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The Degradation of Fitness Science

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Author: Brian Johnston

The world and our selves evolve and exist in a cyclic fashion; good times and bad… ups and downs… we experience changes that seem to repeat, including everyday cycles of sleep-wake and cell regeneration. History is a broad example of cycles, whereby we enter the "dark ages" followed by an "age of enlightenment." We now are in an irrational dark age of fitness. Irrational is an ideal term to describe a method of exercise considered dangerous, impractical, unproved (yet implemented when other proven methods exist) and irrelevant (i.e., claiming to do something that cannot be achieved). Below is such an example.


In an article by a well known "functional/core exercise" proponent, there is an attempt to affiliate the concepts of microscopic life of the amoeba with human cellular processes, and "functional training" when the author claims: "Movement, survival and the optimal functioning of the organism all go hand in hand." This statement opens a door for the author as he links "movement" with "function," together with the concept of "optimal." He then claims that there is a link between functional exercise and survival, as confirmed historically by the "fact" that when exercise needs are not met (too much, too little, an absence or the wrong kind), then "disease lurks!" (exclamation his). Certainly lack of activity or too much activity (excess strain) can pose negative results, but here he links "the wrong kind" of exercise to that of disease or ill health.

After addressing how natives achieved functional fitness through hunting practices, the author then discussed ancient methods of yoga, Tai-Chi, and then martial arts, connecting the concept of "functional exercise" with improving health and vitality of the mind and body, to improve "man’s relationship with both external and internal nature." This concept has now opened a second door for the author’s "brand" of functional training and to denounce methods that are different.

Apparently, according to the author, today’s concept of exercise (particularly bodybuilding) is wrong, since many methods confirm to Newtonian thinking to produce an "isolationists’/reductionists’ point of view," in that we think of only single muscles and not the body as a whole. Rather, what we need is "system integration." This would mean whole-body movement/participation of some kind. However, bodybuilders do consider the look of the body as a whole, and many exercises performed take into account body coordination (or, at least, the coordination of several muscles). Even the use of a single-joint exercise machine causes its user to contract many muscles in an attempt to brace the body and to generate greater body coordination as muscular fatigue is reached. Further ignored is the fact that it may be necessary to focus one’s attention on a single muscle (for reasons of balancing development or function). And, by doing so, this improves the system as a whole as muscles are able to work and integrate better in more dynamic activities, i.e., by strengthening the weakest link.

The author claims that the exercise machine industry also is at fault, as it breaks the body into separate parts or muscle groups to be worked in isolation, "building on people’s aesthetic desires rather than functional needs." It is well known that no muscle can work in complete isolation, as stated in the paragraph above. Nonetheless, exaggeration is obvious in that many machines do train multiple muscles, such as pulldowns, machine deadlifts and squats, leg presses, chest presses, and shoulder presses, or that a person can train for aesthetics as well as function. If a person’s biceps can produce 50% more force as a result of machine or dumbbell biceps curls that served to increase both mass and strength, certainly that person’s biceps’ function has improved, and this has an influence on full body functional ability.

The author then claims that those who succumb to modern isolationist exercise methods and influence suffer higher incidence of injury. What proof does he offer? None. Conversely, the author does not reference activities that produce the highest forces (and greatest potential for injury), such as explosive lifting, Olympic lifts, and plyometrics. In fact, he does endorse Olympic lifting and plyometrics (within reason) since they apparently mimic "natural" movement better. He also recommends the higher risk of Swiss ball exercises, with an attempt to balance and control weights in an unstable environment. I do not recall the last time a person needed to clean and jerk an object, jump multiple times off boxes (sometimes with loads on the shoulders), or to balance one’s self on a ball in activities of daily living. Consequently, how do those activities mimic the "natural" movements of walking, lifting items off the ground (carefully), climbing stairs, or the unique and specific mechanics of various sporting activities (outside Olympic lifting)?

