Ahh, the question heard around every gym on the planet. What are people usually asking about when they ask you how strong you are? Well, nine out of 10 times they want to know what you bench-press. How on earth did the bench press become the marker from which one is judged as strong or not strong? It’s baffling when we observe the actual exercise and analyze its benefit in the real world. Don’t get me wrong, as I think there are benefits to this exercise, but to label it as the exercise by which we judge strength is just plain silly. This chapter will explain why.
I will pose some questions to you. Who is stronger, the guy who can bench-press more than 400 pounds or the guy who can do 100 pushups nonstop? How about the guy who can squat well over 500 pounds versus the guy who can do 10 perfect, full single-leg pistol squats (page 73) with just his body weight? Okay, maybe that’s not fair since one is a demonstration of maximal strength and the other is a display of muscular strength, endurance, and even balance. My point here is that there are many definitions of strength; some are just more applicable in the real world than others. There is only so much we can do with the strength that we develop from a bench press, but there are lots of things we can do with the strength we develop from an exercise like a standing push press (page 93).
The term functional training is not a new one. In fact, it is probably one of the most overused terms in training today. There is a phenomenon in fitness training where the pendulum tends to swing hard toward one end of a particular training trend spectrum. The case in point is this concept of functional training. There was a period when many trainers utilized what I like to call the “Cirque de Soleil” training method. The philosophy went that if we were not doing one-arm dumbbell shoulder presses while standing on one foot atop a BOSU Ball, then we weren’t training for “real life” function. The problem with this philosophy is twofold. For one, how often do you find yourself having to press a weight overhead while standing on one foot on an unstable surface? The second problem is that the more instability we add to the equation, the less load we are able to handle. This type of training enables us to overload the central nervous system but rarely allows us to overload our muscular system. We know that an overload effect is necessary for size and strength gains. This is an example of a concept that might have had some merit but was taken to the extreme. The backlash to this philosophy was a hard swing of the pendulum in the other direction where trainers started to look upon this style of training (Swiss balls, balance boards, and so forth) in a very negative light. While many people tend to believe there is one superior way to train and that anything that doesn’t fit within their training philosophy is worthless, I like to think that there is a place for many, many different types of training. Whatever works for my goals is what I want to be using.
The point I want to make is that when I talk about functional training, I am talking about just that–your ability to improve your everyday function via the Men’s Health Power Training program. No nonsense, no fluff, no gimmicks–just effective workouts. The movement patterns this program incorporates are movements we use every day. The exercises included in the program’s menu are exercises that will get you bigger, stronger, and more powerful–and are influenced by many training philosophies.
Let’s look at a few of these philosophical points–these points are adapted from Mike Burgener’s Power to the 4th exercise guidelines.
1. Train unsupported as much as possible. This means that we should try to perform the majority of our resistance training while standing and not supporting ourselves with an outside object. Doing all of your training while supported (i.e., lying on a bench, sitting on a machine, and so forth) puts your body in a fairy-tale-like world in which core stability and balance are of no consequence. It has also been stated that you can only apply about one-third of your bench press strength when you attempt to use this strength while standing. Boy, that 300-pound bench press doesn’t look very impressive anymore, huh?
2. Train using primarily free weights. Free weights, especially dumbbells, not only improve strength but also help promote muscle balance and increase range of motion simply by their unstable nature. They also go well with the unsupported points I just mentioned.
3. Train “explosively” each workout. I believe there are many benefits to explosive Olympic-style lifts. Even simple variations of the classic Olympic lifts such as the clean, snatch, and jerk can improve your overall strength and power, increase metabolism, and improve fitness not to mention benefits for balance, range of motion, and flexibility. In addition, there are tremendous strength benefits in trying to move loads as fast as possible regardless of the weight. It is this “intent” that is the key to fast-twitch muscle fiber development and therefore a huge role player in getting stronger and more powerful.
4. Focus on compound exercises. While I will talk more about multiple- versus single-joint exercises in this chapter, it is important for me to be up front about Men’s Health Power Training philosophy on relying on multiple joint, compound lifts in its programs. Compound lifts are not only superior for building strength, but they are also more calorically challenging and elicit a greater endocrine response which results in elevations in testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH). In other words, you will get a boost to some great strength-building hormones each time we train with compound movements. These exercises are also much more functional than isolated exercises.
The other points of this training philosophy are the requirement that trainees push and pull in both vertical and horizontal planes, perform rotational movements, do knee- and hip-dominant exercises, and train all of these movements both bilaterally (two limbs) and unilaterally (one limb).