(The article first appeared in Men’s Health, May 2013 issue. For more Men's Health features, click: https://www.facebook.com/menshealthphilippines)
SIZE OR STRENGTH? Back in the day, gym trainers might tell you that there’s not much difference as long as you hoist iron. But today’s batch of coaches both here and abroad say that having huge muscles doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a stronger guy, a better athlete, or a more functional man. “Functional training” is a buzzword that’s close to being overused but a closer look at how workouts go on at unconventional gyms will make you rethink the way you train.
On this particular morning, players of the Asean Basketball League’s (ABL) San Miguel Beermen are working out at the Unlimited Sports Performance Center (USPC) in Pasig as part of their training regimen. But instead of the usual cardio warm-up routine, they spend 20 minutes doing joint rotations and other mobility exercises, like inchworms. And in place of hoisting iron for the rest of the session, they do core exercises, like Turkish get-ups and planks. To end their workout, the players push sleds loaded with weights. One thing that remains constant is full-body movement — something new-school trainers advocate.
“Movement is key, and exercise should not be artificial,” says Nico D’Haenen, the Beermen’s strength and conditioning coach and owner of USPC. “We are meant to jump, leap, hop, and run, and we need to address those in our routines.” This philosophy is changing the way trainers plot workouts, and in effect, it’s altering the way we should approach our own training.
THE FUNCTIONAL HYPE
But what exactly does the term “functional training” mean, and why are more and more fitness experts using it? “Just as the name applies, it should contribute to your personal functionality,” says Chappy Callanta, CSCS, head coach at 360 Fitness Club, one of the first fitness centers to advocate functional circuit workouts. “That means if you’re an athlete, all of your workouts have to contribute to the way you move for your specific sport.”
This fitness philosophy entails changes in your workout. Traditional bodybuilding moves like isolation exercises (bicep curls, anyone?) and the use of weight machines are replaced by ones that closely mimic the movement you do for your sport or daily activities. You do more bodyweight and compound moves that, in effect, target more of your body’s major muscles. “It’s basically training the way you wish to move. The goal is to make the body move before adding strength,” D’Haenen says.
Because you use more muscles with each move, functional workouts tend to be shorter than your average gym routine — another reason it’s popular these days. You get to work out and sweat buckets in less time. It’s also a more practical approach to your personal fitness. “Most of our daily movements are compound, so it makes sense to train with multi-joint exercises,” Callanta says. He adds that you can even mix traditional moves to make more potent ones.
“Isolation exercises aren’t bad, but [they] take so much time! You can train your biceps doing concentration curls, but you can add a walking lunge to it. You will hit more muscle groups, and you’ll be moving more.”
Athletes training under this emerging ideology swear by the results. Asi Taulava, San Miguel’s center, is 40 years old, yet he continues to give much younger guys a hard time on the court. But there was a period in his career when what he did at the gym greatly affected the way he played. “Five years ago, I went into lifting weights mode, where I put on so much weight,” he recalls. “I was thinking I’d just be stronger than everyone else. But the muscle I put on was so hard to carry around, so I was pretty much wearing myself down during games.”
Taulava is leaner now, and even at his seasoned age, he still shows improvement in his on-court agility, stamina, and explosiveness. He credits the switch he made to the way he trained at the gym. “[When] you’re just lifting heavy, you’re putting on a lot of unnecessary [size] that won’t help you in a game.” Rather than going into beast mode in the weight room, he now does a different routine, supervised by D’Haenen. “[I work] on dynamics, flexibility, and mobility. It’s not about how strong you are, it’s how [mobile and fast] you are on the floor.”
Because the focus is on shoring up all major muscles and improving your joint mobility, switching to this new training method can also help your body become less susceptible to injuries. In fact, it can even help regain your form after an injury. “I’ve actually had three knee surgeries, and now I got no aches or pains anymore,” says Mike Burtscher, who also plays for the Beermen. “Because the workouts are more specific on functional movement, I’m better than I was before my injury.”
Another benefit of doing functional workouts is your overall conditioning improves in one workout because of its cranked-up intensity. But if you’re thinking your body won’t get the same kind of hit from doing isolation exercises, prepare to be surprised. “Mas sore ka sa ganitong workout kasi it’s more on full-body exercises,” says Beermen point guard Paolo Hubalde. “Mararamdaman mo talaga siya.”
Like any workout, you need to have a good fitness base before you start any functional routine. It’s important that you work on stabilizing your bodyweight moves first. “Functional lifting is not easy,” says Tim Ayson, ISSA, SET, WKC S&C, a strength and conditioning coach and owner of L3F gym in Paranaque. “Basic movements should be mandatory before doing advanced functional stuff like burpees.”
Each workout should follow a strict progression. You should do a routine that caters to your current fitness levels and range of motion. And before you progress to doing advanced moves like single-leg exercises, you should first establish good form on basic lifts. Otherwise, you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. “It can ultimately lead to wrong movement patterns or, worse, injury,” Callanta warns.
