January 07, 2009

Really Functional Fitness

photo credit: laughingmonk

Don't you love the idea of Functional Fitness? According to Web MD, Functional Fitness means "building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine."

Functional fitness is supposed to be better than the usual, dysfunctional fitness we've grown accustomed to, because it uses compound movements rather than working individual muscles. The muscles then learn how to work together in harmony instead of being all aloof and snooty with each other. (And if you listen really, really closely after you're done, you may even hear the song "Kumbaya" emanating from your muscle fibers.)

Doesn't Functional Fitness seems like a great idea? Trendy, sure, but it's also down-to-earth at the same time. Instead of using huge cumbersome weight machines designed to isolate muscles, functional fitness is more likely to call for expensive personal trainers to show you what the hell you're supposed to do simple equipment like free weights, wobble boards, stability balls, elastic bands, or kettlebells. Or better yet, you can use nothing but your own body weight, with exercises like push ups or pull-ups.

Totally makes sense, right, to exercise your body in ways that are natural and practical, rather than artificial and frivolous?

But... just how functional are these moves for your life?

Be Prepared!
Kelly at Fitness Fixation, who is a fan of functional fitness, once wrote an amusing post explaining how incredibly useful many of these exercises can be in real life. She lists typical scenarios in which they come in very handy. For example, on pull-ups:

"In your secret agent job, you end up doing battle with the evil villain on a flying helicopter... the villain pushes you out of the copter...you grab onto those bottom landing thingies and manage to pull yourself back up into the craft while dangling above the Golden Gate Bridge. Thank god for those pull ups, or you’d never have the upper body strength to do that!"

(Other scenarios start with "A clown car drives up..." "A gigantic boa constrictor drops out of the foliage and lands on your shoulders...").

So yeah--some of these functional exercises aren't all that similar to real life needs. For example, I can't remember the last time I was required to balance myself on a big round inflatable object. Call me crazy, but when I need to reach somewhere high, like to change a light bulb, I climb up on a chair or a ladder, not a stability ball.

Exercises for Real Life
What would be more practical? Well, how about some exercises that more closely resemble real life challenges?

1. The Toddler Toss.
"Busy Moms" are often held up as a prime example of people who can benefit from functional exercise. And lifting their offspring is a frequently-cited example of the kind of activity they need to build muscle for. But how does working with a puny medicine ball prepare you for a real life squirming, constantly-growing child?

Equipment required: One wriggly toddler; one or two parents; assorted barbells, soup cans, or other heavy weights; duct tape, scissors.

Step One: First you take the toddler, the weights, the duct tape and you wrap...

Oh wait, sorry, the phone's ringing...

Crabby, a word, if you please?

Whoops! That was the Cranky Fitness Legal Department. Um, perhaps we'll move right along and cover this exercise some other time.

2. The Pickle Jar Twist
Has this ever happened to you? You spend hours at the gym, working with their fancy-ass equipment. And yet once home in your own kitchen, you discover you can't open a jar of pickles or organic grape juice* or pasta sauce without either injuring yourself or sheepishly handing it over to your Significant Other for assistance.

*(The grape juice jar is a real life example. I actually once sprained my wrist trying to open one. To this day, I still re-injure the same wrist sometimes. Curse you, fancy unopenable organic grape juice!)

The problem: wrist and forearm muscles aren't very sexy, so there are no special machines for them. But aren't these the sort of muscles we actually need to use?

Until gyms start offering fake plastic-coated, neon colored jars to open, and spandex-clad fitness instructors to demonstrate the proper form, you may need to buy a bunch of extra pickle jars for home. First screw 'em closed lightly, then open again; then work up until you can screw 'em shut medium tight, etc. Keep practicing until you can open even the most tightly screwed on stubborn jar lid. Then seek additional opportunities whenever and wherever you can find them to loosen and tighten sticky faucets, valves, lids, etc.

Worried that your boyfriend/husband will feel less useful not being the go-to guy on jar lids anymore? Here's one way you might introduce the topic:

"Honey, I just read on a fitness blog that I really should practice screwing more often. I'm supposed to find opportunities to screw whenever and wherever I can. Can you support me in that?"

