Functional Training: To Function or Not to Function
The body is an extraordinary, unique piece of equipment. It does anything a machine can do, but unlike a machine, it never shuts down completely. If one thing is out of place or stops working, it will keep on going, one way or another.
Engineers build robots which can mimic human motion, but are unable to match the fluidity of human movement. The series of events with which human motion occurs is very complicated and is still not completely understood. What we do know is that all muscles are connected to each other through connective tissue, and movement in one part of the body can alter movement in another part of the body. For example, movement in the foot can alter movement in the shoulders and neck, and vice versa. This is one of the amazing things about the human body.
So what is functional training? Some say it’s moving many muscles at one time. Others say it’s any movement that mimics your everyday activities. I say functional training is ANY movement the body can do. It can be anything from bench presses to walking lunges to any number of exercises. Just as an example, five to seven muscles are required to perform a bench press, and that’s not to mention the muscles of the legs and core which are used to provide stability for the motion.
All movement is functional. When a muscle moves, it does not just move by itself. Regardless of the exercise or the movement, other muscles move as well creating a functional movement. The degree of function is what matters. You can train with very little movement, like a bench press, or a lot of movement, like a tube press with a lunge. All of these exercises are important. What’s key is to judge what your client’s body needs: little movement with lots of stability, or lots of movement with little stability.
I think to just do one type of functional training with your client limits their potential, and could make them more susceptible to injury. If you train your client with only dynamic movements and their body isn't stable, they have an increased chance of injury. Similarly, if you train your client with only small functional movements, their muscles will not be ready for the dynamic movements of everyday life, again increasing their chance of injury.
In my opinion, functional training is a key component of personal training, and I have found it to be extremely beneficial to my clients. But, no matter what type of exercise or training you do, the most important thing is to keep your body moving, no matter the complexity of the activity. That’s what it's designed for!
I have had the pleasure of working with many incredible people over the past 13 years as a personal trainer. All of my clients have had something about them that was memorable to me. For some of them, it was what they did for a living, for others it was where they came from, or how they got to be where they were. I love to hear about peoples' lives and the experiences they have had.
One of my clients, Dan, happens to one person that sticks out among the crowd because of what he has been through. His story amazes and inspires me. I would like to share Dan's story with you today in the hopes that it will do the same for you.
In 1998, Dan was in a severe car accident at the age of 50. While waiting to make a left hand turn, his car was hit on the driver's side by another driver who was not paying attention. Dan and his daughter (who was in the passenger seat) had multiple injuries. His daughter luckily had only bumps and bruises, but unfortunately, Dan was not so lucky. His injuries were far more severe and numerous; he fractured both forearms and the L4 vertebra, broke his left femur and 5 ribs, ruptured his diaphragm, lacerated his liver, and had a collapsed lung.
Dan doesn't remember much of the accident or the immediate aftermath, except for the EMT asking him if he knew where he was, what year it was, and who the President was. He's told me he thinks he only got two out of the three questions correct. After the accident, he had to be cut out of his car and airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was put into a medically-induced coma for three days.
When Dan woke from his coma, he tried to process what had happened. He took stock of his physical condition which included staples in his left arm, left thigh, and abdomen; a chest brace; a cast on his right arm; and numerous tubes coming from his chest and nose. Once he was able to talk with a doctor about what had happened to him, he found out that he also had two metal plates and screws in his left arm, and a metal rod in his left leg.
Because of all these injuries, Dan could not walk, go to the bathroom, or feed himself. He was overwhelmed with the extent of his injuries and the long road ahead of him to recovery. He didn't know if he would be able to do what he needed to do to fully recover. The more he thought about it, though, he realized that there were three things he did know: he loved life, he loved his family, and he loved what he did for a living. So in the end, there was no question that he was going to try.
For the next two weeks, Dan's therapy entailed just sitting up in bed, trying to feed himself, and learning how to breath again on his own. Even though the progress was slow and difficult, Dan never lost his focus. He wanted to be pushed and he wanted to get better. After 14 days in the hospital, Dan was discharged to a nursing home to continue his physical therapy.
