Functional – You’re Doing it Wrong
The wise Kenny Powers once said it. I didn’t give as much credence to it at the time as I should have, but its pure wisdom. I ain’t trying to be the best at exercising. I want to be a strong-ish guy, capable of conquering life’s challenges. I want to be a well functioning human being. And the first step to really accomplishing this, is to draw the line between “preparing my body to function as nature intended” and “preparing for an exercise contest.”
I will state on the front end that if it is your actual goal to compete in an exercise contest, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That can in fact be your desired end state, your desired function. If that is the case, you can stop reading now and skip to the end. You may just avoid being triggered by jokes and funny gifs at the expense of your chosen past time.
But if being a well oiled machine capable of high capacity output, whether its occupational related or the desire to accomplish personal challenges, read on.
To begin separating “good” basic functional training from other methods that may be less effective, its important to note the different concepts of function and skill. Function is very basic and broad. It can be tied to the human design, from muscle function, limbs and levers, etc. We evolved to our current state from thousands of years of basic functions, finding shelter, obtaining food sources, fighting over resources.
As a result, our bodies all came to move about in generally the same fashion. And any and all movements can be boiled down into six (*eight, if you want to nitpick, will explain later) basic movements.
There is the upper body push, much like when the caveman version of you would thrust his spear into woolly mammoth ribs, to obtain his primitive, paleo gainz. There is the hip hinge, as you bend over to pick up the bulky dead body parts of the primitive animal you have just slain. There is the loaded carry, as you and your caveman hunting buddies lugged the gargantuan carcass back to the cave. There is the lunge, as your caveman diet was still not enough to provide energy to carry the thing back in one pull, so you paused to take a knee and rest. Maybe drink water from a stream. And face out and pull security. There is the upper body pull, as you and your caveman brother played tug of war over the final piece of mammoth prime rib. And finally, there is the squat. And thankfully your caveman diet includes lots of leafy greens to work out all that red mammoth meat you ate the day before. (Note: the extra *two motor patterns are really just subsets of the upper body push and upper body pull. Both of those movements can, for the purpose of arguing about stuff in the gym, be broken into vertical and horizontal plane movements.)
In addition to the motor patterns, your functional caveman body was also ruled by other simple rules of muscle function and energy systems that fueled that muscle function. You may encounter different needs in your caveman life. To outrun the saber tooth tiger, you would need extremely fast bursts of speed and power. I’m sorry to inform you though, you were still too slow. I hope you passed your genetic material on before it came to this. Your caveman brother just took your caveman wife to be his own. I’m sorry for your loss. To defend his new cavewife from the advances of other caveman who want to exploit her vulnerability, your caveman brother needed a surge of energy to last a few minutes to fight away the would be suitors. Your caveman brother is victorious. (New wife says “so much manlier than old caveman husband.” Ouch. How embarrassing.) However newlywed cave life is not all that it seems, and cavewife sometimes gets to be too much for your caveman brother. Sometimes, he just needs to get really far away, so he goes on a long, long mammoth hunting trip with the cavebros. This requires much endurance, and requires a different energy source, though his body is still limited to the same six (*eight) motor patterns. And to top it off, he has to finish this feat of endurance by taking down a woolly mammoth. And the circle of life continues.
So all of this to say, regardless of what task the caveman you, or your caveman brother were undertaking, it involved the same motor patterns, and the same muscle functions and energy sources. That is the basis of functionality. So to create a truly functional base of fitness, you need to focus on developing those motor patterns, through the full range of energy delivery systems. And this is also where the line starts to blur between function and skill. You and your caveman friends thrusting spears into the flank of a woolly mammoth was an upper body push motion, but the spear thrust itself represents a practiced skill.
If one were to begin creating a workout plan, and came to a thought on how to address the upper body (vertical plane) push motion, it would be easy to get carried away with the broad array of exercises that develop this motor pattern. Military press, handstand push ups, push press, ring handstand push ups, jerk press. All similar in terms of overhead motor pattern, but greatly different in skill involved to perform the movement properly.
This is the point where I suggest two potential approaches to this. The first approach is, ditch the skilled movements entirely. Unless you have specific need to practice those skills, you are better served developing a very solid (and thick, and tight) base of the basic movement. This will benefit you MORE because the quality of effort you can devote to this motor pattern is consistent, without jumping around between different (but similar) movements. Instead of trying to program or track the progress of several different lifts, you can focus on that one movement alone. Secondly, the basic movement is just easier to master. And since you’ll come closer to mastering it in shorter time, more efforts can be given to developing strength. And finally, for those “when the zombies come…” thinkers, ring handstand push ups is likely not the skill that is going to save you. Many of the skilled movements don’t offer any extra carry over into functional, real world capacity.
The second approach I would give, is for someone who IS involved in the sport of competitive exercise. Create phases or blocks to your training. Make sure these are significant chunks of time too, in the area of 8+ weeks ideally. Be consistent with which movement you use as a base for your program. If you are willing to devote time to developing that skill, then give yourself the benefit of giving your full attention to doing it right. The principle that you self sabotage your own training by bouncing around between different (but similar) lifts still applies.
So just remember, the breadth of exercises you are capable of accomplishing is not the definition of functional, unless your function is as a competitive exerciser. Those extra exercises are the embodiment of SKILLS that you practice, which are built on the foundation of FUNCTIONAL movement patterns. Focus the bulk of your time on building a strong base of the basic movements. You will create a much stronger frame for future work.