Oh shoot, is that the phone ringing again?

3. The Bus Stop Sprint
Interval training helps with this task, sure. But the last time you needed to catch a bus, were you on a treadmill wearing workout attire, carrying nothing with you but a tiny iPod?

Of course not! To simulate real life conditions, take your work clothes to the gym, put on those high heels, skirt, trenchcoat, etc; grab a weighted briefcase, lunch bag, gym tote, and umbrella, hop on the treadmill and sprint!

For additional authenticity: drop your cell phone mid-sprint, and have a partner throw a little trash in front of your feet for you to dodge. It would help, too, if you could practice with diesel exhaust fumes blowing in your face, but this may present some logistical issues.

4. The Public Toilet Squat
Step One: Go to an overcrowded mall, a gas station, or anywhere that facilities are not scrupulously maintained.

Step Two: Innocently pick a stall and open the door.

Step Three: Gahhh!!! No Way. You don't really need to go that bad.

Step Four: Damn. Yes you do.

Step Five: Make appropriate clothing adjustments and assume squatting position. No need to worry about where your knees are in relation to your toes; just worry about where your ass is in relation to the toilet. For the sake of others coming after you, please do not pee all over the seat.

(Yep, this is a high-class blog. We even have an earlier post on the indignities of public restrooms).

5. Maybe Not as "Practical"
Here are some videos of folks doing "real" functional fitness. Not nearly as challenging as flinging heavily weighted toddlers into the air, but perhaps less likely to get us sued.

Note: For those of you who are interested in strength training but don't know where to start, we're hoping to have a slightly more informative post coming up Friday on Beginning Strength training. So stay tuned!

Do you folks prefer "functional" exercises to the other kind? What are some of your favorites?


  1. love it.
    I hath perfected the MONKEY FOOT since having my daughter.

    The ability to stand on one foot and hold her wriggling arse while retrieving a dropped item (hat? sock? bottle?!) with the other foot!
    balance, toe dexterity---it's all right there :)

  2. Love this post! As a PT, I am trained to always think of the function behind an exercise, so yes I am a big fan of 'functional' exercises, and sometimes you just gotta dig deeeep to find it :)

    Love the jar opening bit, actually learned the correct (and I use this term loosely) way to do it, maybe I'll share my secrets soon!

  3. Hehehehe - love this post!! Functional fitness is all the Bag Lady is ever concerned about! In fact, that is all she ever practices!
    (love the toilet humour, BTW!)

  4. Hee hee... I used to practise the bus stop sprint regularly - especially as I could see the bus coming down the road and quite often had to race it to the stop, hoping the traffic would slow it down.

  5. My mum swears by digging in her garden to help burn off those calories! She reckons a half an hour of it and you will know all about exercise!!

  6. Great post - thanks for the laugh this morning!

  7. Functional fitness. Awesome.

    Doing squats at the gym so that you can hover over the toilet seat without your thigh muscles cramping and shaking violently is VERY functional in my book.

  8. Toddlers and duct tape? No, I never went there, I promise; I did, however, use a zipper harness and straps to keep them in the shopping cart.

    And yes, I used to amuse my toddlers mightily with the "monkey foot".


  9. My workouts have been aimed toward being functional for quite a while. Thanks for advancing this practical, realistic viewpoint!

  10. Functional exercises good.
    Don't do squats, but I've found that anything that builds the thighs is good for when I have to us a pit toilet in the winter.

  11. Awesome! My favorite: No need to worry about where your knees are in relation to your toes; just worry about where your ass is in relation to the toilet. hehe And I can SO see those plastic, bright-colored jars at the gym! And they would sell at Target for like $39.99 for a 4-step set to all jar contents being yours!

  12. Can you email me about that toddler-tossing? Because I have a 3 year old that...well never mind, we'll talk privately later! ;)

    heehee - great post today!

  13. Dysfunctional fitness? I'm there!

  14. Huge vote for the function exercises. I need the garbage can and recycle bin to the curb lift. The ice scraper stretch with optional wisk broom for too much snow push. The super claw finger for the plastic supermarket bags and lastly the help the dog up on an icy deck cluch/pull/grab.

    PS: love the monkey foot.

