May 15, 2015

Training complex

Most of us want to be more physically functional, at whatever level we need to function at. 
My list of important movements is very broad, from climbing to getting my snowmobile unstuck to skiing and running to carrying the groceries up my great 3 floor stairs. But all of these forms of movement involve complex sets of muscles working together. My ability to do these movements is not likely to be dramatically improved doing exercises that isolate individual muscles. 

Yet most “gyms” in the world are full of machines and equipment whose sole purpose is to develop muscles in isolation from one another. Bicep curl machine. Lat bar machine you work with your elbows to isolate your tripceps mostly out. Ab machines that get rid of your hip flexors…. Life does NOT work like that.

Our muscles have to work together, and if we don’t train them together then they won’t work together. Most of the strength gains that come initially with training are due to teaching your muscles how to work together… When I pick up my back pack off the floor with my arms I do a sort of straight-legged deadlift into a bicep curl supported by literally hundreds of different trunk (core if you prefer) muscles, finger muscles, back, neck, etc. If each muscle I used in lifting into my arms were to light up in bright red and my skin were transparent then there probably wouldn’t be more than a few muscles in my entire body that didn’t turn red to one extent or another. A deadlift is a pretty darn complicated movement. A bicep curl is not. Complex vs isolated.

When I first started “training” for climbing. I did many of the classic muscle isolation “split” routines that came out of body building. That goal is develop each part to look nice. So you do your back one day, legs the next, chest the next, repeat. I did get stronger, but that was about looking good vs. function. I couldn’t have deadlifted my own weight without that my back wouldn't hurt. That’s a basic human skill we all ought to know how to do, and you won’t learn it at the average gym… If you do one thing different in your training this year go learn how to deadlift properly. I think about my form every single time I pick up a log or a heavy pack or help a friend carry the tires out from the basement. I have never had any chronic back issues, I don’t have any now because I know how to lift heavy shit up without hurting my self. Back to training.

If I’m climbing a rock route then I bet every single muscle in my body (OK, most of them) would have fired somewhere on the route.

Where this all going is that the more isolated in terms of muscle involvement an exercise is the less it is applicable to real life “functional/complex movement.” I didn’t come up with this idea at all; Crossfit certainly made it mainstream. That probably works really, really well. I’d put any Crossfitter up against anyone who trained isolation exercises at a globo gym in almost any real-world movement from running to lifting a car tire and I’d expect that the Crossfitter is going to win. 
But, will it win over a real life out door training?!
Functional movement training kicks ass on isolation movement training. So exercises like pullups dominate the lat isolation machine. Total strength in actually DOING things you get out of ‘em. You could have 17 inch biceps, but if you can’t deadlift 50 pounds of a shopping bag, then those muscles are useless.

So, if you’re training to be more functional then in general do more functional movements. But, even in a “general” conditioning program, we’re still always choosing our goals. Do we want to be more tilted toward running, or deadlifting? Doing high-output exercises for a short time, or a max single effort? “General” workouts pick a general line through many areas, great. Sport-specifc athletes need sport-specific exercises. That’s why a trained junior high runner will destroy a champion senior in a fast track. Skills and trained movement patterns start to trump strength pretty fast in most sports, and if you want to dominate in a single sport then you had better be training that sport, hard. Hard training for a single sport does not leave room for general fitness. That’s just reality. Nobody “wins” at being a generalist, it’s an arbitrary idea. But I do a lot of sports at a decent level, and I do find some common training ground. Broadly, I need to be able to push and pull with my arms and my legs, and I need to have good mobility and strength through the range of motion those movements require. If you can’t squat down until your heels hit your ass because it hurts that’s a problem, and you need to fix it.

Today I primarily do 4 functional, compound exercises that I regard as highly relevant across my sports, and then do I sports for the rest of my training. I deadlift, squat, bench (or do pushups), and do pull-ups. I’ll vary this with running and road biking for lunges, but those four exercises about cover it for me, and I do them in my “off” seasons as well as occasionally during my season. I’ll throw in some front levers maybe, dips or whatever feels right depending on what I’m feeling weak at, but I need to be able to pull up, push up, and lift up to be functional both in my life and across my sports.

I do these four exercises with strict form, and never for time. If you’re training complex, heavy movements fast you WILL get injured unless you’re a fantastic genetic mutant. Kipping around the pullup bar like you’re being electrocuted is not the way forward to develop actual useful pulling strength, nor is bouncing the bench press bar off your chest like it’s a trampoline. I have learned to respect strength movements; doing them fast never works out well over time. Ask anyone who argues how their shoulders feel in a few years. They probably won’t still be training as they’ll be injured, and I find that a needless tragedy.

I hike, climb, run, ski, bike etc. etc, but I find that if I’m doing those exercises once to a couple of times a week plus whatever I do outside I’m doing OK  as far as “general” function goes. If I drop one exercise due to time or whatever it’s squats; second, deadlifts. I hike enough and use my legs enough that it’s my upper body that needs strength and balance maintenance. During the height of my sport-specific performance season I don’t go near a bar,(well ok it happens) but it’s not going to help me at that point (or it may, but not to win or kick ass at my sport, which is what the goal is…)

Finally, my idea is to keep up and do a lot of different exercises which also helps to keep the training interesting but even more staying away from injuries. 

Food for a thought, now there is an other functional movement!
Hang on...