By Raymond Onyango.

My own strength-training program consists of just 6 main exercises, Squats, Pull-ups, Dead lifts, Dips, Lunges and Push-ups.  I have stuck with these exercises for years because they share certain common characteristics  which make them time efficient and devastatingly effective all at once.

The 3 common denominators that underlie each one of these exercises start with the fact that, they fall into a category of exercises known as Functional movements. Functional movements are so-called because they are designed to mimic natural real life activities, which make use of our bodies in patterns that are consistent with our natural design and evolution. By their very nature functional movements are multi dimensional, demanding the cooperation of several muscle groups across our bodies, which in turn burns lots of calories and gets us lean quick. Besides helping us to get lean and stay lean, functional movements help us to maintain our quality of life, by preserving strength and range of motion around our joints. These are the two things we lose steadily and progressively with age, beginning in our thirties and beyond.  Lastly functional movements train several aspects of our physical and metal fitness beyond sheer muscle tone; balance, agility, flexibility, coordination, proprioception, muscular endurance and even cardiovascular endurance are all challenges that must be overcome in order to gain mastery of functional training.

This is important because the human body is an architectural masterpiece of astounding complexity. You hardly ever give it a thought, but you will be amazed to learn that it takes the coordinated action of over 200 muscles just to take a single step forward. Against this backdrop it is rather obvious that isolation type training, of the kind that is offered by gym machines has no place in the evolutionary narrative of the human body. According to a registered trademark of the Lance Armstrong foundation, and I quote, “ sometime in the 1950’s body builder Harold Zinkin created the multi station, cable based Universal gym. Within that same time frame, Jack La Lanne invented the Smith Machine, the Lat pull down machine and the Leg extension machine. Fitness equipment gained sophistication in the 1970’s when Arthur Jones created his Nautilus line of equipment. His machine featured a cam, which adjusted the resistance of the machine according to the natural curve within an exercise”.

It is notable that all of the men who inspired modern-day gym machines were body builders themselves. According to the Wikipedia, “Body building is a form of body modification involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, body builders display their physiques to a panel of judges who assign points based on their appearance. Body builders prepare for competition through a combination of fat loss, and the application of oils, which combined with lighting make the definition of a muscle group more distinct.” Bodybuilding is actually a sport, which has no direct bearing on health and fitness. In fact one can argue that in the professional ranks body builders do not aspire to be healthy individuals. Extreme dieting, unhealthy weight loss methods and widespread anabolic steroid use are an all to common part of the sport.

On a purely functional level most of our modern-day gym machines were designed for body builders, and because of this they have several inherent and potentially dangerous weaknesses.  For starters, they tend to isolate single muscle groups, which in turn can create serious muscle imbalances that lead to long-term injury. A functional exercise such as the Walking lunge will tone virtually every muscle in your lower body, but your core will also be recruited to maintain your balance, not to mention the coordination it takes to move seamlessly into the next lunge. These are the exact same movement patterns you engage when running, walking, climbing up a flight of stairs and all other such like activities of daily living. The Leg extension, which is the machine equivalent of lunges, has you sitting in a chair (after sitting all day in the office, no less!) lifting a load with your feet. Your hips and the rest of your body are completely divorced from the movement and stand aside as passive observers while the quadriceps alone bear the burden. I cannot think of a single situation in my life where I have had to do this kind of movement except within the gym and so for the majority of us (unless we are in rehab or are engaged in body building) really have absolutely no need for this kind of exercise. It is also instructive to note that gym related injuries have escalated in recent years as many of us pursue well-intentioned but ill-advised fitness regimens.

A further incentive to opt for functional free weight exercises over and above their machine counterparts has much to do with weight loss. Weight loss is the single most frequently stated objective among gym users anywhere in the world.  Indeed many of us only show up at the gym, when we start to have real trouble fitting into our clothes. Free weight functional exercises help you burn fat by encouraging three key things – they elevate your heart rate, increase your rate of breathing and work up a sweat. Your heart rate is a direct indicator of your body’s energy demands, that is why your heart rate soars when you have to run after the bus. Your rate of breathing also increases in order to meet oxygen demand and is a direct indicator of the speed of your body’s metabolic processes. Heat is the by-product of all these metabolic processes and the body gets rid of the excess by inducing sweat from the sweat glands which cools down the body. If you build your self a circuit of functional exercises such as I have done for myself, you will be so out of breath and sweating buckets by the end of just a single circuit, it is no wonder these exercises zap the fat from your waistline faster than you can spell G.O.N.E.  The secret lies in the level of muscular integration; these exercises challenge a wide cross-section of muscles and so demand a lot of energy to execute. The more energy you expend, the more weight you lose, so in just a single workout session you can lose weight, tone up and get a kick-ass cardiovascular workout all at the same time – and that is all you really need!

Have a functional week will you!

Ps. Next week we will examine the mechanics of each of these exercises individually starting with the Squat – stay tuned!