Functional Strength: Fit to Fight, Fit for Life

When the “stuff” hits the proverbial fan, a three-hundred pound bench press isn’t going to get you out of a sticky situation. Jeff Barnett tells you how to get in the best shape of your life and build functional strength to deal with real world situations.

Jeff Barnett is a fitness enthusiast from Huntsville, Alabama. For the past ten years he has pursued strength and health in numerous ways including serving as a Marine Corps officer. He posts his daily workouts on his website, CrossFit Impulse.

This is Part 2 of Jeff’s series on using total body fitness to get into the best shape of your life. Read Part 1 here.

In part one of this two part series I examined the mental game of physical fitness. While some of it might have seemed like Dr. Phil tough love bullshit, my intent was to prepare you for the road ahead, should you choose to travel it.

In part one I talked about the importance of knowing why you exercise. This column will not be very useful to you unless you share some variation of my reason for exercising: achieving total body fitness for a more fulfilling life. I want an increased capacity to perform physical work. I want to take part in recreation for long periods of time without tiring. I want an improved sense of balance, coordination, and control of my body. I want to look attractive for my wife and exude to others the appearance of a confident and disciplined individual. Last, I want to care for the body I’ve been blessed with by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and suffering less from sickness.

Crossfit

The method that I have discovered that works best for achieving this goal is Crossfit. You can read all about the Crossfit program on their website, but I can give you a quick and dirty synopsis: achieving the most widely applicable fitness possible through a varied, intense, and frequent regimen of metabolic, gymnastic, and weight training. In order to understand what this philosophy is, first let’s examine what it is not. Crossfit throws out all traditional weight-lifting mantras of muscle isolation, strictly anaerobic training, and lengthy rest periods. It also omits extremely repetitive endurance training that usually leads to over-training and joint degradation.

You can get an excellent definition of the Crossfit program in this issue of the Crossfit Journal.

However, you can easily imagine the goal of Crossfit fitness with this example:

What type of fitness do you want when escaping from an emergency or natural disaster?

MultiWall

Run moderately fast to keep danger at a distance

Unfortunately, running is the only way to develop this. It hurts badly at first if you’ve never run frequently, but if you push through the pain for about 4-5 weeks then it will gradually become enjoyable. I used to think that I just “wasn’t a runner.” That’s because I wasn’t—until I made myself get on a track and run. You don’t always have to run a long distance. Intervals of 400m and 800m will usually deliver what you need. A long run every 7-10 days will keep your endurance in check.

Upper body strength to climb into a tree or scale a tall fence

I hope you weren’t relying on bicep curls. You’re going to need complete back and shoulder strength as well as strong forearms for a powerful grip. The pull-up is one of the best ways to develop this strength. I started with dead-hang pull-ups in the Marine Corps and now practice kipping pull-ups. I can exhaust my entire back, shoulder girdle, and arms with many repetitions of kipping pull-ups, and it also develops my ability for dead-hang pull-ups simultaneously.

Wall Jump

Coordination to swing between limbs of the tree

Accuracy, balance, and coordination are actually parts of fitness as well. I’m no all-star in this genre. The handstand push-up is a great exercise for developing balance as well as strength. You’ll probably have to push outside your comfort zone to try them, but I urge you to give it a shot. Really, worse things have happened to you than falling out of a handstand.

Back and leg strength to push an obstacle between you and danger

The deadlift is possibly the most primitive and useful motion that a human can master. Lifting a weight from the ground to a standing position is a basic human need. Exercises like deadlifts, squats, and cleans prompt your body into real metabolic change. These are the exercises that build real strength in your core and will have you buying new clothes.

Explosive jumping to hurdle obstacles

While major Olympic lifts are crucial to building strength, they are not always what’s required, especially in sports. Box jumps, burpees, and wall-ball shots are great ways to develop explosive power and endurance at the same time. Your high school football coach probably had plenty of practice drills that fit into this category.

Rowing and swimming ability to make a getaway by sea

You can’t always run, so your cardiovascular endurance shouldn’t be conditioned in only one activity. Change things up. Use a rowing machine, get in the pool, or just craft a string of many high-rep low-intensity exercises. Routine is the enemy.

Core body strength to balance and support yourself during these maneuvers

Balance

One interesting aspect of Crossfit is that it rarely targets abs. It turns out that the extremely varied full-body motions involved in Crossfit are enough to build a very strong core. Why standing shoulder press instead of sitting? Standing requires you to stabilize the bar. Clean and jerk, handstand push-ups, and kipping pull-ups also have major balance and/or coordination requirements that work abdominals.

Metabolic endurance to continue this for a while

Endurance doesn’t just mean continuing the same exercise (for example running) ad nauseum. While that is valuable, performing varying types of work for extended periods is also valuable. This is one of the primary goals of my fitness strategy: an increased capacity for all types of work.

This is the type of fitness that leads to a truly more productive and enjoyable life. While escaping the wrath of an attacker or hurricane is certainly productive, this is the type of fitness that rewards someone whose life outside the gym consists of various normal activities, and not simply curling paint cans with his biceps. Nature punishes the specialist.

How do you change your routine to develop this type of fitness? Variety, intensity, and frequency. That’s really all it takes. Check out the Crossfit “Workout of the Day” (WOD) which is posted every day. That’s a great place to start. You’ll quickly realize that while they may look easy on paper, they are rarely easy in practice.

