Feature Article - November 2013
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Fit With the Trends

Updating Fitness Offerings to Meet Everyone's Needs

By Dawn Klingensmith

Function and Dysfunction

Traditionally, though, functional fitness training uses natural movements (as opposed to gym-based movements like a bicep curl) for strength training in order to support movement for everyday activities. There's an emphasis on biomechanical correctness, which cannot be upheld when performing certain exercises to exhaustion.

"It's not really functional fitness when you're throwing tires around," Thompson said. "Originally, it was developed for the elderly and is supposed to mimic everyday activities," such as reaching overhead or carrying sacks of groceries.

"Not all the stuff those folks are doing is functional, and some of it is dangerous, exposing muscles, joints and soft tissues to harm," agreed Tharrett, adding that repetitiveness is also a concern. "It's like carpal tunnel syndrome. If you do 10 sets of 10 reps of anything, it can injure you."

Some so-called functional fitness programs do the opposite of what they should, worsening rather than addressing existing problems. If someone has a musculoskeletal imbalance, doing stairs with a kettlebell in each hand could exacerbate the problem, Tharrett said.

When administered correctly, functional fitness reflects actual activities done as a function of daily living and can improve balance, coordination, force, power and endurance to support those activities. "It doesn't have to be an aggressive movement to be an effective movement," Wilcox said.

At Fitness Quest 10, participants use bands, kettlebells, balls and their own body weight in functional fitness training, which starts with a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) test. "We assess the mobility of body and design a program around that to correct weaknesses or imbalances," Wilcox said.

Functional fitness is not just for frail elders. It can also be used to help very active individuals and athletes. Serious cyclists develop back pain by leaning over and pedaling, which engages the legs without activating other muscles. Their FMS tests could indicate a need for an exercise prescription to develop core strength.

Keeping Up vs. Building Up

In the consensus paper on ECPs, the authors warn against "repeatedly performing maximal timed exercise repetitions without adequate rest intervals between sets," which violates recognized safety standards for developing muscular fitness and leads to "unsafe movement execution … especially with multi-joint exercises that demand precise technique" (power cleans) or other advanced exercises requiring considerable skill, balance and strength (suspended rings and hand-stand pushups).

Also violating safety standards is the lack in many cases of "a clear approach for initiating an ECP and safely building up to higher levels progressively," the authors write. In other words, individual pacing and progression is not necessarily encouraged, so those who are new to an ECP may do too much too soon. Even experienced participants may end up performing advanced exercises with excessive fatigue and undue injury risk. The risk of injury is compounded by the fact that exercise sessions can be very competitive. Even when the participants aren't outwardly competitive but have a team mindset, there's an understandable reluctance to do less than the others. Pushing too hard can lead to poor body control and, ultimately, to injury.

That doesn't mean there's no legitimate place for HIIT, or that all components of it are bad. But even the "seven-minute workout" sanctioned by the ACSM (in circuits of three) is not recommended for everyone; in fact, the journal article states that "proper execution of this program requires a willing and able participant who can handle a great degree of discomfort."

Body weight training—commonly used in interval training—ranks No. 2 on the ACSM's list of fitness trends for 2014, right after HIIT. This was the second big surprise with this year's survey, Thompson said, because the craze came out of nowhere. Although the recession sparked a back-to-basics trend in fitness, "Before 2013, when it first made the list, no one was offering body weight training," Thompson said. Many boot camps and classes centered on calisthenics, core training and other exercises that don't require equipment, but body weight training didn't really stand alone as its own class of exercise. This is not to say that body weight training has not been used previously; on the contrary, it dates back centuries as a form of resistance training for obvious reasons. It's the packaging of body weight training as an exercise program that is new, Thompson clarified.

Body weight training involves some of the exercises many of us grew familiar with in gym class (rope climbing, squat thrusts, pushups) and through presidential fitness challenges (the dreaded chin-up bar). As with HIIT as a whole, there's a "correct," or safe, way to perform body weight exercises that needs to be taught.