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Real-life muscle

Those bench presses might not help you unload the trunk. A new fitness plan could.

November 14, 2005|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

THE world is an unstable place. And your exercise routine needs to deal with that.

Weight machines, most of them anyway, aren't enough. They may build biceps or tone thighs, but they won't strengthen your core or tune up your neuromuscular connections.

But functional fitness will. The new buzzwords in the fitness industry are about building a body that looks fantastic in a mirror and breezes through the real world, with its pitted sidewalks, heavy grocery bags and rambunctious toddlers.

Gyms and personal trainers are increasingly preaching this gospel as an umbrella approach to exercise -- and, though research has been limited, studies in older adults back them up.

It's "a larger, more holistic approach," says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10, a personal training and workout facility in San Diego. "You're looking at where the body is weak, where it's breaking down -- looking at the body as a whole."

This broadening interest explains the explosion of exercise "boot camps," and to a lesser extent the profusion of yoga and Pilates classes. Suddenly old-fashioned calisthenics such as push-ups and squat thrusts are in vogue again. All of these use the body's own weight as resistance, focus on dynamic movement, and demand core strength.

Gina Miranda discovered this style of training after repeatedly picking up her 9-pound infant daughter. "A couple of times I pulled my back out lifting her," says the 32-year-old San Diego mom. "It's just a few pounds, but it was really hard on me."

With the help of an instructor, she balanced on stability balls, ran agility ladders like a football player and weaved through cones -- all components of functional fitness. A few months later, she says, "the strain was gone. And as she got heavier and heavier, I was stronger and stronger. I felt like I could carry her and get on with my day."

Beyond weights

The equipment inventory for functional fitness includes free weights, medicine balls, stability balls and cable weight machines, all of which work multiple muscle groups simultaneously.

Doing a biceps curl with a dumbbell while sitting on a stability ball engages core muscles that help the body stabilize, for instance. Doing a biceps curl on a traditional fixed weight machine just isolates the biceps.

We almost never isolate muscle groups in day-to-day living, says Mike Bracko, a Canadian exercise physiologist and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine: "When you pick up groceries you are using your biceps, but you're also bending your knees and using your back."

It's also important to counter what we overdo, such as sitting in front of a computer or bending over to pick things up. (See graphic.)

The price of ignoring functional fitness? Aches, pains and possibly worse. "You can have micro-traumas to the body," Bracko says. "Then one day you bend down to pick up a pencil, twist, and your back goes out."

A degenerative disc disease forced Cindy Swikard to stop running and prompted her doctor to suggest back surgery. The landscape company executive from San Diego nixed that. Instead she developed a workout with a trainer that includes core exercises and back hyperextensions. It has decreased her pain and allowed her to run, ski, hike and cycle again. "I can do whatever I want and not die," says Swikard, 47. "I can do normal stuff like sitting down, going up and down stairs. I don't ever get that tiredness or backache."

Her posture also improved: "My back is in a neutral position, and my stomach is tight. I do it without even thinking about it."

Original role models

Bracko floats the theory that this type of training emerged from the competitive sports world. Coaches, trainers and physical therapists continually analyze players' workouts to optimize performance on the field.

"If football players are doing a [traditional] bench press, their arms will be strong, but how does that translate into game performance?" Bracko says. "Maybe what they should be doing is a bench press while standing up." That might better simulate how a lineman blocks opponents.

Paula Tett, corporate education manager for the Sports Club/LA, believes that functional fitness -- with its emphasis on strength -- evolved from competitive bodybuilders' training. These muscle-bound athletes became the first role models for people interested in strength training and weight lifting.

"They were doing these exercises to enhance their sport," she says, "but then regular people started entering their domain." Now there are octogenarians coming to the gym, as well as overweight middle-aged people, weekend warriors and teens -- all with widely varying fitness goals and little need for bulging biceps. Strength training had to evolve.

But typical weight-lifting routines can put people in a rut, says Durkin. "When you sit on a bench and lift a weight, you're shutting down your neuromuscular education. You need to fire it up and do more dynamic training, standing on your feet and moving."

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