The Real World Workout

Let’s take a trip back in time, back to the bulging-biceps days when fitness facilities were gyms—not health clubs, and certainly not wellness centers. There were no masseuses on staff or yoga instructors teaching mind-body classes. You couldn’t take Pilates and group cycling. Tai chi? Go to Chinatown. If you weren’t there to bench press, you’d better not show your face.

Forget children, the elderly, the deconditioned or the rehab patient. The gym’s primary customers were men. And not just any man. These were manly men. Sure, women snuck their way into an aerobics class—mainly because that was the one place the guys would never dare to go—but alpha males pretty much dominated the clubs.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

“Today’s club member is different than a member from the ’80s,” explains Mike Clark, the director of sports performance for Physiotherapy Associates; the director of sports science, research and education for Optimum Perform-ance Institute; and the director of research and education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). “The ’80s member maybe was only interested in muscle hypertrophy. Today’s is maybe middle-aged and just wants to get in better shape.”

Thankfully, it’s the year 2001, and while remnant fitness clubs still cling to the “tough guy” mentality, the vast majority of health facilities are tapping into a much wider market with a variety of health and wellness programs that tout physical well-being over bulking up. And, as trainers have gotten more educated, the approach to fitness has become more educated as well.

Enter functional training.

Functional training is not new (the ancient Greeks, Romans and many other civilized cultures were utilizing it in their athletic training programs), but it’s certainly the current buzzword in the industry. “We’ve come full circle in the way we train our bodies,” explains Stephen S. Roma, a chief operations manager with WOW! Work Out World (Brick, N.J.), which has invested in functional-training equipment from Ground Zero (now part of ICON).

“In ancient times, Greeks and Romans were training their bodies in a very holistic way,” Roma continues. “With regular weight training, it’s very specific to the muscle that you’re training…. Functional training is looking at the body as a full unit—a complex chain.” Phrases like core training, coordination, multi-planar movements, integrated training and close chain movements all tap into the essence of functional training without providing an exact definition. That’s because there isn’t an exact definition.

“If you asked a bunch of different people what functional training is, [you’d probably get] as many answers as the people you asked,” says Greg Highsmith, senior director of product management for strength products at Life Fitness. “[Functional training] is a spectrum. It’s a continuum.”

While its exact definition may be a bit fuzzy, functional training is, basically, any type of exercise that relates directly to the activities you perform in your daily life. In other words, functional training is reality-based: Your body mimics everyday movements that you already perform, but want to perform better.

You don’t have to look to ancient Greece to find traces of functional training, though. In our modern world, you don’t have to search any farther than rehabilitation centers.

“We went into the physical therapy world and plagiarized them, but I think we’re a little more creative about it,” quips Michael Youssouf, the manager of trainer education at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York.

According to Darcy Norman, president of Advanced Fitness (a Wash-ington-based company that offers functional-training program design, management and consulting), there is “a gap between medical rehabilitation and personal training. Functional training bridges this gap.

“Training people functionally was born from the need to rehabilitate people for their return to their lives or jobs,” he says. “Functional goals were written as a result of physical therapists having to answer to insurance companies; therefore, the exercise became the test, and the test the exercise.

“In order to say someone could lift 40 pounds to return to work, they had to be able to do it. The problem came when the patient could lift a 40-pound dumbbell, but he could not lift or maneuver a 40-pound crate of apples to do his job. So the therapist had to mimic the patient’s environment to rehabilitate the patient, which in itself is functional training.”

Tracey Gropper, who will open up a functional-training facility this spring in Los Altos, Calif., offers her own insight. “The idea for this training started in rehab and through that we learned that the best way to train an athlete is to overprepare their body for the sport,” she explains.

That being said, what is functional for a teen-ager interested in enhancing her soccer skills is entirely different from what is functional for a bodybuilder who wants broader shoulders. But because functional training operates on a progression, it is adaptable to suit the needs of any individual.

“If you’re a grandmother or a trainer in the Olympics, you’ll benefit from functional training,” says Juan Carlos Santana, the founder and director of Optimum Performance Systems (a performance-enhancement consulting company in Boca Raton, Fla.) and the Florida director for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). “It’s not a fad, it’s nothing new. It’s been here since the beginning of time,” he adds. “Understand that everyone needs it, and everyone uses it every day…. It’s certainly more of a commonsense approach than bodybuilding. Bodybuilding has no emphasis on performance… It is a by-product of the training. Functional training targets performance.”

And by targeting performance, trainers are targeting a higher rate of success. The industry is hoping that once people see how functional training improves their daily lives, the retention rate at clubs will increase.

Bob Piane—the CEO of the Wilmington, Del.-based Vortex, a manufacturer of functional-training machines—shares this personal example. Piane’s grandfather couldn’t even pick up a cup of coffee because his hands trembled terribly from muscle atrophy. So the 85-year-old joined a gym and worked out on cable strength machines, which could mimic real-life movements.

