Many people including myself and many readers of this site would say we do ‘functional fitness’. We use the phrase almost without thinking, but most people have never heard of it and it must sound very odd.
This thought struck me as I was watching a climbing film, Alistair Lee’s Onsight where one interviewee comments that when you try to explain headpointing (practising a route on a top rope before leading it) to anyone who doesn’t climb, they don’t understand the point of it at all. It’s the same with functional fitness. I mean, since when has fitness not been functional?
“Veronica and I are trying this new fad called uh, jogging. I believe it’s jogging or yogging. It might be a soft j, I’m not sure, but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.” – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy
Somewhere down the line, the view was formed that a lot of so-called fitness activity was actually unfunctional. It may have looked like fitness and sounded like fitness and perhaps some fitness was gained as a by-product, but the overriding aim and ambition was to look good naked.
Shiny new contraptions were invented to assist in this goal, as well as accessories, pharmaceutical products and supplements. Perfection could only be attained with the right gear.
Now, I’d like to look good naked as much as the next person so I am not questioning the validity of this ambition. But could you argue that in the modern world, all you need fitness for is to look good and stay healthy, since work, rest and play can all be carried out with the minimum of physical effort? Is that the modern function of fitness?
Eugen Sandow, both poster boy and mastermind of physical culture, wanted to show that an attractive and healthy body was within reach for anybody who was prepared to follow a simple exercise regime.
Physical culture acknowledged that exercise could actually have good looks as an end. Lifting weights would not only make you strong, it would make you beautiful.
We got to the point where, like pop, fitness ate itself. It has certainly become an end in itself. So instead of needing to be fit for something, you can now just be fit. Fit for anything – and nothing.
Modern life is now so geared towards our own convenience, where we have so little need to lift, carry, walk, run or climb that we are obliged to make deliberate efforts to set time aside for fitness because we are just not getting this effect from normal life. So the culture has arisen where fitness is pursued in a gym environment for 30-45 minutes three times a week. It is no longer just part of daily life. For many people it has even superceded sports.
I have heard people say, “What’s the point of that? I’ll never have any need to chop wood or pull a sled!”
But the great thing about functional fitness is that you use ordinary objects found around the home or the garage. You don’t need expensive equipment or posh gyms to get fit. A sledgehammer is not only much cheaper than a cable machine, but you might actually be able to use it for other tasks as well. Smashing your old furniture up, for example.
Functional fitness is a simpler approach to fitness. The point is to get fit, not to spend lots of money on machines and supplements. Functional fitness practitioners appreciate simple and versatile equipment like the skipping rope, gymnastic rings or kettlebell. In fact many people get a lot of pleasure from making their own kit.
There is a feeling of self sufficiency that comes from making things or using objects imaginatively that improves your mental wellbeing as well as your physical health (and your financial health, come to that). We may not ever really expect to be dropped in the jungle and have to fight our way out, but it is comforting to think that we are capable enough to have a decent chance.
Functional fitness also takes a holistic view of fitness itself. Fitness encompasses strength, speed, endurance and agility. It includes short, sharp efforts as well as lengthy ones. Most people end up with a bias in one particular direction according to their own preference and build, but functional fitness aficionados make an effort to cover all areas and work on their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
You will often find functional fitness practitioners training outside or in a fairly basic indoor environment. Simple and functional environments are appreciated as much as simple and functional equipment.
“Gym Jones is private and isolated from the modern fitness ideal precisely because we believe that attitude to be poison. We believe that a proper training facility is separated from the complacency of the general public, and has its own set of rules and values. We believe that nothing of value may be acquired by simply going through the motions; real fitness is earned.” – Gym Jones
There are people in the world whose jobs involve functions that could be classed under ‘fitness’ – soldiers or firefighters, for example. But many people are simply pursuing fitness for its own sake. And if we’re honest, to be better than other people. Underlying a lot of so-called functional fitness is simple elitism.
Personally I’m all for elitism. I like being fitter/cleverer/healthier than the majority of the population. But let’s call it what it is. In this spirit, I appreciate the honesty of Crossfit’s “forging elite fitness” tag or Testosterone Nation’s strap line of “unapologetic muscle building elitists”. Even the quasi-cultish mystique surrounding Gym Jones could be forgiven on the basis that it is more interested in being true to its values than in being loved.
Many of the functional fitness methods or schools are elitist in outlook. It is an acknowledgement that fitness is more than simply staving off obesity and incapacity for as long as possible. It is about being as good as you can be or as good as your motivation can make you.
There are times when functional fitness, like many interesting concepts, disappears up its own backside. There is an awful lot of gumph spoken about hunting and gathering and being ‘ready for anything’.
I used to be sceptical of this ‘ready for anything’ attitude. It seemed faintly ridiculous for middle-aged suburban men and women to be training as if for battle on the off chance that guerilla war is going to break out in Maidenhead. And if a meteorite does hit the earth wiping out all supermarkets, our survival is going to be more about bushcraft knowledge and a high degree of efficiency than supreme physical fitness (more Ray Mears than Bear Grylls, if you know what I mean).
“Like it or not, we are the product of a very long process of adaptation to a harsh physical existence, and the past couple centuries of comparative ease and plenty are not enough time to change our genome. We humans are at our best when our existence mirrors, or at least simulates, the one we are still genetically adapted to live. And that is the purpose of exercise.” – Mark Rippetoe
But like anything, it is a matter of degree. Some people train to be able to kick a football around with their kids, others want to complete a mountain marathon. Ultimately it is about finding out just how capable you are, and the harder you push the more you adapt.
So functional fitness is the practise of all-round training using basic equipment in an unfussy environment, preferably outdoors. If you are lucky enough to have some real wood to chop or a genuine reason for pulling a sled, lucky you. If not, you may have to make one up.
What are your thoughts on functional fitness? Is the ‘functional’ redundant? Would you call yourself a functional fitness practitioner?
More from gubernatrix
- Budget training by Ross Enamait
- Ritual vs Routine – a leftfield take on the relationship between fitness and physical attractiveness from Bodytribe
- 30 days without weights – bodyweight training
- Why Gym Jones is a private facility
- Funckey – the functional fitness community in the UK
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