The author continues by stating that there is limited value in isolationist exercise approaches, which is why there is such a divergence toward Tai-Chi and other "integrated" systems. It should be obvious that any approach is limited in value (since everything in the Universe is finite), and that includes Tai-Chi, which does a poor job of optimizing muscular strength and muscle development, two key aspects that support "function" as we age. From my perspective, people tend to diverge toward Tai-Chi because it is an easy means of activity, and is more of a means of meditation and relaxation than exercise. In any event, it has been established that greater muscular loading and functional improvement can be had with stable exercises as opposed to unstable Swiss ball exercises. This only makes sense since so much more effort is directed toward balance (and paranoia of falling) during unstable exercises, together with less weight and effort on the target muscles. However, those aspects are ignored by the author.

The author became more mystically vague when he stated: "Historical analysis of the biological basis of movement shows that even the ancient systems of exercise were based on cosmic relationships, Mother Nature and our relationship with her." He clarifies his stance by suggesting that modern systems of functional exercise "see the body as an integrated system, a synergy of the physical-emotional-mental-spiritual energies and aspects of realities." (I am aware of only one "reality"; that in which I live.) I am uncertain how this differs from systems not considered a "modern system of functional exercise." The manner, method and intensity of my training, for example, is governed by my emotions and mental outlook/motivations, which affect my performance and any results that can be achieved physically. My philosophy of life and how I view fitness affects the spiritual aspect of that discipline. This is true of any individual, no matter the method of exercise, including the use of machines. The author sees it differently and, apparently, we need to be lunging, balancing, and rolling about on a ball for this physical-emotional-mental-spiritual synergy to take place.

Now, for an exercise system to be "functional," it should meet the author’s criteria:

1. It must support and improve life. Chronic (regular?) exposure to "training to failure" is not a good thing in the author’s eyes and serves only to "extinguish vitality." It is ironic that many individuals (including yours truly) has trained in this manner for many years, are strong, physically developed and feel a great deal of vitality. It is not training to muscular fatigue that is the problem, but the overall demands that one is exposed to, including too much volume and frequency. Nonetheless, training to failure and believing in "no pain, no gain," according to the author, "results in dysfunctional exercise and less functional people." The idea of "no pain, no gain" is exaggerated, although well meaning at one point in the history of exercise (to get people to exercise harder). However, if a person can increase strength and muscle to a greater degree (or even to the same degree) by training to failure (without abusing exercise in general), how would that result in less functional people? How does greater/improved function = less function?

The author concludes by stating: "the by-product of modern bodybuilding and these types of training mottos is a new culture of fitness without health." Suffice it to say that a person can be healthy without partaking in a regular fitness program. "Healthy" generally means free from disease. And needless to say that an intense exercise program that improves blood cholesterol, blood pressure, resting heart rate, cardiovascular endurance, heart resilience, strength, muscle, and ADL function certainly is "fitness with health." Moreover, the term "fitness" means "the quality or state of being fit," and "fit" means "to be well adapted or suitable for" (Oxford’s English Dictionary). Partaking in a fitness program, to become "fit" (although some are better than others) will result in positive health changes, even if a method happens to be one of aesthetics primarily, i.e., bodybuilding.

2. Functional exercise is always a means to an end (with examples of gathering wood to stay warm, lifting stones, and doing calisthenics in the army to stay "strong enough" to fulfill duties). In other words, perform movement patterns that are essential to your work or sports environment. I work at a computer for the most part, and so perhaps I should perform some keyboard typing overload exercises. Sarcasm aside, most of us have enough strength to complete daily activities, and to mimic those activities with resistance often does us worse than good. An example in sports would be sprinting with heavy weights attached to the body with the notion that our sprinting will improve, although sprinting mechanics obviously would alter under such circumstances. Moreover, consider elbow flexion that occurs when we lift an object, and the elbow flexion that occurs during dumbbell or machine arm curls. Would the latter not have a positive bearing on the former? Certainly it would, but since it is not "exact" to everyday movements, the author condemns such actions, and without realizing that any "functional exercise" also is not exact to daily activities (unless the same resistance and movement patterns exist, and if so, it no longer would be exercise but activities of daily living).

The author talks around the issue of isolation training to improve function by stating the following: "Training muscles with isolation methods to achieve increased mass in specific muscle is only functional if your goal is to compete in bodybuilding competitions, or specific rehabilitation procedures or as part of a well-designed isolation-to-integration program." Certainly "isolation to integration" could mean performing daily tasks and activities better as a result of larger and stronger muscles that were produced as a result of using machines or free-weights, as has been done for several decades.

