Ask Stew: What About Useful Exercises vs. Functional Exercises?

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Chief Damage Controlman Marcus White, from San Antonio, lifts weights in the gym aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance. (U.S. Navy/Ryan D. McLearnon)
Chief Damage Controlman Marcus White, from San Antonio, lifts weights in the gym aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance. (U.S. Navy/Ryan D. McLearnon)

What are functional exercises? Over the years, the term "functional" has invaded the fitness world, teaching that there are some movements that are more important to moving naturally in life, work and sports. Does that make other exercises any less important?

Here is a question from a young man relatively new to fitness, but who has found enjoyment working in the gym and building muscle.

Stew, I was recently listening to a podcast, and the doctor talking said that bodybuilding exercises are not functional and went on to mention about a dozen functional exercises. Are bodybuilding exercises useful or am I wasting my time with my current training? -- Thanks, Zach

Zach, in my opinion, yes, functional exercises are needed, but there are many other exercises that are not in the categories of the Seven Functional Movements that are still very useful. In fact, I tend to categorize my workout exercise choices into the following group: Push, Pull, Full, Leg, Core, Cardio.

The seven movements that are considered functional are the following, and your workout programming should include them: Hip Hinge, Squat, Lunge, Push, Pull, Twist, Gait/Carry. I would bet you that, as a bodybuilder, you are doing exercises that fall into these categories, along with added isolation exercises.

For instance, many bodybuilders will do a variety of deadlifts (hip hinges), and leg days will feature a variety of squats and lunges, along with isolation movements such as leg extensions or hamstring curls.

All bodybuilders do a push day or chest day (bench or overhead press, as well as isolation exercises on the chest, shoulders and triceps). The same goes for pulling with heavy pull-ups, pull-downs and rows. You may add bicep curls to your pull day split routine or you may decide to do arms separately on a day of workouts.

Twisting movements typically involve a variety of core activities. They can also be applied to more athletic movements, such as throwing or punching, where rotation or exercises that require stability or anti-rotation are concerned.

Gait and Carry exercises like walk, farmer walks and load-bearing movements may not be overly prevalent in the typical bodybuilding split routine, but many get their cardio with rucking (walking with a backpack up hills and stairs) with this movement.

The way you asked the question was smart, as many in the functional fitness world think that bodybuilding workouts are not designed to be functional, even though they may utilize most, if not all, of the functional movements in their training.

I would tend to agree that, even though bodybuilders do certain exercises that are considered functional, the typical choreography of workouts and accessory exercises tend to build few strengths and expose many weaknesses -- in a tactical or athletic setting -- depending on the job or sport.

You asked whether exercises other than those in the functional category are useful. Sure, but it depends. I have used leg extensions in the past to build leg muscles but mainly to help with rehab of knee pain, as squats hurt too much. The same goes for bicep curls. I have used them to work pulling muscles when I could not do pull-ups due to shoulder pain.

So there are uses for the isolation exercises that do not meet the functional standard. Other forms of cardio are useful as well, besides walking and running, especially if you need a non-impact version (bike, row, swim, elliptical, etc.) that is not listed as a functional movement.

On a human performance level in athletics or the tactical professions, bodybuilding will help you build strength and muscle stamina. But without adding other elements like cardio (run, swim or ruck, for instance); flexibility; mobility; speed; and agility, you will tend to have many weaknesses when the movements to stay alive become more important than muscle size alone.

Building a foundation in bodybuilding is what many people do when they first get started because they want to get bigger as a hard-gaining teenager. I did, but I found sports in high school and was coached out of the bodybuilding split routines (body part a day split) and more into the strength, power and speed routines for athletics. In the end, it comes down to your goals and the specifics of what you are training to do.

The biggest issue that comes up in a bodybuilding vs. functional training discussion is that we move as humans with our entire body, not with a single joint or body part at a time. Chances are, you are doing more functional exercises than you realize. It is just how you train them that makes them useful or not, and that is completely dependent on your goals.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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