Dear Bodybuilding, thanks for everything. We’ll take it from here.

Are you doing bodybuilding workouts? Bodybuilding has touched nearly every corner of the fitness world. In fact, bodybuilding is largely responsible for the creation of “gyms” as we know them today. So it’s possible your gym time is more influenced by bodybuilding than you think.

And while that’s not wrong, there might be a better way for you to go about getting stronger and moving better.

As you may or may not know, we at Redefine Strength and Fitness believe that functional strength training (and conditioning) is the best approach for just about everybody whose goals include getting stronger and moving better—be it for circus or for life.

(To paraphrase a mentor of ours, if we thought another way was better, we would do that.)

However, when we talk about strength training, we’re finding that people often think that means something like, “going to the gym and lifting weights”.

And that’s mostly what we’re talking about…mostly.

If we dig deeper, we often find that what people are really thinking is something more like bench presses, dumbbell curls, the leg press machine and getting swole.

And possibly also posing in front of the mirror and calling everyone bruh.

We owe all of that to bodybuilding.

You see, the first real ‘gyms’ were built around the idea of bodybuilding: they included the basic equipment—and the mirrors—needed to build a muscular body.

Even now, most gyms are set up in a similar manner: mirrors, benches and barbells for bench presses and squats, dumbbells for bicep curls and a set of machines that allow you to isolate all of the different muscles in the body.

Mirrors, check. Machines, check. Bench press, check.

And, anecdotally, most of the people working out in the gym are following the same basic approach to training as used by bodybuilders.

It’s probably safe to say that even if you don’t currently engage in strength training with weights, you have heard of at least one of these methods of structuring a workout:

  • back and bi’s” (that’s where you to the gym and train only exercises targeting your back muscles and your biceps)
  • chest and tri’s” (it doesn’t take much for the pattern to become clear: this day is all about your pecs and triceps)
  • leg day” (probably doesn’t need an explanation at this point)
  • upper body” (again, probably self-explanatory)
  • lower body” (pretty much the same as “leg day”)
  • abs” are usually done as a ‘finisher’ at the end of any given workout; crunches and sit-ups are popular here.

We owe a lot to bodybuilding.

By now, I’m guessing you bristled just a little bit at the mention of isolating individual muscles…and maybe also the bit about posing in front of the mirror.

Thanks for that, bodybuilding.

Actually, I’d like to take a moment to express my gratitude for bodybuilding.

It was because of bodybuilding that I first got involved in lifting weights and strength training. That bench, barbell and weights—along with the instructional booklet from bodybuilding legend, Joe Weider—that I got as a gift from my mother changed my life.

This represents a very condensed history, but in a lot of ways, it is because of bodybuilding that we have gyms like we do today where we can go and pick up heavy things. (And make our bodies stronger and healthier and happier!)

And that’s great! …if you want to be a bodybuilder.

Now, there is nothing wrong at all with training to be a bodybuilder. Nor is there anything wrong with training like one in order to build some muscle and ‘look good naked’.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in generally feeling good about your strength and ability to move around or you are interested in improved athletic performance (say, in your circus discipline(s)-of-choice, for example), then training like a bodybuilder (or powerlifter) isn’t going to be your best option.

Your head bone’s connected to your…foot bone.

One of the main reasons why training like a bodybuilder doesn’t really work very well for those interested in movement and performance is that bodybuilding is focused very much on the individual parts that make up the whole of the body.

The whole is supposed to be greater than the sum of its parts, but we’ve gotten so focused on the parts that we’ve forgotten about the whole.

—Gray Cook

This may be pointing out the obvious (and if it is, that’s great because doing so is one of my specialties!), but all of the parts of your body are connected to one another.

And your body is able to do all of the cool things you like to do because your parts are connected to each other.

I would like to offer a different way to approach strength training.

Functional movement patterns are whole-body events.

Let’s talk about functional strength training: an approach to strength training that builds, reinforces and strengthens functional movement patterns.

For example, you could do a seated overhead press, focusing solely on the shoulder/arm muscles that drive the obvious overhead pressing part of that movement (because the bench does the work of your core for you)…

Or, you could train the overhead pressing movement in a way that acknowledges (and strengthens) the connection between your shoulders and your core and your hips.

Functional movement boils down to this: can you dissociate?

Functional strength training uses exercises that demand—and, again, strengthen—functional movement patterns.

There is room for a discussion of “functional” movement to take us deep into the weeds, but the one key factor that I believe we should highlight here is this:

Functional movement means being able to dissociate different segments of the body—where one segment is stabilized while the other moves.

For example, we often use single-leg exercises to teach/ practice/ reinforce/ strengthen dissociation of the hips from each other (that is, moving one while stabilizing the other) and from the lumbar spine and pelvis (that is, moving from the hip joint—with a stable pelvis—without flexing or extending the lumbar spine).

Note here that by flexing the one hip and bringing the knee toward the chest, we limit the ability of the lumbar spine to extend and thus encourage only the working hip to extend. Dissociation magic!

“Abs” vs Core

Thanks to bodybuilding—and all of the magazines that tell us how important it is to have six-pack—it seems almost everyone knows about doing exercises for your “abs”, but for our purposes, we can’t afford to be thinking just “abs”; we need to train your core.

[We also don’t really care about having a visible “six-pack”. We care more about how your body functions.]

Central to the idea of functional strength training is the idea of core control: the ability maintain control over the position of your spine—specifically, the ability to resist movement of your spine.

Sometimes, you’re just the guy at the photo shoot and you don’t know how to control your core while doing lunges with a barbell…
https://www.123rf.com/profile_dolgachov

Nerd alert: Briefly, your core (more specifically, your spine) is basically a medium for force transfer.

Consider the idea of hanging from a bar and then inverting. The goal is to get your hips, legs and feet up to the bar. You use the bar to get your hips and legs up there…but you’re holding the bar with your hands. How does the force generated with your hands and arms get your legs and hips up to the bar?

For example, two of our favorites—the cable ‘chop’ and its sibling, the cable ‘lift’—require you to stabilize and control your core while transferring force from your hips to your arms in order to stay upright and avoid falling over while you move the weight.

In both cases, we have opportunities to practice force transfer between the hips and arms and core stability and control, along with placing an emphasis on the diagonal connection between your opposite-side shoulder and hip.

Admittedly, this represents just the briefest of (re-)introductions to the philosophy that underpins how we help folks (circus folks and non-circus folks) to get strong, to move better and to feel better.

In the name of being helpful, next time, I’m write about how to build your own functional strength workout.

If this brightened your day or you have questions, please feel free to comment below or reach out via email. We have a contact form and everything! Until next time, happy training!

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