  15. There is nothing worse that the 'thigh-quiver' when you are trying to squat over a dirty toilet. Thats when you know its time to do some weight lifting!

  16. I laughed out loud not once but three times during this post! Hilarious!! My fave was the line about not grabbing a stability ball to stand on... That and throwing trash on the treadmill. You really put the fun in functional!!

  17. Actually, balancing on wiggle boards don't improve balance on stable surfaces (unless there's an earthquake. Then the balancing on the wiggle board may be useful, but you'll probably have bigger things to worry about).

  18. "Honey, I just read on a fitness blog that I really should practice screwing more often. I'm supposed to find opportunities to screw whenever and wherever I can. Can you support me in that?"

    I now have coffee all over my monitor...thank you very much :)

  19. Does laughing at Cranky posts count as 'functional fitness'???? I mean, if there's any one function I REALLY never want to lose it's laughing! So I'm going out to buy some fancy organic stuff with a lid that needs some um...let me just say 'help'

  20. I must share this with all my friends! Thanks for the chuckle.

  21. I have never been so grateful for the Squats section at Body Pump than when I went on holiday to Thailand. Stomach upset over a hole in a ground? No problem, I have thighs of steel. I could stand here all day.

    (still trying to get my mind out of the gutter regarding wrist exercises though, sorry...)

    TA x

  22. Wait a minute... I'm not so concerned with screwing jars. It's unscrewing things that I need help with. Not sure that will work as well as far as pickup lines go :(

  23. Dammit Crabby! I need the details on that toddler toss! I've got one squirming two year old constantly trying to join me on the treadmill. Maybe the toddler toss will get him to stay upstairs!

    Fabulous post to start my morning with. All my office mates are asking what's so damn funny. You rule Crabby! *files application for secret agent position*

  24. You guys have some great ones!

    Children, commuting, and chore performance have clearly been overlooked in the Personal Training manuals.

    And while I'd love to supply more detailed instructions for the toddler toss, I suspect you folks are creative enough to develop your own version and save the blog a few bucks on legal fees.

    Next we need the yoga folks to help us with contortions that will allow us to share a bed with sprawling pets. Anyone else find themselves tied up in knots in the morning while the cat/dog takes up three quarters of the bed?

  25. Great stuff. I love your take on the treadmill sprint...that would be "functional." Thanks!

  26. LOL, just what I needed to read this morning ^_^ I did the Subway dash this morning myself. It goes as follows:

    Slog through rain to subway station with a zillion other zombified people. Shuffle down subway stairs feeling like stunned cattle. Be careful not to trip on Toddlers running rampant when they squirm away from their poor parents. Hear train coming into the station, and try to dart around people who are still not moving any faster. Use amazing manual dexterity to remove metro card from wallet while holding cup of tea and croissant in other hand. Curse turnstile as it makes you re-swipe Three Times before letting you through. Finally get through turnstile and sprint full out down the stairs to the train, hurtle through the doors that your S.O. has graciously shoved himself in between to hold open, and use all that flexibility your getting from yoga to cram yourself into whatever space is left in the overcrowded car.

    Perhaps we could turn all of these into an actual fitness plan? ^_^


  27. Actually, I use the nasty toilet seat as a cue in my weight lifting classes. When I see someone with their knees really far forward, I just tell them to imagine they're in a gas station toilet, and it does the trick!

    And while we don't spend too much time on unstable surfaces like bosus in real life, they really do help with ankle strength, so then when you roll you ankle over the expensive clogs you just bought, you can just shake it off instead of ending up at the doc.

    I just posted today about functional exercise (or at least, non-gym exercise) and my experience with real-life gliding down the stairs in my building.

  28. Well, I've found that thinking about not tripping over my feet in kickboxing has kept me from not falling down the stairs as often.Does that count?

  29. So good! Damn that roasted red pepper jar...

  30. You're in top-form today, Cranky. Your functional exercises had me choking on my spit.

    Which reminds me; add the Heimlich Maneuver to the list.