Nature Punishes The Specialist

From a more practical perspective, focus on major lifts such as deadlift, clean, squat, and overhead press. Seek to master control of your own body weight through pullups, pushups, handstand pushups, and climbing. Mix this with a variety of traditional cardio exercises in intervals of 400, 800, and 1600 meters. Occasionally do one long, uninterrupted endurance activity such as running, rowing, or swimming. Perform this frequently, at least three times per week and as much as six times per week. Your entire workout should usually last from 18-35 minutes. That’s my general ethos.

I didn’t come up with most of these ideas and I also don’t have it all figured out. I’m continually learning in this endeavor, and every month I discover something I’ve been doing wrong or at least can do better. However, I also put a personal spin on Crossfit to better meet my goals:

  • I put a slightly greater emphasis on endurance training by extending intervals and performing more 5k-7k runs than specified.
  • I enjoy working on balance and upper body strength through handstand push-ups, so I often substitute them for exercises I can’t perform because of equipment limitations.
  • Because I haven’t been training with Crossfit for long I don’t have a totally accurate picture of my limitations for certain exercises. In order to get a better workout I often increase repetitions from the specified WOD. For example, instead of 8 sets of 3x deadlift I might do 7 sets of 5x deadlift.

At first I wasn’t totally convinced of the Crossfit methodology, so I performed 50% traditional workouts (which for me meant weight-lifting followed by cardio training) and 50% Crossfit workouts. Gradually I realized that my Crossfit workouts were more fun and left my entire body feeling drained. Sometimes I felt as if I’d been beaten with an ax handle—after only 30 minutes in the gym. I then started to see marked improvement in my gluts and hams and my ability to deadlift and perform full, deep squats. Making the transition from dead-hang pullups to kipping pullups was also difficult for me, because Marine Corps physical fitness tests use dead-hang pullups. However, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and now feel much more exhausted after a max set of kipping pullups than a max set of dead-hang pullups.

Some people—including me only a year ago—consider kipping cheating. What those people don’t realize is that while I may be sharing the load among many other muscles and muscle groups, I am still working my lats to the same level of exhaustion as with an “isolation” exercise. To use arbitrary numbers, with an isolation exercise the isolated muscle may perform 50 units of work. Through a coordinated exercise that same muscle will perform the same 50 units of work (yes, this will involve more repetitions) and many other muscles will also perform varying levels of work. Which is better?

There’s no way I can give you a completely accurate and complete picture of Crossfit. However, I hope you will ponder these principles and consider trying them for only a few workouts. If you agree to exercise in an unfamiliar way (and why shouldn’t you?) then you will find it incredibly rewarding.

Have any thoughts? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Jeff Barnett is an entrepreneur, fitness enthusiast, and former Marine. He has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA. When you don't find him wakeboarding, writing, or eating meat off the bone, he's at his startup, CrossFit Impulse.

  • Adam

    suitable follow up! i think functional fitness is WAY more important than how much you can curl. A large part of why I work out is so that if I’m ever in an emergency I’ll be ready. Love to see other people thinkt his way too.

  • james wickes

    jeff, great article

  • greg

    I’ve been doing crossfit for some time now, and i agree. normal workouts just don’t compare.

  • Steve Barnes

    Kipping pullups are def better than regular. They’re hard to figure out at first, but once you got it, you can feel the FULL body workout.

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  • http://scribblerist@wordpress.com Stillz

    Another good article – many thanks. I know this was the second in a series of two, but I would appreciate a third about training issues that arise over time – preventing injury, dealing with soreness, the role of rest, etc. Also, any thoughts on nutrition would be welcome.

  • http://www.myvemma.com/healthplan George

    Jeff, Great article! Cross training is the way to go. I am a former college wrestler and I have 17 years as a military officer. Staying fit is a way of life and routine gym work outs do not cut it in the field. I was wondering if you ever heard of or had a chance to try VEMMA. I have been hooked on the VERVE energy drink for several months and I have noticed an increase in stamina and energy. So much so I went from a casual user to a promoter. I would like to send you a couple cases or any one else who is interested try it. Let me know what you think. All the best, George

  • http://www.crossfithuntsville.com Clint

    Very interesting point of view, I call crossfit efficient muscle mass. Often the strict masters of form and endless routines of bench-press and curls make for great beach bodies, often unable to tie their own shoes. Crossfit is an amazing system of chaos which always forces the body to failure with simplistic movements. I have only focused on crossfit for about a solid month, I lost nearly 25 lbs and for once I can tie my shoes without lower back pain. I will most likely dedicate the rest of my physical career to crossfit or some variation of this philosophy. I hope to truly push my personal limits to new heights, I believe crossfit is a very powerful tool to help me on my quest.

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  • http://www.charleslloydfitness.com Charles Lloyd

    I swear that rock slab looks the same as the one in san diego when I was there….like verbatium. You sure that ain San Diego? :P
    .-= Charles Lloyd´s last blog ..Jul 15, 10 rules exercise =-.

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  • http://www.zcbee.com bee

    Nice post and we all totally agree with the author on this view right here. Its crazy, that is what i can say concerning this. Because this should be what the whole life is all about right? Keep on doing a great job!

  • Herrick

    I was introduced to Crossfit while at FT Benning earlier this year for IBOLC. I have always wanted to start doing this, but I have a really limited athletic background. My Platoon Trainer was very involved in Crossfit and incorporated it into our PT plan. It was great stuff, but smoked the crap out of me every morning. I was so much more satisfied doing that kind of PT over the more traditional calisthenics in cadence. I will definitely bring this to my platoon.

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