the joy of strength training


February 12th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Functional fitness in a transitional world

Climate change protest
Photo by Takver

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Getting stronger and fitter is an immensely powerful and rewarding process on a personal level. We can take that energy and ability and use it for even greater good and I am keen to explore – with you – ways of doing that.

Transition to what?

We are living in an age of transition, between a wasteful, energy-dependent, over-consumptive age and …well, we don’t quite know yet, but some kind of fall of civilisation is approaching – in fact it is probably already here.

As my favourite crash philosopher Ran Prieur comments, “It won’t be like falling off a cliff, more like rolling down a rocky hill. There won’t be any clear before, during, or after. Most people living during the decline and fall of Rome didn’t even know it.”

But what do we know? That food shortages, energy shortages, extreme weather, financial crises and massive migrations of people are just a few of the challenges we will be facing – are already facing – in the near future.

Those in charge tell us that if the system breaks down we will get anarchy and chaos, but in fact when the system fails us we tend to move closer together, create communities and find innovative ways to meet challenges.

Gubernatrix doing 130kg farmers walk

This new society will require us to be more skilful, practical, adaptable and resilient. Physical strength and fitness is an important part of this resilience and the ability to cope with the inevitable changes (or improvements, if you prefer) in our lifestyle.

“…life will change less than the peak oilers are predicting, because we have so much room to cut out waste: to drive less often in more efficient cars, ride bicycles, turn off the heat and air conditioning, take the machines and industrial chemicals out of agriculture, stop flying food around the world. Gradually, more people will grow their own food, raise their own kids, tend their own health, do stuff with their own bodies instead of machines, and turn their attention from the stock market and TV characters to their more real lives. Those who can adjust mentally will recognize this as an improvement.”
– Ran Prieur

The functional fitness model is particularly well suited to a post-peak oil world: there’s no reliance on machines or heavy energy use; tools are homemade, equipment is simple; the movements are applicable to real life tasks; in fact the entire approach is about being strong and healthy, not just looking good.

Functional fitness tends to take place in small scale businesses such as garage gyms, involving local communities. There’s an emphasis on learning new skills, helping others and making progress, not an obsession with things being so easy that you switch off completely or simply follow like an automaton what an instructor tells you to do.

“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.”
–    Mark Rippetoe

Functional fitness gives people strength, ability, confidence and independence from large scale systems, all of which are needed to build a new type of society. For me, functional fitness is strength. Strength is more important than endurance in a transitional age. I’d rather have the ability to pick up heavy, awkward objects than trot for ten miles.

I’m not dissing cardio endurance entirely, it all goes into the mix. But I’ve reached the point where the sight of millions of people fruitlessly pounding the pavements, who can’t even carry the equivalent of their own bodyweight across a car park, makes me want to jump up and down and possibly set myself on fire. Why hark back to a distant hunter-gatherer tradition when we don’t even have the ‘dad strength’ or ‘mum strength’ of the second world war generation?

Specialisation in terms of energy systems (long slow distance) is as counter-productive as any other type of specialisation. If you can run, that is fantastic. Now take the logical next step: pick up something heavy and run with that.

New challenges

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Dr. Howard Thurman

There is a transition that takes place, from pursuing physical fitness for purely selfish motives to thinking about wider, altruistic motives. Selfish motives are a perfectly good place to start – perhaps it is even necessary to go through a self-centered process in order to get completely comfortable with your physicality (my friends at Bodytribe have examined this issue in the past), but I don’t think that’s where it ends.

Having identified functional fitness, and strength in particular, as being ideal attributes for the new world we are living in, how do we join all these new ideas together? How do we start to make a difference to our communities? If you have a passion for strength and fitness and if you care about what happens in and to our world, why not use the former to help the latter?

It can be as simple as doing a workout in aid of an issue you care about: my friends at Crossfit Reading organised a sponsored workout for Haiti last weekend. Or it can be a longer term project running low cost training sessions for the local community, like Chip Conrad does in Sacramento.

There are a number of issues that have caught my eye over the years and I want to start personally making a difference in these areas.

1. Strength bias

Governments and local authorities think they are making great strides in ‘health and wellbeing’, but from what I can see there is very little emphasis on resistance/strength training and functional fitness, and far too much emphasis on high impact cardio and – for want of a better term – pointless jigging about.

I’m part of FK.UK, an umbrella organisation for functional fitness in the UK and I hope that we can influence the agenda by making sure that sound and trustworthy information about strength training gets to as wide an audience as possible.

