Functional Training – What is it, really?

By now, most people have heard of ‘functional’ training. A lot of people think they know what it is, while many have no idea. Today, we are going to look at what it really is and how you use this kind of training in your own fitness program.

There are a ton of different definitions of functional training, but they all basically boil to down to something like “training that prepares you for activities of daily living (ADLs).” There are some common things that we all do – moving between sitting and standing, picking things up and putting them down from the ground, waist level, or overhead, pushing, pulling. There is also a lot of variance between individuals, and that is what you should be focusing on when considering how ‘functional’ your training is.

Lets look at two people: a farmer, and an office worker. What does ‘functional’ mean to each of them? Its totally different. For the farmer, baling hay, climbing into and out of farm equipment and barns, and carrying heavy things from place to place are some key tasks to his job. He may be required to bend over thousands of times a day to pick crops or plant seeds. The office worker, on the other hand, might sit down and stand up twenty times a day, but otherwise is sedentary. What these two individuals would consider ‘functional fitness’ is completely different, because the functions they fill in society are completely different.

It is important to first look at what function you are trying to gain fitness for. If it is office work, a key exercise is squats as switching between sitting and standing is almost exactly the same movement as squatting. There are also likely muscle imbalances and weaknesses due to prolonged sitting, which may require their own set of exercises. People who don’t sit all day at work might not have any need to do those, though, so are they ‘functional’ or not? It gets complicated.

An exercise is functional for a specific individual, but to do ‘functional’ training means that you must first know what the function you’re training for is. Think of an office worker, a construction worker, a farmer, a factory worker, a truck driver, a lumberjack, a sailor. They all have wildly different demands placed on them every day, and what may prepare you to work on a ship might not be effective for undoing the damage caused by spending 8-10 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. A factory worker who lifts things high up may need to focus on overhead movement more, while a worker in a factory who does not lift things overhead would not need to do those exercises. Maybe that worker lifts things from the ground to waist level, where deadlifts from the ground would be a more useful exercise to mimic work demands. Even two workers in the same job might need different ‘functional’ exercises – a five foot tall factory worker will find themselves lifting things overhead much more often than one who is over six feet tall.

Functional fitness has become a buzzword, like ‘core training’ or ‘metabolic training/conditioning.’ It does have a place, but I think it has been thrown around too much and have become wary of anyone who promises ‘functional training programs.’ From what I have seen, most of these are not functional for anyone, let alone an individual with their own ‘function.’ They often include overly complex movements to make you feel like you’re doing something different and better, but its really just different, and often dangerous. Stuff like this:

I can’t imagine this ended well, but at least you can’t fault him for not being well dressed. Photo Credit.

Training should prepare you for daily life no matter what. In that sense, any program you start on should be ‘functional.’ The only reason to do a non-functional program would be if your athletic goals didn’t line up with the goal of living a healthy and active life. Bodybuilders, for instance, don’t do functional training. What they do really doesn’t mimic most of what they do during the day, but that isn’t their goal – the goal is to get huge muscles, functionality be damned. Competitive ultramarathon runners (who do races more than 26.2 miles) don’t concern themselves with functional fitness beyond the ability to complete the distance in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes athletic goals don’t line up with general wellness goals, and that’s fine for athletes at the top of their game, but for most of us, just being healthy and active is more than enough. Most of the exercises in a well-rounded plan should have a purpose, whether it is a ‘functional fitness’ plan or not. If you’re unsure why you’re doing an exercise, ask! If you can’t get a good answer, don’t do it. EVERY exercise, every rep, every session should have a clear, defined goal. Maybe you spend all day sitting and need to strengthen your back and core. Maybe you don’t. But if you go into without first clearly defining what the function you are trying to improve, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy on things that are not specific to you. Figure out what you need first, then work on that specifically. A ‘functional fitness’ plan that is one-size-fits-all can be just as bad as one that doesn’t even consider ‘functional fitness.’ Working with a fitness professional can help you identify and achieve goals related to being more comfortable and able in your day-to-day life by incorporating exercises specific to you and your lifestyle. If you’re not sure about whether your fitness program is helping you meet those goals, feel free to send me a message and we can talk about it one-on-one, and together come up with a plan that will prepare you for living your best life.