“He said, ‘This is beautiful. This is how I live my life!’” remembers Piane.

In an even more moving example, John Graham, the director of the Allentown Sports Medicine and Human Performance Center in Pennsylvania, talks about a client whose simple goal was to be able to use the stairs. The challenge? He was an amputee. Thanks to functional training, the client “was able to go up and down the stairs for the first time in 25 years,” reports Graham, who has worked with rehab patients and Olympic athletes.

“A lot of what we do with functional training is common sense,” he explains. “If you have a client who has trouble going up and down stairs, you start with a 4-inch box and progress to a 6-inch box and then to an 8-inch box. And eventually, they are going to be able to go up and down the stairs.”

Different-sized boxes? Clubs don’t exactly keep them on the premises. Then again, who ever said functional training must be limited to standard equipment? Functional training gives trainers the freedom to improvise, depending on the needs of a client.

Chain Reaction

C.C. Cunningham, the owner of performENHANCE, an Evanston, Ill.-based sport and adventure athlete training company, points out that functional training can’t be isolated within a health club setting. “Very few people are doing exercises in the gym to be better at the exercises in the gym,” she says.

Still, this doesn’t mean that functional training makes common club equipment obsolete. According to Chuck Wolf, the director of sports science and human performance for the USA Triathlon National Training Center at Orlando Regional Healthcare in Clermont, Fla., functional training operates on the kinetic chain relationship of the joints in relation to one another. Put another way, functional training works on a chain of muscles. Traditional strength equipment, on the other hand, often isolates a particular muscle.

“Machines don’t necessarily en-hance [the kinetic chain] relationship,” Wolf says. “Functional training can. However, sometimes you have to work on the weak link on the chain, and this is where isolated work is best.”

Cunningham argues that traditional equipment is needed before any real functional training can begin. “There are two phases for functional training,” she explains. “The first phase is the basic, traditional, strength-training phase where you’re trying to find any imbalances in the muscles…. [I]t’s really hard to isolate a muscle in a complete movement. The second phase is trying to train a movement where the body is already familiar with the movement.”

In other words, clubs interested in functional training shouldn’t scrap all their weight machines and invest spare money in medicine balls, pulleys, rubber tubing, dumbbells, balance boards, cable machines and the like. Rather, experts agree that trainers should incorporate all available equipment into their clients’ routines. “You don’t make your whole workout functionally based….,” says Graham. “You incorporate it into a good fitness routine.”

Even if the routine’s goal is to tone up, functional training can have a place in the workout. While it certainly has its practical uses, this kind of training can be just as aesthetically enhancing as traditional strength training (and as grueling).

“I have used functional training for weight loss,” says Tracy Morgan, director of the Cybex Institute, Cybex International’s facility for human performance training and education. “[I]t incorporates more muscle groups. So potentially 12 reps of this movement…is going to expend more energy.”

In addition to burning fat, functional training can build mass. “Some people say they don’t see themselves gaining as great a degree of muscle definition…, but we really haven’t seen a major change,” Graham says.

Besides being big on muscles, the functional-training workout is big on fun. “It just makes so much more sense,” says Morgan. “You’re still weight lifting. It’s fun because you’re mimicking things the client likes to do, and it’s different every time. [The clients] do feel a difference.”

Clubs also feel a difference—in their bank accounts. With the exception of the cable machines, most functional-training equipment is inexpensive. One medicine ball can be used in literally thousands of ways for a minimal cost to the club. Even something as simple as a banister, an egg crate or a step can be incorporated into a routine. “The beautiful thing about functional training is you can just use your environment,” explains Norman of Advanced Fitness.

One functional tool that’s absolutely free is gravity. For example, exercises involving a bench make the body completely stable. In real life, the human body has to contend with gravity, unstable surfaces, multiple planes of movement, and, at times, imbalances. Functional training takes that into account. Furthermore, functional-training equipment is portable, doesn’t require much space and can be used for multiple applications.

While a functional-training program doesn’t need a lot of room or a big investment, it does need qualified personnel. Personal trainers must be more educated about physiology and biomechanics in order for this method to be safe and effective. In some cases, trainers may even find that they need to “relearn” their approach to fitness. “It’s going to require thinking outside the box,” says Youssouf of the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers.

“Everything is still there, but you just have to look at it in a different way,” adds Santana of Optimum Per-formance Systems. Injuries can occur when a personal trainer doesn’t understand the proper progression for his client. For instance, an 80-year-old woman will not be at the same level on the balance boards as a 19-year-old yoga student.

“The biggest thing is knowledge,” says Gropper, “because you can do a lot of damage with any kind of exercise if you’re not careful.” Functional training is still considered new, but there is plenty of information if you know where to look (see sidebar on page 56). Still, don’t expect to cram everything you need to know into a quick session.

