Sometimes I want to go to the gym to zone out on the elliptical and read a magazine or stream Netflix (my secret guilty pleasure.) But every time I go, I find myself biting my tongue when I see people using improper form or doing useless exercises.
Many of the machines in the gym put undo stress on the body by isolating muscles without utilizing or supporting the surrounding musculature. This creates non-functional muscle, meaning that although your bicep may strong on it’s own it won’t properly work with your other muscles during real life activities (like picking up something heavy.) To bend down and pick up a heavy object, your muscles need to work together. Your bicep isn’t the only muscle that is working, you also need to use strength in your back, core, legs and shoulders to find balance against the added weight, support and stabilize moving joints, and bring the heavy object in line with the support structure of your skeleton.
The idea of exercise that supports real life activities is known as functional exercise or functional fitness. When you exercise with functional fitness as your focus you are teaching your muscles to be smart and work together to create better function, mobility and stability, which no matter your lifestyle and activity level, is a wise use of your time. Functional fitness can help everyone from computer magnets to athletes in training, and especially those who do both: weekend warriors.
Take for example the bench press machines. When doing a bench press with a machine you have the advantage of knowing that you cannot hurt yourself by dropping the bar, but miss out on effectively using your support musculature. The bench press machine moves in a straight vertical track, which only responds to vertical directional force from your body. The machine may allow you to lift heavier weights and feel your pectoral muscles more, but you miss out on some of the support work that deltoids, trapezius and triceps do, and more, you completely miss out on stabilization benefits from the abdominals, back, scapular stabilizers, and other arm muscles. Basically, bench press machines turn a fantastic full-body exercise into a way to aesthetically bulk a targeted muscle.
The best exercises are ones using minimal equipment and your own body weight. For example, instead of doing the inner thigh press machine at the gym, put a resistance band around your ankle and tie the other end around one of those bulky machines. Step and squeeze the ankle with the band into the other leg, pulling against the band 20 times with form and control.
Instead of doing a useless ab machine 100 times, do the quintessential Pilates exercise, the Hundred. I guarantee you will feel the burn.
Functional fitness is what makes CORE and Pilates so effective. So take your smart anatomical knowledge into the gym with you so you can get the most out of that time, even if you still read that magazine.