2. Strength equality

There’s still a real issue around social inclusion and strength ‘equality’. For anyone who isn’t a policy wonk, that means making sure that people who are disadvantaged or marginalised can still get the benefits of better strength and fitness. The functional fitness world appears to be very much a white middle class male pursuit at the moment – shouldn’t we take active steps to change this?

Strength in particular is a gender equality issue. Women haven’t had the same access to strength training that men have, nor is it nearly as socially acceptable for women to be strong as it is for men – and there’s no good reason why this should be the case. Quite frankly, we need all the strong people we can get!

Fitness professionals and governments alike persist in giving out wrong information to women about strength training. I’ve recently set up the Women’s Strength Training Network on Facebook to help combat this by supporting women who are already strength training and generate new ideas about how to get the messages out to a wider audience.

3. Sustainable food

It is important to link healthy eating with sustainable food and farming. Personally I put ready meals and battery farmed chicken in the same ‘utter crap’ category. I’ve stopped eating meat because I just don’t trust it any more. Even if you are careful only to buy free range chicken at the supermarket, for example, what happens when you go out to a restaurant – do you check the provenance of the meat there? I thought it was easier not to eat it at all.

The food industry is now so global, mechanised and industrialised that it is no longer possible to be a responsible citizen and ignore the politics of food production. Food and farming are a big part of climate change (impact of livestock farming on carbon emissions and potential food shortages due to the effects of climate change being two examples), environmental damage, animal welfare, people welfare (fair trade). Food security is as big a concern as energy security but the solutions are likely to come from communities getting together and deciding to do something about it.

So I want to know what you think about all of this. Do you link your fitness with broader aspirations in your life, and if so, how? Are there particular issues that the strength community can contribute to? How do you shape not just a new person but a new world?

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  • 1

    Really liked this post!

    Not a big fan of the label “functional fitness”, though. The marketers have grabbed hold of the term and use it to sell crap 🙁 But I do like the point you’re getting at … low-tech training, geared towards health, etc.

    I left the ‘commercial gym’ scene many years ago, and find training in a garage and around my neighborhood with friends to be a very rewarding experience (and ironically, we have far better strength and fitness ‘results’ amongst the people we train with than any ‘proper’ gym in town).

    Fitness equality, particularly related to gender, is a major problem where I live. One of the gyms in town basically has ‘segregated’ training … the free weights for the dudes (well, some of the dudes) and machine based weights for the ladies (or maybe for the keen ladies some plastic dumbbells). This is not only wrong, but OFFENSIVE.

    I have two daughters (a gymnast and a dancer), and pound for pound, both are stronger than most of the males that go to the commercial gyms in town.

    The ladies I train with all lift weights … and they LOVE it!

    Anyway, enough of my rant.

    Loved the post.


    Kira on February 12th, 2010
  • 2

    Damn, I LOVE this post.

    Need to share it with my BlogHer sisters then sit quietly for a while and examine how best I can be a more public advocate for women’s strength in the future.

    deb roby on February 13th, 2010
  • 3

    In the future our brains will be downloaded to the interweb so we can dispense with bodies – if we want to go for a walk we will do it virtually via robot bodies. We won’t have to eat or exercise, this will cure food problems and obesity. We would use nuclear energy freely as the radiation would not effect us.

    sumoman on February 13th, 2010
  • 4

    The ideas are still coalescing in the back of my mind, but I think Functional Fitness not only prepares one physically for life, but builds versatility and adaptability that improves your psychological readiness to survive an unstable world. A person accepting the rules and fads of mainstream fitness will be at a disadvantage without those artifices.
    Positive Massage Therapy

    Steven on February 13th, 2010
  • 5

    I grew up partly on a farm run “semi-old” style. I dont understand what you mean with a lot of this, especially not the apocalyptic viewpoint. As times change, people will change with it. 6 months with more strenous activity and less abundance of carbs and the population will have adapted. Farming/food growing skills are easily learnt. Humans are survivors, we just cry a bit when our goodies are removed from us. Working out, focusing on being the best prepared when the apocalypse strikes, it seems a bit over the top. Better to join the army then which will see you infinitely better prepared, equipped and taken care of even if the field rations often are crap?

    Out of those who dont enjoy working out, not many will be recruited to functional fitness. Some people are so far down the degenerative path that working out really hurts. Not the good pain you feel when you are fit, but real pain. Motivating people to work out is all about making them find the joy of movement. We are all different so what motivates us and what we find joy in is is very different from person to person.