Upon arriving at the nursing home, the highlight for Dan was being able to get his first bath in two weeks. He still remembers how great it felt! It's amazing how much we take for granted and how the little things can mean so much after you've lost them. Most of the next month was spent learning Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): brushing teeth, using utensils, cleaning himself, and getting into and out of a wheelchair.
Dan made great progress while in the nursing home. When he first arrived, he had trouble just lifting a styrofoam cup half filled with water, and by the time he left, he was able to get into and out of a wheelchair on his own. Even though this was great progress, and gave Dan a great sense of accomplishment, he knew that he still wanted to improve even more and to be further challenged.
After that month in the nursing home, Dan requested to be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where he continued his recovery. He wound up staying in the rehabilitation hospital for two more weeks, and while there, he received extensive physical, respiratory, occupational, and recreational therapy. It was there that he began to learn how to manage on his own with a wheelchair and crutches so that he could gain some of his independence again.
During this time of recovery, Dan had his moments of vulnerability and helplessness, but he always reminded himself of the three things that were constants in his life: that he loved life, he loved his family, and he loved what he did for a living. These three things kept him focused and determined to keep trying. Most importantly, during this whole time, he never felt sorry for himself. He did what he had to do and kept focused on his improvements.
Dan spent a total of two months after the accident recovering and receiving physical therapy. After that time, he was finally released to go home where he continued to do outpatient physical therapy, as well as physical therapy on his own at home.
Dan was able to return to work five months after the accident. After nine months, he no longer needed a wheelchair; after 12 months, he no longer needed crutches; and after 18 months, he no longer needed a cane to walk. A year and a half after the accident, Dan was finally able to walk on his own again unassisted. For the next five to seven years, Dan continued to work out on his own to help with pain management.
Every year, Dan returns to the hospital to thank the physical therapist who helped him through those first few weeks after the accident. He also goes back and thanks the staff on the orthopedic floor, the helicopter pilots, and the ER and EMT staff. This is the type of person Dan is. He knows how serious his injuries were, and truly appreciates all who helped to save his life.
Today, Dan is still as determined as ever to improve his health and physical condition. I started training with Dan in 2010. At that time, he couldn't do more than 5 pushups, couldn't hold a wall sit for more than 30 seconds, and could only walk on a treadmill set to a small incline. Since training with me, he can now do 30 pushups, hold a two-minute plank, hold a two-minute wall sit, walk on a treadmill set to a 30% incline, and bear crawl 30 yards. His motivation and determination are as strong as ever. I consider myself very lucky to have met Dan and to be his trainer. His story makes me realize not only how precious life is, but also motivates me to stay focused and to never give up.
What do you consider “the best” workout or your favorite workout? Is it when you feel your legs burn from doing plyometrics on leg day? Is it running, and beating a new time or distance? Maybe it's when you can hardly lift your arms to wash your hair after doing an upper body workout. Or maybe its when it hurts to laugh after doing so many crunches you lost count. All of these are feelings I have had from a great workout, but I have never considered any of them my favorite workouts. What I consider the best workout is when I don't think of it as a workout.
When we were younger, what was it that we all did after school? We went outside and played. Most times under strict instructions from our parents to “go outside and play!” But just the simple act of playing is one thing that tends to decrease as we get older. Why? Where along the line do we stop playing? I ask a lot of people what they like to do for fun, or what their hobbies are. Most responses tend to be along the lines of “I like to play tennis, but I haven't done that in years” or “I love to golf, but I am just terrible at it so I stopped” or “I love playing basketball, but I hurt myself years ago so I don't play anymore.”
Unfortunately, it's all too common for people to stop “playing” for exercise, and to just give up on something they love to do. This seems to me to be one of the many reasons why people become overweight and out of shape. Exercise is not fun anymore. It's become more of a chore. I think people need to get outside and just start playing again. Go play your favorite sport, no matter how terrible you are at it, as long as you're having fun. Go chase your kids or grandkids around; they will love it, and, by the end, so will you. It can be as simple as just playing catch or kicking a soccer ball around. Or for more competition and social activity, you can join an organized team. Here in DC you see people playing kickball, volleyball, football, frisbee, any number of activities. But many times, it seems to be only younger people who are playing them, and that shouldn't be the norm. Older adults need to realize that playing and being active is something we all loved to do at one time and it shouldn't stop just because we've gotten older.
