Functional training exercises compete with machine-based workouts in D.C. gyms
As they do every January, people are cramming into gyms to lose weight. But this year, some gyms are also working to slim down -- by excising rather than exercising. Instead of love handles and jiggling arm flesh, their problem area is the equipment loaded with stacks of hefty plates meant to work a single muscle.
"The day of isolated movements on machines is over," predicts Doug Jeffries, owner of Results Gym, which has four locations in Washington. Although the traditional 15-piece circuit won't vanish at any of his clubs, Jeffries and his team are removing duplicates and dedicating the newly open space to what is called functional training. The idea is to place front and center the exercises that mimic the tasks of daily life, such as squatting and grabbing something off the floor and standing on an unstable surface without falling.
Ed Ingebretsen, Results's director of training, has always steered his clients away from what he refers to as "rehab equipment" and toward the toys: medicine balls, resistance bands, kettlebells, Bosu balls, boxes, agility ladders, cones.
"Fitness isn't sitting on a machine," he says. And for every machine, he explains, there's a real-world equivalent that's a better choice. You could bang out reps on a leg-press machine, or you could do squats, which also engage the core and improve balance. You could do leg extensions and curls on machines, or you could combine the two moves into a lunge and add upper-body work with biceps curls.
"Functional training allows you to smarten up," Ingebretsen says. "Once people get liberated from machines, they don't go back."
That liberation is happening more, according to the American Council on Exercise, which named functional training one of the top trends of 2010. The group specifically called out the rise of the TRX suspension training system, which involves a set of straps with handles that affix to a ceiling (or tree, or anything). You grasp the handles and use the weight and angle of your body to control the resistance as you push and pull. Results, the regional training center for TRX, introduced the product to personal training clients years ago and is gearing up to start group classes by summer.
Jeffries is also set to launch a project in February that will take functional training to new heights, literally: to the top floor of a historic mansion in Adams Morgan. Dubbed Stroga (a blend of "strength" and "yoga"), the facility will offer yoga classes and 45-minute small-group functional training sessions. The plan is to have toys galore and even an area with artificial turf for sprinting, but no cardio equipment and only a few weight machines.
It's a radical shift considering that one of the hottest trends in the industry just a few years ago was the Curves model, which is based on sending members through a circuit.
But there's plenty of reason to believe that folks are craving a fresh approach. Take, for example, CrossFit. Designed to be the ultimate functional training program, it blends gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting and calisthenics. CrossFit has become hugely popular in the past five years, going from just a handful of affiliates to more than 1,000 worldwide.
In Washington, that boom started four years ago at Balance Gym in the District's Kalorama neighborhood, which Mark Crick and Graham King founded with just $3,000 in equipment in the hopes of focusing on machine-free, athletic-style training. They soon opened their doors to CrossFit DC, the area's first CrossFit affiliate. (There are now nearly 20 in the region.)
The model has proved so successful that six months ago, Crick and King took over the three-story Thomas Circle Sports Club downtown to see what they could do on a larger scale. The revamped building now includes a 3,000-square-foot studio exclusively for private training and CrossFit and a vast area next to the weight machines for anyone who wants to get functional with their workouts as well as a boxing ring and a pole-dance studio.
But for the first three months they didn't touch a thing. "We needed to build trust to prove we're not just crazy people with sandbags and sledgehammers," Crick says. Change is hard, and they didn't want to alienate the previous members by "taking away their teddy bear," as King explains.
Results will undoubtedly face those transition issues as well after the four gyms get their makeovers. "Functional training is more intimidating. It's less of a comfort zone," Jeffries says. Unlike machines that have a seat to let you know where your rear end goes and only move in one way, your body can do an infinite number of things. The process requires more guidance, which is something Results will offer. "If you build it and then show them how to use it, they will come," Jeffries adds.
His faith in the evolution of fitness comes from 15 years in the industry. When the first Results opened on U Street, there were more StairMasters than treadmills, and yoga was on the schedule once a week. "Times change," Jeffries says. And it's a good thing, too, because if they didn't, we'd all be very bored.