Sports Feature
The Functional Work Out
Alan Farnham

You might be fit, but fit for what? That's the question hurled at gym-rats by proponents of a new fitness philosophy known as functional exercise. Its premise: Exercise should have a higher purpose than making you look hunky in a Speedo.

It should, for example, make you stronger and more limber in performing the motions of everyday life. To cite a seasonal example: If summer's coming and you know you'll soon be going to the closet to get down your panama or boater, you should exercise your reaching-for-the-hatbox muscles.

Functional exercise, as its name implies, mimics motions you perform in your ordinary routine or in playing your favorite sports. Logging hours in the gym building beefy biceps may earn you an admiring wink from Joan Collins, but that strength won't protect you from throwing out your sacro the next time you throw out the trash.

How come? When you exercise with standard gym machines, you're locked into a fixed position. A belt or bar or padded seat keeps you stable while you perform a simple motion--one meant to exercise a single muscle. Seated on a bench, say, you do arm curls, cranking a camshaft connected to a weight.

That's fine--as far as it goes. But how often in real life do you lift weights while seated?

In real life--when you hoist the trash bag for example--you're standing. Your body isn't locked. As you flex your biceps, you may be turning at the waist or bending. You may be standing on an unstable surface--a wet floor or an uneven curb--that forces you to fight for balance. Under these conditions when you lift, your body suddenly must recruit many muscles all at once--not just ones to lift the weight, but others to keep you stable while you're lifting. It's no wonder that machine-trained bodies frequently cry 'ouch'.

Traditional gym wisdom says you sholdn't flex your spine while lifting. That's dumb, says functional guru Juan Carlos Santana, who heads Optimum Performance Systems in Boca Raton, Fla. "If you don't flex your spine, you'd never be able to get into your car, pick up a child, swing a golf club or get clothes out of the dryer." Machines, true, are "safe on your back." But an unexercised back is a back that's injured easily.

Adherents of functionality do exercises that demand simultaneous use of many muscles. Further, they add instability. Instead of doing arm curls while seated at a machine, for example, they do them while standing, with dumbbells. They might also perform curls while lunging, twisting, or teetering on a balance-board. Besides making you stronger for real-world situations, such exercise promotes weight loss: The more muscles you recruit, the more calories you burn.

Functional exercise doesn't require much equipment, nor is it expensive. Says Mike Boyle, head of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning in Winchester, Mass., who for ten years trained the Boston Bruins, "all you really need is your body and a room to move it in." Carlos Santana says $300 should buy you everything you need for a functional workout at home.

Needless to say, anybody with a big investment in gym machines isn't crazy about functional exercise. "I'm their worst nightmare" says Santana. "I train elite athletes, grandmas, post-coma patients--all without machines."