So what's my favorite workout? It's any time I am playing, whether it be sports, like tennis and basketball, or just kicking a ball around or playing catch with my kids. I love the feeling of being active, and getting exercise without realizing I am doing just that. We should all get back to having fun and playing more for both our health and our well-being.
Go outside and play!
As a personal trainer, advising my clients on diet and nutrition has been one of the true challenges of my career. When I first started as a trainer, I would give my clients diet plans that would be very prescriptive: 60% of their daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, 20 to 30% should come from protein, and 10 to 20% should come from fats. Typically, I would find that about 10% of my clients would actually follow the diet, and even less than that would succeed at it. I kept asking myself why was it so hard for people to follow a simple diet plan, and for the those that did follow it, why did they not lose weight? As I asked my clients more questions about their experiences, I soon began to realize why.
When my clients would come back to see me after being on a diet plan for a few days, I would ask them how the diet plan was going. Their answers were all too similar:
“I followed the plan....but I did have a cookie here or there.”
“I followed the plan....but I did go back for seconds at dinner.”
“I followed the plan....but there was this birthday party.”
The thing that kept popping up was the “but.” They would follow the plan, but not 100 percent of the time. Why? What was it that made them not follow the plan?
As I asked more questions, I soon realized there were many reasons. Some admitted they had very little will power. Some actually felt peer pressure from family and friends to eat what they were eating or drinking. And some of my clients just liked to eat, and didn't want to restrict their enjoyment in eating. As a trainer, this was very frustrating, but it showed me that everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for another. So, I stopped prescribing diet plans in this manner and went back to the drawing board.
I started to look at some of the more famous diet plans, and how, or why, people were successful in following the plan. Body For Life, South Beach, and the Atkins diet have become some of the most notable diet plans in recent years. These diet plans have been successful for many people, and they all have great ideas for weight loss. But all of them also have seen their fair share of failure, and their share of people who disagree with the various approaches to weight loss. All of them, though, had aspects that I found useful and helpful to my clients. I wanted to add these aspects to my clients' diet plans. The key was to pick and choose carefully those aspects that I thought would be most helpful and easiest to implement for my clients. I didn't want them to fail like before. So I came up with some simple concepts gathered from the many diet plans, and used these as the new basis for my clients' diet plans. Following this process has led to the greatest success in weight loss for my clients.
1. Eat breakfast.
The first and most important concept for weight loss is to always eat breakfast. A lot of business professionals tend to skip breakfast, but doing so causes your metabolism to slow down. If you don't eat breakfast, your body will think you're not going to eat for awhile and start to slow down your metabolism to save energy for later. If you eat breakfast, your body will start to break that food down resulting in an increase in your metabolism, which in turn gives you more energy. I do recommend that my clients try to have a healthy breakfast, but I have been known to tell them to just eat anything for breakfast because I believe it's far more important to have something in your body at the beginning of the day than to not to eat anything at all.
2. Do not eat late at night.
The second, and equally as important, concept for weight loss is to not eat late at night. I tell my clients to have dinner between 6 and 8 pm, and to not eat after that time. This one is actually the most difficult for my clients to implement. The reason I recommend this, though, is because it is known that your metabolism slows down when you go to sleep, so you want the calories you take in at night to be used as energy and not stored as fat. On a related note, your dinner should also be small comparative to breakfast and lunch. In our society, we tend to do the opposite: no breakfast, small lunch, and big dinner. This is a recipe for slow metabolism and an increase in weight.
3. Have healthy snacks between meals.
The third concept for weight loss is to have healthy snacks between meals. This is similar to the idea of having 5 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day. These snacks can be considered small meals, and should consist of fruits, vegetables, or nuts. I found that an increase in the intake of vegetables does help with weight loss, not just from the calorie restriction, but also from the increase in metabolism.