If you work out in a group setting, keep in mind that some progress faster than others. “An actual functional workout should be specific to your goals and should never come from a cookie cutter,” Ayson says. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all workout. Any routine should be adjusted to your personal fitness levels and should cater to your goals so you can measure baselines and eventual improvements.
It’s also a misconception that functional workouts won’t make you muscular. While it’s true that you won’t get bodybuilder huge, you can get stronger with a lean yet muscular physique, similar to that of most athletes with the right routine and nutrition. You’ll also be building a well-rounded body. “In typical bodybuilding workouts, we tend to focus on our strengths and neglect our weak spots. An isolated approach to training might actually prevent you from getting stronger and moving better,” D’Haenen says.
There’s no better time to switch the way you workout than now. Remember that your routine should improve the way your body functions and not hinder it. It’s no longer just a question of size or strength. Rather, the focus is now on how to take the gains of your training from the gym to where it really counts — your everyday life.
Five Must-do Moves
A functional workout should cater to your specific fitness needs. But there are compound movements that can help you improve your body, regardless of your goals. Callanta recommends incorporating these five exercises into your workout. “[These] will create that foundation that you need to be at least mobile and stable,” he says.
PUSH-UP –This simple bodyweight exercise develops your core, aids spine stability, and hits your arms and chest all at the same time. Just remember to brace your midsection when doing it. “If your abs are relaxed, you’ll be missing out working on your core muscles, and you might be setting yourself up for injury,” Callanta says.
GLUE MARCHING BRIDGE – “Most people will lose hip mobility and stability because of hours upon hours of sitting down, which will lock it,” says Callanta. This causes lower back pain as your spine compensates for your lack of hip mobility. This move helps unlock it. Here’s how to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms on the floor, palms up, at shoulder level. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Brace your abs and lift your right knee toward your chest. Hold for two counts, then lower your right foot. Repeat with the other leg.
KETTLEBELL SWINGS – This compound exercise recruits your body’s major muscles, including the hips. “The kettlebell swing combines mobility, strength, power, and, if done right, even speed. That’s what you call efficient,” Callanta says. Just make sure not to force the movement with your arms, focusing more on your hips and posterior chain.
ROWS – While it looks like an isolation arm exercises, row variations — whether with a suspension trainer, dumbbell, or bar — will hit your body in places you can’t see in the mirror. “The row will strengthen your rotator cuff and shoulder, which can help prevent injuries,” Callanta says. You also get to work on core stability and your upper back muscles, making this an efficient upper body move.
TURKISH GET-UP – This move is certainly for the advanced athlete, but doing it makes your body use all its major joints and muscles. “It teaches stability for the shoulder, hip, and knee, while also unlocking the hips,” Callanta says. Make sure you can easily do the half get-up before transitioning to this move. Here’s how to do it: Lie on your back with your legs straight. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand with your arm straight above your chest. Keeping your elbow locked and the weight above you at all times, stand up. Move your legs and left arm underneath you to push yourself up. Keeping your arm straight, reverse the steps to return to the start.
NEW TOOLS TO FIT
The usual gym equipment should no longer define your workouts. D’Haenen suggests these tools to keep your regimen interesting.
FOAM ROLLER – While it looks like a toy you can whack your buddy with, a foam roller is a good pre- and post-workout tool that can relax stiff muscles and break down scar tissue. Think of it as a form of self-massage that primes your muscles for movement. “Soft-tissue quality is key for optimal lengthening and shortening of muscles,” D’Haenen says.
SLED – No, you don’t look anything like a reindeer, but this tool is good for conditioning because it’s low impact. It helps correct your running and walking form, too. “It’s a great tool to teach optimal posture for acceleration,” D’Haenen says.
SANDBAG – Available in various shapes and sizes, this tool challenges your body the way the usual weights can’t. You can carry, slam, and even throw it around. “The constant shifting of the weight inside it puts a tremendous amount of work on those oft-neglected muscles that provide stability before movement,” D’Haenen says. “It’s also a fun tool to develop power.”
BATTLING ROPES – These big-size ropes are great for cardio conditioning as well as working your muscular endurance. “At the same time, it develops an often overlooked aspect — your grip.” D’Haenen says. It’s certainly a lot more fun than running on a treadmill.
KETTLEBELL – Moves done with the kettlebell are explosive, which automatically increases your heart rate in less time. Aside from the cardio hit, it activates the posterior chain, an oft-disregarded set of muscles that comprise your back.
IMPROVE THE WAY YOU MOVE
Unlimited Sports Performance Center (USPC) offers workouts to improve your mobility, conditioning, and strength. They also have kettlebell classes. They work with athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. For more information, pay them a visit at Felipe Pike St., Bagong Ilog, Pasig City. You can also call 0917-576-4898 or e-mail them via firstname.lastname@example.org.