell me, “You can’t flex cardio” – problem solved.

Check Your Badditude at the Door

My stance on mean mugging is certain and unwavering – Just don’t do it! It’s ok to smile, your muscles won’t shrink. It’s not a show or a competition. Everyone in the gym is united in their pursuit of health and wellness and that should bring us together in community as opposed to isolating us from one another. The gym should be a comfortable and positive environment for people to share equally. I promise, you’ll turn more heads by smiling and being friendly than by mean mugging and flexing in the mirror.

It Pays to be Flexible

Our bodies have an amazing amount of flexibility and our joints can do some remarkable things – you should really try to keep it that way. It’s no coincidence that high level athletes include yoga and other flexibility programs in their training regimens. If it’s good enough for Crosby, it’s good enough for you. Even when you hit the weights, you are truly doing yourself a disservice if you choose to increase weight and sacrifice form and range of motion. One of my favourite exercises to critique is your typical Lat Pulldown. I see people stacking the weight on and proceeding to bounce up and down with their arms going through about 50% of their actual range of motion. Don’t worry if you have to reduce your resistance for a while, the resulting muscle hypertrophy will eclipse where you were previously at in a very short time.

Hopefully, at least some of you have been compelled to reconsider the way you approach the gym. Consult professionals at your gym for help. If they offer you a tub of protein or horse growth hormone instead, switch gyms or seek consultation elsewhere. In a few weeks, you’ll be well on your way to your goals and you’ll smile as you notice some of your old faults amongst others at your gym. Whatever you do, resist the urge to be The Coach as people may not quite be ready to give up their sweatpants just yet – Even Linus had a security blanket.

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