The modern fitness gold standard is a person who can run, grapple, rock-climb, lift and jump over obstacles, easily moving from one task to another. Yet we have bodybuilders who can bench-press 200 kg, but can’t run a mile. Or, we have marathon runners who can lift barely anything other than their own finger.

The buzzword in the fitness world has been “functional training” over the last half a decade or so. While the interpretation of this concept has been open to much abuse, one can’t deny that except for a small population that is interested in “look-good” training, the majority of gym users want to feel better, move better and stay active into their golden years. And they want to train in a manner that has carry-over benefits into real-life situations.

There is a quiet revolution all over the world to embrace more natural methods of keeping fit and staying active. Gym-goers are realising the futility of spending hours every week in their equipment-cramped, franchised gym spaces.

Pattern overload occurs in machines that lock you into a fixed path of movement and do not allow the body to alter the pathway of the exercise to recruit different fibres in the muscle tissue, which reduce the load on other tissues to prevent injury. Paul Chek, a US-based corrective exercise and high-performance exercise kinesiology expert, says, “The body is designed for 3D freedom of movement; it protects from repeated trauma to the same tissues.”


One of the first people who propagated this “natural, wild form” of fitness is French fitness guru Erwan Le Corre. A champion of MovNat (Move Naturally), a physical education and fitness system, his mantra was that we should abandon the claustrophobic world of the gym and step out into the real world of natural activities. Le Corre is known to have said, “If you have to sprint, you will be able to; if you have to run a long distance, you will do it. If you need to swim, hold your breath, carry someone to safety, fight back, jump over an obstacle or climb to safety, you will be able to do it much better than someone who has never trained with such skill.”

Urban space restrictions, hostile weather conditions, environmental pollution can sometimes act as a deterrent to train outdoors. But here’s where smart gym facility owners can create spaces within the gym that simulate outdoor training conditions.

While it is not always practical to move into the great outdoors, more and more gyms have succeeded in getting the outdoors in, including open-air activities like rock-climbing, tyre-flipping, rope swings and height jumps into the workout repertoire. This relieves boredom, makes the training more challenging and forces the body to respond to more natural and primal patterns of movement. In fact, this model is increasingly becoming a rage all over the world and hopefully will be the template of the modern gym in the immediate future.

“Over the last five years, the functional fitness movement has gone mainstream, changing the landscape of the gym,” says Diane Vives, a spokeswoman for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, US.

Strength training had long evolved from targeting just one muscle group at a time, as fixed-path machines do, to incorporating functional moves — that is, those that require all your muscles to work together, as they do in real life. Weeding out the single-station machines, like the leg press and the seated row, is your gym’s way of saying, “Come on, get up and work in free space rather than sitting on your butt and forcing out repetition after repetition in fixed-path machines. Learn to squat, learn to press and learn to push and pull against resistance.”

Gyms have also responded by replacing some of these fixed-path styles with models that are more multipurpose or cable-based. By making the path of your lift more free-range, the new weight machines require you to put more muscle into each rep to balance and hoist. More importantly, they train your stabilizer group of muscles simultaneously and help to prevent pattern overload and injury. A landmark 2008 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that exercisers using free-form cable machines became 58% stronger than those doing similar moves on fixed-path equipment; the cable-machine group also had greater improvement in balance.

“Just like cable machines, functional strength equipment like free weights and kettle-bells requires you to move in all sorts of directions, which means your body must recruit both the primary muscles and stabilizer muscles to keep the load travelling in a certain path,” says William J. Kraemer, PhD, a professor of medicine in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, US, who has conducted an extensive amount of research on strength training.

“It’s a more complex movement than doing an exercise on a fixed-path weight machine, involving more coordination, more body parts and more brainpower to direct all that action,” he says.

When you visit or inspect a state-of-the-art gym next, don’t just look for innovative equipment, or treadmills that look like sci-fi exercise contraptions. Instead, keep your eyes open for ropes, medicine balls, sleds, heavy kegs, tyres, boxes, clubs and bells. These are the things that will make you fitter, stronger, healthier and more importantly, keep you injury free.