“The specific challenge of this work is exactly what makes it exciting to teach,” says Colleen Craig, a certified Pilates instructor who’s developed a Pilates-based exercise ball video series (her videos are available through Ball Dynamics International). “Functional training is very layered work that cannot be learned in a weekend seminar. It is an ongoing learning process for the teacher as well as the student.”

Imitation of Life

Besides beefing up on education, many clubs have to confront their own prejudices before exploring functional training. One of the biggest challenges is the “traditional viewpoint/mind-set of looking at training in a real static, isolated environment,” says Clark, who’s developing a functional-training course through NASM. “But life doesn’t function in a real controlled environment like that.”

This is something that clients must understand as well. “People walk into a health club and think the goal of being in a health club is how to use a machine,” explains Annette Lang, a personal trainer at New York City’s Equinox, as well as a Reebok University Master Trainer and National Consulting Director for the Esquerre Fitness Group.

This type of bias can work against members. Therefore, it’s up to the club to help them see things in a different light—to see that exercise can have very real applications in their daily lives. Ultimately, both the members and the trainers benefit.

“It’s just another way to vary the workout,” Lang continues. “That’s what I say to personal trainers. If nothing else, you’ve got more tools to work with.”

Functional Training Resources

The Name: Advanced Fitness
Creator of the Integrated Functional Fitness training systems, Advanced Fitness provides functional-fitness program development and management, as well as equipment selection and maintenance. The company is also offering a functional-fitness manual and plans to complete a CEU course by late spring.
The Numbers: (877) ATC-CSCS; (206) 696-0320
The Web Site:

The Name: Paul Chek
Considered an industry expert on functional training, Chek is the author of more than 40 videos, two books, 12 correspondence courses and numerous seminars. He founded the C.H.E.K. Institute in San Diego, which offers education courses for exercise professionals, including the Corrective High-Performance Exercise Kinesiology Certification course.
The Numbers: (800) 552-8789; (760) 632-6360
The Web Site:

The Name: Cybex
Cybex offers the FT 360 Functional Trainer machine. The company has also sponsored a series of functional-training seminars.
The Numbers: (888) GO-CYBEX; (508) 533-4300
The Web Site:

The Name: Ground Zero
Ground Zero designs, manufactures and distributes the Free Motion strength equipment product line, a neuromuscular training tool used by many functional-training facilities. It also offers classes in functional training. ICON recently purchased this company.
The Numbers: (877) 363-8449; (719) 955-1100
The Web Site:

The Name: Life Fitness
Life Fitness offers the Hammer Strength Ground Base plate-loaded strength-training equipment line. These machines provide numerous exercise options in multiple planes of motion while allowing exercisers to train with their feet on the ground, thereby encouraging total body stabilization and balance. In addition, the company’s Dual Adjustable Pulley System offers unlimited, functional applications.
The Numbers: (800) 735-3867; (847) 288-3300
The Web Site:

The Name: MF Athletic Company
This exercise equipment company offers a large catalog of functional-training and rehabilitation equipment, training tools and accessories—including Juan Carlos Santana’s own video series. The company’s catalog includes everything from stability balls and functional-training books to slide boards and balance pads. Aside from the catalog, MF Athletic offers North East Functional Training Seminars.
The Number: (800) 556-7464
The Web Sites: or

The Name: National Academy of Sports Medicine
According to Mike Clark ([email protected]), the director of research and education, NASM will be offering the first functional-training certification courses, beginning in April.
The Number: (800) 656-2739
The Web Site:

The Name: Reebok University
Reebok University offers the Reebok Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) and the new Reebok Core Training/CORE Board programming. Reebok RNT is a program that has been developed by physical therapists for personal trainers. RNT’s goal is to expand a trainer’s knowledge base in concepts involving movement patterns and repetitive stress; cumulative trauma disorder; and training movements instead of muscles.
The Number: (212) 330-7570
The Web Site:

The Name: Juan Carlos Santana
Juan Carlos Santana has been involved in fitness and athletics for more than 20 years, as both a professional and a national caliber athlete in five different sports. He is currently the director of Optimum Performance Systems (OPS)—a performance-enhancement consulting company based in Boca Raton, Fla.—and offers a series of functional-training videos through MF Athletic. He also offers seminars throughout the year.
The Number: (561) 393-3881
The Web Site:

The Name: Schwinn
Schwinn’s RiPP Pro is a fully functioning, adjustable weight bench on wheels with a resistance engine powered by SpiraFlex, a technology endorsed by NASA that creates isotonic resistance.
The Number: (888) 471-0014
The Web Site:

The Name: Vortex
The two-year old company will be unveiling its Columbus line of Free-Movement Functional Strength Training Systems at the IHRSA trade show this month in San Francisco.
The Numbers: (877) 676-4677; (302) 654-7976
The Web Site:

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