4. Limit your white carbohydrate intake.
The forth concept for weight loss is to limit your white carbohydrate intake; things like white rices, pasta, and breads. I am not suggesting that people eliminate all carbohydrates entirely from their diet, but I do recommend eating small amounts of them or choosing healthy carbs. The reason is because of what carbs do to your blood sugar. White carbs cause a drastic increase in your blood sugar followed by a rapid decrease. With this happening in your body, your pancreas is producing insulin to counter this fluctuation, which in turn causes carbs to be stored as fat. It is also a recipe (in my opinion) for becoming pre-diabetic.
5. Do not overeat.
The fifth concept for weight loss is to never eat to the point of being stuffed. If you don't use the energy you eat, you store it. When you overeat, there is no way for your body to burn the amount of calories you just took in, so those calories are going to be stored as fat. Also, when you overeat, you tend to be less active which causes a slow down in your metabolism. A double whammy. You should always leave something on your plate (contrary to mom's advice when we were kids!). As a kid, though, we could eat anything and our metabolism was always on overdrive. We are not kids anymore, and need to be aware of how much we are putting on our plate and how much we are eating.
6. Get plenty of sleep.
The sixth concept for weight loss is to get plenty of sleep. This is another tough one for my clients to implement. The recommended amount of sleep to get is 8 hours per night. I know some of you laugh at that, but getting enough sleep at night does help in regulating your blood sugar. In addition, when you feel well-rested, you tend to choose healthier options when eating. Eight hours per night is the ideal, but most of us live off of 6 hours or less, and then play catch-up on the weekend. A helpful hint is to focus on going to bed at a regular time. That will help you to at least get a consistent amount of sleep each night.
These concepts can all help with weight loss, but every person is going to find that certain ones work for them and certain ones do not. There is no secret key to weight loss that works for everyone. Everyone has individual needs, strengths and weaknesses. It's finding what does work, in addition to what doesn't, that will result in success. I hope these tips help you in leading a healthier life, and in making good choices that work for you.
Why are we in so much pain?
In the years that I've been a personal trainer, I would estimate that about 95 percent of my clients have dealt with chronic pain. Some of the most common complaints included headaches, and back, neck, hip, and knee pain. Most times, these ailments were not associated with any sort of injury or sickness. The pain would start one day, and never seemed to get better. Some of my clients would have chronic pain for years, and they just lived with the pain chalking it up to old age. I started to wonder why my clients were dealing with such long term pain, and what was it that they had in common. Now I know the answers to this is not going to surprise you, but the thing they most had in common was that they would all sit for at least 8 or more hours a day.
Our world has advanced in technology far more than any one of us ever imagined. Some of this progress has been extremely good for us and some has been very bad. Medicine has benefitted tremendously from this advancement. We now can cure many more ailments and diseases, and surgeries are a lot less invasive which allows for less recovery time. The advancement in technology has also given us the ability to communicate around the world at the drop of a hat, and look up any piece of information known to man in a matter of seconds. And we can do it all without moving a single muscle (except maybe a finger). With these advancements (good or bad), we had to adapt and adapt we did. As our ability to communicate and work from our computer advanced, what suffered the most was movement. No longer do we have to go to the library to look up information. We don't have to walk to someone's office to talk to them. We can do everything from our computer or our phone. Our movement has been limited to going to the bathroom or getting in the car to go home. Our bodies are suffering, and it has resulted in an increase in obesity and chronic pain.
Why pain? Well, let's look at the body and what happens to it when you sit for a long period of time. When you are in a seated position, regardless of what your posture looks like, your hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thigh which attach to the hip and the knee) are in a shortened position. As these muscles shorten over years of sitting, they start to pull on the back of the hips causing roundness in the low back. As you sit for prolonged periods, gravity is also pushing down on your shoulders and spine causing roundness in the upper back.
Over years of sitting like this, your back, neck, shoulders and hips will begin to hurt because its not the natural position of your spine. Pain is not your body shutting down; it's your body sending the message that it doesn't like the position it's in. Knee pain is also a common complaint. The culprit again is a shortened hamstring which, over years, limits the range of motion in your knee. This in turn results in a shorten calf muscle, which also limits the range of motion in your knee and also your ankle. The impact on your activity is a limited range of motion while walking or running, which puts unnecessary forces on the knee and results in pain.