The Problem With Sauces – how to make sauces and dressings work for your diet

I was in the grocery store today and overheard a discussion in front of the sauce aisle. It probably sounds like a lot of healthy-eating related discussions that people have with each other, especially when they are new to eating healthy and not on some fad diet. It went something like this:

“This sauce has water as its first ingredient and sugar is the second!”

“This one too!”

“Almost all of these have sugar and water as the first two ingredients!”

This is great! They were on the right track, but struggling. You should ALWAYS look at the label and ingredients when you buy something. It will give you all the nutrition info for calories, macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs), vitamins, minerals, and a list of ingredients in order of the amount (so the first ingredient makes up the biggest portion of the item, the second ingredient the second biggest portion…). Being able to read a label is a skill, and an important one at that. This couple was learning how to eat properly by learning how to select their own food, rather than follow a restrictive go/no-go list of foods from some fad diet. I was actually pretty excited to overhear this conversation, and thought that sauces are a popular sticking point in diets worth writing about here.

Sauces and dressings are primarily high in one of a few things: fat, sugar, or sodium. That’s why we like sauces! Low-fat options tend to add more sugar to make up for the low-fat, and carb-free sauces tend to be full of fat for the same reason. At any rate, you should learn how to incorporate healthy sauce and dressing options into your diet, and to make room for non-healthy options as well. One of my favorite sauce/dressing options is olive oil. Super versatile, its great on its own or as the main ingredient in a homemade olive oil dressing. Sauce is often used to add flavor to a dish, so one other option is to not use sauce and instead focus on seasoning the food so that it tastes good without anything. This is difficult, but a great skill to learn! The adjustment period can range from being pleasant to eating bland and tasteless food for a while, depending on your cooking ability. Your skill as a chef will improve significantly, however, if you learn to season properly.

Another option for sauces is to look for what your diet is lacking. Think of a high-fat sauce as just an option to add fat to your dish to create a more balanced meal. This would be the option for a carb and protein heavy meal. An example would be gravy (high fat sauce) with turkey (protein) and mashed sweet potatoes (carbs). Most sweet sauces end up in desserts or breakfast, and often on top of carbs (pancakes, waffles, pastries), so try to pair them with a fat and protein source as well (maybe a side of eggs with a whole-wheat pancake – I personally like Kodiak Cake brand pancake and waffle mix, which are whole grain and include a significant amount of protein as well). If your sauce choice is not healthy, at least put it on something that is good for you.

The other type of sauce that is common is the high-sodium options like soy sauce. If you don’t have any reason to avoid sodium (your doctor would tell you if you did, and its worth keeping an eye out for elevated sodium levels anyway), high sodium sauces might be a low calorie option to use in place of a high fat or carb sauce. They don’t go on everything, but they are an option. I would usually pair it with a low sodium dish – chicken breast, vegetables, brown rice and soy sauce, for example.

One case that I hear often exemplifies the issue I have with our idea about sauces: salads. So many times I have heard ‘oh the salad has as many calories as the burger, I’ll get the burger instead.’ NO. They might have the same calories, and you might not lose more weight with the salad, but its absolutely not true that they’re equal. The salad is way, way better for you and you know it! Focus on eating healthy first and weight loss second. That’s the goal, improving health. Weight loss is part of being healthy, but there are a lot of skinny people who are nutrient deficient, malnourished, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol…health issues we associate with being overweight. So the question here is, do you want to be skinny or be healthy? If the answer is skinny, that probably speaks to some serious body image issues that are at the root of your weight problems. Healthy is so much more important than skinny, and eating healthy is the easiest way to lose weight anyway.