He continues: "There must be a goal motivating the selection of exercises or one cannot ascertain whether the outcome is functional or dysfunctional." In the previous paragraph he clearly acknowledges that a weak chain can be made stronger by (greater) isolation, yet ignores its value unless it can be proven that the outcome improves function (in the individual’s best interests to achieve another goal). If that goal is to feel better, look better, and function better, then any exercise in any medium (free weight, machine, rubber band, calisthenics, etc.) has that potential. The extent to which that happens varies, thus depending on the quality of movement and effort far more than how dynamic (the use of several muscles in an unfixed environment) or unstable an exercise happens to be.

Moreover, a few things are wrong with the author’s statement above. One, the ultimate goal may be aesthetics, and there is nothing wrong with that, but pointless according to the author since that aspect of a fitness program means nothing to him. Two, injuries are the result of weak links, and there is no better way of addressing this issue than through means of specific exercise that is as isolated as possible, whether through single-joint movements or not. It is like working on an entire house when you know the problem to be the support beams. If you need to strengthen the support beams, then forget about the shingles or windows. Three, function required in specific activity requires practice of the specific activity to improve that ability, whereas exercise provides general conditioning and strength improvements that then support the specific sporting movements. Hence, truly functional training involves the specific motor skills of a particular activity, and not movement patterns that "sort of" resemble an activity but which uses different loads, different velocities, different movement patterns, different balancing requirements, etc.

3. Selection of an exercise or exercise regimen must consider the desired outcome on all primary physiological systems of the body (including hormonal, musculoskeletal, circulatory, immune, thermoregulatory, visceral and neurological). And "every intent and attempt should be to improve the exerciser’s physiology through exercise, or the exercise regimen can’t be considered functional." Please explain how stabilizing on a Swiss ball while performing dumbbell presses can account for all the primary physiological systems, whereas working the muscles with heavier resistance and with greater physical/mental effort in a stable environment cannot.

Moreover, it takes little effort to improve all these systems even on the worst program (whether stable or unstable), and so it goes without saying that improvement will occur in all aspects to some extent. To what extent improvement will occur depends on many factors more important than trying to maintain balance while moving weights in the hopes that you will not fall off a ball or wobble board as opposed to using a machine, factors such as the quality and effort of the program overall. Differences in results become obvious if one were to compare a person who (purposely) puts forth little effort while following the author’s "functional" workout with rubber cables and Swiss balls as opposed to a person who tries very hard with an Author Jones intense workout on Nautilus or MedX machines. In this example it should be obvious who will make the best changes, and the opposite also would be true of a person who tries very hard on any so-called "functional" program as opposed to a person whose performance is lackluster while using exercise machines.

4. Selection of an exercise or exercise regimen must take into account a person’s emotional, mental and spiritual components. This statement is obvious, in that a properly prescribed program takes into account the individual, but the author suggests that "the expenditure of the life-force energy on a leg press is not bringing exercisers closer to complete well-being!" (exclamation his). Why should this be the case with the leg press, or why should it not be the case? There is no explanation behind his statement, but he does disclose the following: "when an exercise program is functional, it supports the collective needs of the living organism and the body becomes progressively healthier, which positively influences the emotions and the mind and affording the spirit greater freedom of expression." What a load! (exclamation mine). How is it that a person can become one with the Universe by balancing on a ball or wobble board, or by moving about while yanking on some rubber bands or cable system, yet this cannot be achieved on a leg press? What is the scientific evidence?

The author concludes by stating: "The keystone of functional exercise is that it improves the health and vitality of the participant." Apparently, however, this is impossible with machines or exercise modalities the author does not consider "functional." Yet, if a person were to train only with machines, and improve many aspects of health, such as cholesterol levels, strength, muscle, heart health and overall function, then that person’s health and vitality has improved… and, the exercises must be functional.

Brian D. Johnston is the Director of Education and President of the I.A.R.T. fitness certification institute. He has written over 12 books and is a contributor author to the Merck Medical Manual. An international lecturer, Mr. Johnston wears many hats in the fitness and health industries. You can visit his site at for more free articles.


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