There are many books, articles, and devices out there that are suppose to help you sit better, with correct posture, while you are at your desk. I know a lot of you won't like what I am about to say, but the answer is not better posture, it's less sitting. I know for many of you, sitting is unavoidable in your occupation. But that just makes it that much more important to stay active, both when you are working and not working.
Most people know what to do to stay active when they are not working : running, lifting weights, yoga, or any physical activity. These are all great ideas but usually only last an hour out of your 24 hour day. Therefore its even more important to stay active while you are working. The hard part is figuring out how to stay active. Here are a couple of ideas that can help you stay active at work:
1) Set a timer on your computer to remind yourself to stand up and stretch, or go for a small walk around every hour.
2) If you have to talk to a coworker, walk to their desk instead of emailing or calling them.
3) If you have a head set or speakerphone, try to stand while taking phone calls.
4) Join or start a walking group. Everyone loves to get out of the office, and walking with others will help keep your motivation up.
5) Have walking meetings.
6) Take a walk at lunch time. If you plan to go out to lunch, choose places that are a good distance from the office.
7) Always use the furthest bathroom or water fountain.
8) Always use the stairs instead of the elevator.
9) Perform desk exercises, e.g. squats , desk push ups, jumping jack, etc. Here is a link to some ideas for exercises you can perform at your desk. http://greatist.com/fitness/deskercise-33-ways-exercise-work
10) Suggest or implement company-wide policies like a wellness program, treadmill or stand-up desks, and fitness and health incentives.
The human body was not designed for sitting. It was designed for motion. Remember that!
What makes a great personal trainer?
Working as a personal trainer in DC, I have learned a lot about what to do to be a great personal trainer, but more importantly I have learned a lot about what not to do to be a great personal trainer. How have I learned this? Just by just watching others.
Over the 13 years that I have been in the fitness industry, I've seen every type of fitness fad, diet craze, and workout regimen you can imagine. I learned from some of the best trainers in the business, and as I gained more and more experience, I began to see common characteristics in these great trainers. More importantly, I began to notice these characteristics lacking in others.
The first attribute shared by these great trainers is sincerity. A great mentor of mine once told me that every one of your clients should feel that they are your only client. A personal trainer needs to gain their client's trust in order to have a successful working relationship. Being sincere will help you gain that trust. People need to believe that you have their best interest in mind and want to help them achieve their goals.
The second attribute of a great trainer that I observed was that they never wanted to stop learning. You would see them taking a fitness class, reading a nutrition book, or getting another certification. Knowledge breeds confidence. I saw them handle any situation that came their way because they were ready. A great trainer also knows when to say "I don't know". It's important to share your knowledge of exercise and nutrition with your clients, but it's just as important to say when you don't know something. A client will appreciate honesty, and it will actually help to build a trusting relationship.
The third attribute of a great trainer is a passion for fitness. Over the years, I saw trainers who were excited about helping people achieve their goals and would take each session as a challenge. You could see it in their eyes, you could hear it in their voice, but most importantly, you saw it in their clients, both physically and emotionally. Their attitude was infectious. I saw many trainers who treated their clients like just another hour in the day or just another dollar in their pocket, and it was a shame.
Finally, every great trainer doesn't just talk the talk, but also walks the walk. The great trainers that I observed worked out and took care of their bodies. They challenged themselves with new techniques to find new and exciting ways to challenge their clients. They exercised and ate right. They weren't perfect, none of us are, but they kept their focus and stayed on the right path no matter what obstacle stood in their way. They tried to be the best example they could be for their clients.
I think all of these attributes make for a great personal trainer, and I strive to model them in my own practice and work. They not only make for a great personal trainer, but I believe they are also a recipe for a successful personal training business and happy, satisfied clients.
If you are looking for a personal trainer, be sure to look for some of these qualities in the person you choose. You deserve the best.