In conclusion, think about your sauce choices. Become a better seasoner, don’t put an unhealthy sauce on an unhealthy dish, and try to balance your sauce choice with the nutrients already on your plate. If a healthy option has a high calorie sauce, try to substitute the sauce or avoid it, and if that’s not an option, accept it as part of the meal and don’t worry about it – nobody ends up overweight from too many salads. Too often we look at weight loss as unconnected from general health, and that is the wrong way to look at it.

A Holiday Season Where You Don’t Get Off Track

I bet you’re expecting tips to stay on your diet and exercise game during the holiday season. There’s some at the bottom, but what I want to encourage you to do is to enjoy your holiday. Your diet will slip. You will miss a few workouts. Its fine.

Its fine if get back to your diet and exercise plan after your holiday is over. Its not fine if you spend Thanksgiving to New Years eating and drinking whatever you want while cutting back on all your activity. We fall into that trap so often. Its because we don’t plan to take the time off of our diet and exercise that will happen no matter how strict we try to be. We all think we’re much more disciplined than we are, so we go into the holidays with a plan that we’re going to eat healthy and hit all our workouts. Do you have a plan for when that fails?

For most people, there really isn’t much point in trying to stick to what has been working during the holidays. You’re likely traveling, eating food you haven’t prepared yourself, foods you may have been avoiding entirely, while being pressured by friends and family to stray from your diet. You’re busier, and every workout is time away from family and friends that are the focus of the holiday. Its like you were set up to fail here, and most people do. Be realistic about whats going to happen, and plan for that.

So you can plan to take some time off. If you’re gone for a week around Christmas, a few missed workouts and some less than ideal meals are no big deal. I wouldn’t want more than a week to go by like this, but most vacations aren’t longer than that anyway. If you do go on a two (or more) week vacation, pick the week in the middle where the most challenge is going to be for healthy eating and exercise, and take that week off. Knowing you have a week off will make eating healthy and exercising at the beginning or end of your trip that much more bearable.

The key thing here is to get right back into your plan as soon as the holiday season is over. If you aren’t visiting family on December 27th, you shouldn’t be eating like you are! If you can get back into it, missing a week is going to be unnoticable in the long run. Here’s some tips to get you back into it after a holiday break.

  1. Have something healthy ready for the first few days back from vacation while you’re readjusting. Its going to be busy – unpacking, catching up on work, writing thank you notes – so its going to be easy to slip into getting quick, unhealthy meals. Freeze a few of your favorite healthy meals, or premake something the night you get back for the next few days. I like baking chicken breast in the oven and throwing some brown rice in a rice cooker – 5 minutes of prep, and about 45 minutes later i can have 6-8 meals ready to be put in storage containers for the next few days. Its not exciting, but its super easy and healthy. Keeping nuts around to snack on is another easy, healthy option.
  2. Have a workout planned the day after you get back. It doesn’t have to be long, or even hard. It is incredibly important that you do it though. If you hit this workout, you’ll already be getting back into it. If you skip it, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. It might help to schedule your whole day after you get back before you even leave for your trip.
  3. Get in workouts when you can on vacation. I know I said not to worry, but if there’s an hour or so where you’re bored, invite someone on a quick 20-minute run, or suggest a sport. Touch football is a fun Thanksgiving activity that can serve as a workout. Skiing at Christmas is great if your family is into that, and nordic skiing is great cardio. Its easier to get back into your workout plan if you haven’t been completely sedentary – you’ll feel better overall, too.
  4. Write your plan out somewhere visible. A monthly calendar or a post it note on a fridge, somewhere you look frequently, should have a note on it to workout on the date you get back. This helps remind you that it is important to complete that workout, and your pre-vacation self expects it of you.

Being realistic with our expectations is important. We didn’t suddenly develop the willpower to eat healthy this Christmas when we didn’t have it last year, so lets be real and just accept it. If we do that, we can plan for it, and still have a positive outcome.

Why Is Staying Fit So Hard?

It isn’t.

Well, that’s a lie. It is hard. Its just not complicated.

