I recently read an article posted by a company that sells diet and supplement shakes as well as a training system that is largely based on weight lifting to help people lose weight and achieve a “better looking physique”. The article claimed that “not all exercise will be effective at changing your body to make you look like a fit person.” It claims that the only way to achieve “looking fit” is to do lots of weight training with simple movements repeated again and again.
The article goes on to say that any exercise will make you healthier and make you feel better but not all exercise will change your body to make you look like a fit person. It says that too many people are doing entertainment exercises or circus exercises. It describes entertainment exercise as spinning classes, zumba, and bootcamp classes and a circus workout as a workout that consists of exercises such as 10 battling rope, 10 jumping jacks, 10 box jumps, 10 mountain climbers, 10 burpees, run 200m, and 10 other random things. It says that although these exercise classes are fun and entertaining they are not an effective means for “looking like a fit person”.
These types of “entertainment" exercises or “circus” workouts have become increasingly popular in recent years, so what’s the deal?
Are varied workouts beneficial or should you go back to the basics of lifting weights one muscle at a time? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer or one best way to exercise. In order to decide what the “best way to exercise” is, we need to define what it means to be fit for you and what your goals for exercise are.
Simply put, if you want big muscles, then it is hard to argue with the basics of lifting heavy weights repeatedly again and again. But does having big muscles mean you are fit?
When I think of the ultimate level of fitness, I tend to think of a professional athlete. Pro-athletes come in all shapes and sizes, mostly dictated by what they need in order to excel at their sport. A shot putter has a very different physique than a marathon runner and a hockey player has a very different physique than an NFL lineman. But pro-athletes all have one thing in common: they move well. They are able to coordinate movement over multiple joints and muscles to be extremely proficient at what they do. Strength and power only adds to their ability to coordinate movement well and help them excel at what they do. Does “looking fit” mean you are able to move well? Not necessarily. But, you can move well and “look fit”.
So, what does it mean to move well?
All of our joints and muscles have an ideal range of motion or flexibility, and all of our joints and muscles must move together in coordination to produce movement. Take a basic squat for example. In order to do a proper squat, there needs to be a degree of hip flexion combined with a degree of knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion as well the ability to stabilize the core in a neutral spinal posture. If one joint or muscle is unable to move through its normal range, we must compensate for that by moving another joint or muscle excessively. If the hips are tight, you may be forced to flex the spine out of proper alignment or increase the flexion at the knee. This creates an increased risk for injury at the hip, knee, and back and reduces the maximal potential for the squat movement meaning that you may not be able to gain as much from the exercise.
Functional exercises are simply exercises that force us to move multiple muscles and joints together in coordination. They are exercises that force us to use muscles in a way that is more natural for movements we make in everyday life or in sports. It is very rare in life and in sports that we use individual muscles in isolation. It is rare that we isolate the abdominal muscles like we do with crunches; the abdominal muscles are used to maintain or position the core for maximal output to the upper and lower extremities.
When you do exercises like mountain climbers, battle ropes, and box jumps, you are training your body to move in coordination. Keep in mind that you still need to move well when doing these exercises and doing these exercises does not mean you will begin to move well. If you lack mobility or you are unable to coordinate a functional exercise properly, you need to step back and address those deficiencies first.
So, can you “look fit” by doing functional exercises? Most pro-athletes today combine traditional strength training with functional exercise, but a greater emphasis is placed on functional training. Any exercise done properly can build muscle or make you more lean, but functional exercise will also improve your athleticism and allow you to move through life with less risk of injury.