“Functional strength”: There are those words again. They rank right up there with “quality muscle” when it comes to people in the fitness industry uttering meaningless jargon that sounds profound on the surface. Of what part of my weight lifting-built strength isn’t functional? At the risk of sounding like a macho jerk; if I wanted to, I could probably slam my fist through the wall that’s behind my computer monitor. That’s pretty functional.
I’ve again come across a fitness article in which the author touts his fifteen minute bodyweight workout as being somehow superior to the results obtainable with weight workouts. He claims it will provide more “usable” or “functional” fitness. The last time I checked, all levels of fitness were functional and able to be used as long as the person in question has a fully functioning body. Lest you be lured away from the best body-improving endeavor you can engage (resistance training), take the morning calisthenics advice with a grain of salt.
I anticipate a huge swing away from the current “core training” and “functional strength” fitness fads in the near future. Research is beginning to reveal how important it is for us to build muscle mass and strength to improve our health as we age. I’m sorry, but doing one-legged bodyweight squats or balancing on a Swiss ball just isn’t going to cut it for building the kind of strength that staves off the ravages of aging.
When I was twenty years old, I went through my first tour of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training. I entered that training with painfully skinny legs. Those undersized underpinnings didn’t produce much “functional strength” at all when it was called upon to function on a long swim. Our regular two mile ocean swims were done with a stealthy side-stroke by propelling through the water with swim fins. Kicking through miles of ocean water using fins requires thigh strength the kind of strength I was woefully lacking. I swam so slowly that I caught hypothermia which led to pneumonia from inhaling seawater. That was after my swim buddy and I received extensive punishment from the instructors for allowing too large a gap to grow between us during the swim. I was an embarrassingly slow swimmer.
Two years later, I went through a second tour of the training (long story). This time, I was the second fastest swimmer in the entire class. In fact, I was punished by the instructors for getting too far ahead of my swim buddy. What made the difference? How did I go from being one of the slowest BUD/S swimmers in 1984 to one of the fastest in 1986?
Well, during the interim between my two tours of BUD/S, I’d befriended a bodybuilder and began regularly going to the gym with him. He was one of those rare workout people who actually enjoyed building his lower body more than his upper. Aside from doing squats, he really loved leg extensions and we worked them hard.
Those heavily weighted leg extensions built strength in the exact areas of my thighs that were used to propel me through the water while kicking with fins. So effective were those extensions that I went from underachieving in ocean swims to being far above average in them. In other words weightlifting built functional strength’.
The next time someone tells you that moving from one bodyweight exercise to another within fifteen minutes each morning is superior to traditional bodybuilding workouts, consider that they might try to sell you beachfront property in Montana. If they cite the fact that their workout is difficult as being evidence that it’s effective, consider one of my principles:
“A successful workout might be difficult, but that doesn’t mean any difficult workout is successful.”
Most of all, if someone tells you their workout produces more “functional strength” as compared with weight lifting workouts, tell them you already have a fully functional body you’re just looking to add more strength.