    Please keep on writing your blog, I do enjoy reading it even if I dont agree with it all and find some of it downright strange from my cultural and personal values (as you would think about my thoughts) 🙂

    Rolfe on February 16th, 2010
  • 6

    I’m not sure how much of this blog entry I agree with but I can say this…

    This days of poor eating, bad movement (or no movment), and fixing both of these problems with medical care will have its reckoning. In my country, we just can’t afford the luxury of having over half of the populace overweight for very much longer. From the upfront costs to maintain these waistlines with toxic drugs to the lack of ability to deal with even modest amounts of stress, it’s wrecking everyone’s most valuable resources-ourselves.

    As always, nice work.

    Justin_P on February 17th, 2010
  • 7

    I think the connection and importance between strengt/a well functioning body and a well functioning mind cannot be stressed enough. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans favoured a holistic view (a healthy mind in a healthy body) of all bodily functions including the functioning of the mind, this view has fallen from grace since the middle ages: The body was considered a vessel for the mind towards the next life more than a inseparable part of it. Only in the past 50 years or so have we begun to examine and understand the link between the two again. I think the current emphasis on fitness is still the one of the desirability of a set example of beautiful exterior only ( = desirability for reproduction to you, monkeys! We’re essentally animals still, and personally I’m proud to be a rational animal and to realise this). As more and more people will get sick because of all the factors that contribute to an unhealthy body (lifestyle, inertia, food choices etc) the emphasis and focus of beauty of the body will hopefully gradually shift from “image” to functionality.

    I am not “beautiful”, I am strong and powerful and that is what I feel makes me beautiful. And incidentally, more streamlined than I was before, nice. But, to me, not essential any more.

    Eat good stuff
    Read good books
    Lug stuff around for fun
    Care about what kind of person you are and about what kind of world you live in
    Not be smug about it 🙂

    Gubes is right: hopefully these will be the focussing points for next generations, and we should go on promoting them.

    Lieke on February 17th, 2010
  • 8

    If there’s going to be an apocalypse, I think I’d rather just die, actually. Does that mean I should stop training?!

    I try to buy sustainable, fairly traded products, organic food etc and I recycle and all that (in a ‘doing my bit’ rather than a ‘fully paid up member of the Green Party’ sort of way, but I can’t say I’ve ever related any of that to training. I’m not sure I’m going to now, either. I’m not sure there is any more connection between functional fitness and a sustainable lifestyle than there is between, say, coffee and chocolate – i.e. both taste good, but you can have one without the other. Or do I just not care enough about issues generally?

    nickyhusky on February 22nd, 2010
  • 9

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been off the blog ‘scene’ for a while as I was travelling, but if you haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’d recommend it.

    roo roo on February 27th, 2010
  • 10

    Hey, wondered where you’d got to?! I’ll check that book out (I do like Michael Pollan but hadn’t got around to that one).
    Do come along to the Women’s Strength Symposium if you are around on 8th March. It’s at

    gubernatrix on February 28th, 2010
  • 11

    Splendid, I’ll be there x

    roo roo on February 28th, 2010
  • 12

    Cheers for the info,

    Any idea how I can find the nearest strongman training facility to me? Tried google, couldn’t find nowt.

    Strongman Wannabe on March 16th, 2010
  • 13

    If you are in the UK, try searching the forums on

    gubernatrix on March 16th, 2010
  • 14

    Great site you’ve got here. Thought provoking post too although I don’t fully understand your description of running etc as fruitless. I’m more of a power athlete myself and agree that training functional movements makes one far “fitter” for life’s challenges than simply doing cardio.
    However, many people focus on aerobic fitness because they wish to lose weight, find it the most accessible form of exercise, the least intimidating or simply a worthwhile goal. The human race surely benefits more from this diverse range of fitnesses than if we were all to be strength or power athletes, don’t you think?

    Btw Your post on too many goals was very helpful, I’ve halved my short term goals and look forward to seeing more focused improvement.

    Richard Bartlett on April 9th, 2010
  • 15

    Great points Richard and I’m glad you like the site. Of course I wasn’t describing all running as fruitless (!) – I like running myself and used to do a lot of it, entering races regularly and so on.
    However what I believe is fruitless is people doing it even though they don’t like it because they believe that is what they have to do to lose weight, prevent heart disease etc. This is not true and causes a lot damage where people are only running and not doing anything else to support all round fitness.

    gubernatrix on April 9th, 2010
  • 16

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