  31. This has to be one of the funniest blogs (not just fitness) on the net. Great stuff.

    - Dave

  32. I think I have some functional fitness exercises.

    1) Hand to mouth and back again to grab food.
    2) Reaching for champagne flute or tortilla chip basket.
    3) Guarding stance while in line at a buffet.
    4) Fork stab stance to guard dinner plate from marauders.
    5) Kegel exercises combined with walking with thighs rubbing together while running to the toilet to pee in a hurry.
    6) Moaning and grunting noises when I get out of my seat. Have to keep those inner muscles working with assorted grunts and groans.

    Am I on the right track with those?

  33. Functional finger fitness is about all I've been up to today.. the scroll wheel on the mouse while catching up with blogs. Great post. :)

  34. Hilarious. I still use the Monkey Foot - I have no kids, I'm just too lazy to bend over and pick things up off the floor. (But not too lazy to go to the gym and lift useless weights and run on the treadmill-to-nowhere. Go figure.)

  35. This is too funny!

    I'm VERY familiar with the Monkey Foot!
    But I tend to prefer dysfunctional exercise over all other types.

  36. lots of toddler tossing going on in this house!

    I also use those toddlers/preschoolers for added resistance when doing planks. Nothing like having a 40lb (squirming) boy on your back to really tighten up that core! :)

  37. Love it!

    I do like the idea of "functional fitness", but it's true - sometimes it's hard to imagine how the exercise relates to real life. But hey, whatever it takes to get people exercising...May just be able to convince my husband with proper terminology you demonstrated with regard to jar lids...

  38. Oh, I so need functional fitness in my life - oh wait, any kind of fitness would do ;)

  39. #2. LOL. I seriously just disrupted my coworkers with my laughter.

  40. Martial arts is great functional fitness. If anyone ever comes after you then you can beat the $%#^#&***$$$$ out of them. I addition, I can now open doors and push elevator buttons with my feet.

  41. Love squats, even though I curse while doing them, precisely for their usefulness in the "public restroom hover".

    I'm working on something where you're holding weights in two hands/arms, and try to free a hand to do something slightly finicky (ie, carrying to large grocery sacks, yet unlock the darn door, without dropping anything - since it would likely be the eggs or milk).

  42. My family must've been wondering about my sanity this morning as I cackled over my iPhone.

    Oh, yeah, toddlers are great for lifting. When I went back to work, I could heft those water cooler bottles no problem. But over time, it got harder and harder, because I wasn't toting a 2-year-old around and doing ceiling lifts on a daily basis.

    Like Workout Mommy, I now incorporate the preschooler into my routine, now that I have more upper body strength. She still loves being lifted up to touch the ceiling.

  43. God, I love this blog. Whenever I hold a chair pose or do a wall squat for a painfully long time I think how badass I'll feel the next time I need to pop a hover in a public toilet. Which is quite often as my bladder is about the size of a dime!

    I did some calf raises while holding my toddler recently and I was sore for days after. Why am I spending money on dumbbells when I can just hold a 30-pound child while doing squats and stuff? Plus his wriggling adds an extra challenge to core and balance and stuff.

    Pretty soon we'll be balancing on a wobble board on a swiss ball wrapped is resistance bands swinging kettlebells through various yoga poses to get the most out of our workout time. Actually, what does it say about me that I think that sounds kinda fun to try?

  44. Way too funny. I practiced functional fitness just last night while trying to navigate the stairs with a basket of laundry, all the while evading the evil cat-critter who insisted on walking between my feet!

  45. Speaking of public toilets, when my second daughter was potty training, her wise mother decided it was time to go for a hike.

    Low and behold, of course only pit toilets were available. Well, mom and daughter when into the "bathroom" where my daughter proceeded to tell me she would not use that thing. It smelled ukky, and nope, she wouldn't go.

    Two minutes after walking out of the "bathroom" she wet her pants.

    It's funny now, and even then, I couldn't stop laughing.

  46. Great Post! I never knew there was such a thing as functional fitness.

  47. You're absolutely right about this. Most of the time when I'm doing weight workouts, it's at a gym with machines. But what really IS functional fitness? In what kind of everyday situations will some of these moves help us? I guess the best answer is that they all work together to keep us stronger..."just in case." :)

  48. Hey just remember that water is key with exercise
    I think this is a good article to help.
    read this



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