Let me explain: staying fit basically just involves being active most days of the week, and doing this consistently over time. Couldn’t be simpler! So why is it so hard to do? We all have our excuses – too busy, too tired, there’s a new episode of something on TV, don’t have the right clothes. I’ve heard a lot of excuses. It might take some time to figure out how to fit working out into your schedule.

The take away here is that its not really that important what you do, as long as you’re doing something. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is all the rage these days. What if you don’t like that? What if working super hard for 30 minutes a day sounds absolutely dreadful to you? How long do you think you will do something that you find dreadful? Probably not too long.

Maybe a casual bike ride is more your style. That’s still exercise! You may have to ride for longer than someone who goes for a bike ride and rides up and down the steepest hill in town, but its much more important to do something you enjoy. Everyone once in a while you do need to do workouts you may not enjoy. Weight training is one of the most effective ways to increase your lean muscle mass, metabolism, and bone density, among other things, so you should be doing that regularly, especially if your other activities are low/no-impact (weight training is more important for a cyclist or swimmer’s bones than it is for a runner). A little variety is good, though, and working to find that balance is important. HIIT is great if you enjoy it, but don’t buy into the hype that its the only way to get fit. Working hard every so often is good for you, and doing some high intensity exercise is necessary, but 1. You need to work up to it. If you’ve been sedentary for some time, going full bore into high intensity training is just asking for an injury, and 2. Its just one option out of many. In the fitness world, it is so easy to get stuck on a new trend. Circuit training had its day, HIIT is the rage now, and something new will come along in a few years. Just because its working for a lot people does not mean its going to work for you. Figure out what works for you and do that – you’ll be happier and more successful than the guy or gal who jumps from trend to trend, which brings me to my next point.

You also have to stick with it. Doing something that appeals to you helps, but everyone is going to get busy and tired at times and not want to work out. Sometimes you just have to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted going for a run or a bike ride when I felt tired, or going to the gym and getting a quick strength training session in if I’m busy. The trick is having a plan to deal with those days before they happen. If you can squeeze a workout in in a 30-minute block of free time, that’s infinitely better than missing a day because you’re busy. There is all sorts of ways to do it, but figuring out what works for you on days like that should be one of the goals if you are working with a personal trainer.

For example, on days where I have very limited amounts of time, I stop at a gym on my way from task to task. Often, I will have less than an hour (sometimes much less) and have a workout planned for that day. I simply hit the most important exercises and forego the less important ones – that means that while I still get all of my squat sets in, for instance, the calf raises get skipped, and I hit all of my overhead press sets, skipping side raises. Exercise isn’t an all or nothing deal, you can still get benefits from a shortened workout, and those benefits are infinitely better than skipping the workout entirely. It doesn’t mean you can get rid of the ‘less important’ exercises entirely, but if time constraints mean you only have a short amount of time to get something in, hitting the important things might be just the solution. This is also true for those training for endurance events – maybe you only have 3 days to run this week instead of 5. Don’t do the less important, easy run scheduled for Tuesday, and instead do a focused workout scheduled for later in the week that will yield more results.
If you have performance-oriented goals, the less time you have, the more important how you spend that time becomes.

For general fitness goals, the most important thing is consistency. Everything else is just icing on the proverbial fitness cake. Working out super hard may be more effective, but if you don’t do it, its suddenly way less effective than the low-intensity workout that you complete.

I’d like to close this by making an important distinction. There is no one ‘right’ way to workout, but there is most definitely a wrong way to work out. You can very easily injure yourself in a variety of ways, from poor form causing injuries to muscles, tendons, and joints, to overuse injuries and even more serious medical conditions like overtraining syndrome and rhabdomyolysis that can require medical intervention. It is also easy to underdo it and completely miss your goals – while you may be able to get a 30 minute workout in at a high intensity, don’t take my advice as saying that you can do the same 30 minutes at a low intensity and get similar results. Consult a fitness professional if you’re not sure what, or how much, to do, and consult your doctor before beginning any fitness training or diet program.