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Functional Training: What, When, Why, How and Where To Do It by Paul Chek

In the first half of the 20th century, short hair was the norm for men – it faded out in the 60’s with long hair being cool through the 80’s – short hair came back in the 90’s and is hip for men again today. Clothing fashions come and go, only to return again; some examples are Bell-bottoms, high waters and corduroy pants. The Austin Mini was cool in the 60’s when the first Italian Job movie came out. Pushed aside by American muscle cars and Italian sports cars, the mini made a strong comeback with the modern remake of The Italian Job. Was functional exercise once the in thing like short hair and the mini, and is it making a come back now?


Many of those who frequent gyms, trainers, and therapists are of the false notion that functional exercise is a new thing. Quite the contrary, functional exercise, which is really functional movement, is older than man himself!

In The Beginning…
Several billion years ago our planet was born, and with it came the oceans. From somewhere (no doubt the same creative potential that created Mother Earth), there emerged single celled organisms in the ocean. With the original single celled amoeba we find the origins of functional movement among all future animal forms; we also find the origin of functional movement (and thus functional training) among human beings; a proposition that may, or may not, strike you as factual, yet serves as a logical explanation for functional training in the author’s point of view.

The single celled amoeba shares many common characteristics with each of our cells:

  • Each is bathed in a saline solution externally and maintains a fluid and electrolyte balance internally.
  • Each has a semipermeable cell wall through which nutrition is carried in and waste is carried out by fluids, the transfer of which is dependent upon movement.
  • Each contains a nucleus.
  • Each contains organelles.
  • Each has a desire to live, avoid predators, and to obtain food/nutrition.

As evolution progressed, conglomerations of cells produced new and more advanced life forms, yet all collectively maintained the needs and desires of the original single cell, namely to avoid being eaten by other life forms and to eat those suitable to their individual requirements. As you can imagine, at the very essence of survival was movement!

As the conglomerations of living cells became larger and more complex, the survival requirements persisted, and naturally competition for food and survival was inevitable. That considered, it is obvious that the single celled amoeba and untold variations of life that directly followed did not have endogenous means of propulsion aside from deformation and reformation of their cell wall; a method that is slow and left the life form dependent upon passive transport provided by ocean currents. In time (billions of years), the will to survive and perpetuate resulted in the development of more advanced means of propulsion, evolving to the musculoskeletal systems seen in the higher animals today; it is important to realize that the impetus for improved propulsion and the advances henceforth can only have come from the cell organelles and nucleus since it is generally the stomach that tells the brain “I’m hungry, get food!”

Keeping in mind the survival requirements of each and every one of the various life forms prior to the emergence of the neo-mammalian hominid, it becomes evident that any movement serving nutrient delivery, waste elimination, evasion of predators, is under the impetus of the will to power that brought forth all species. While such movement is clearly functional movement, it is the exercise of life, and therefore, truly functional exercise.

Looking at the human body with an evolutionary eye, an interesting correlation emerges the core of the human body, less the axial skeleton, is a beautiful model of the original single celled amoeba. When viewed with the needs of the single celled amoeba in mind, we can see how Mother Nature’s greatest accomplishment, now an accumulation of some 100 trillion cells, is still relatively dependent upon functional exercise to meet survival needs. This concept is confirmed historically and currently by the fact that whenever the exercise needs of the organism are not adequate (be it too much, too little, the wrong kind or the absence of), disease lurks! In each region of the world, natives got their functional exercise by hunting and gathering to meet survival needs. On average, a native could complete their hunting and gathering requirements in 3-4 hours a day, leaving plenty of time for relaxation, creative pursuits, and tending to the needs of the developing adolescents (5. “Metabolic Man, 10,000 Years From Eden”).

Functional Exercise Systems

The correlation between adequate functional exercise and the health of the human organism is by no means new. Around 3000 B.C., the Aryans began to enter north-west India, bringing with them their practice of Yoga. The Aryans believed it was of utmost importance that thought, speech and action (movement/exercise) be life-supporting—in harmony with all other levels of the universe. As much as 7000 years ago, Qigong emerged as a Chinese philosophical system of harmonious integration of the human body with the universe. Like Yoga, Qigong is a system of physical, mental and philosophical training for cultivating moral and body strength, prolonging life and developing human potential (3. Science and Human Transformation by William A. Tiller, PhD.). 

The Chinese also developed a system of gymnastic exercise called Cong Fou. Cong Fou dates back to 2698 B.C.E. and is defined as the art of exercising the body, and its application to the treatment of disease (2. Health By Exercise by George H. Taylor, M.D.). In addition to Qigong and Cong Fou, the Chinese developed Tai-Chi, which is often referred to as a soft martial art. Tai-Chi is a system of functional exercise because like the others mentioned here, it seeks to improve the health and vitality of the body and mind, improving man’s relationship with both external and internal nature.

Using their mastery of life force, health and vitality, the Chinese gave us the first glimpse of the value of weight lifting for the measurement of physical prowess. From as far back as 3,600 and 3,500 B.C., great Emperors made their subjects exercise daily and towards the end of the Chau dynasty (ll22-249 B.C.) potential soldiers had to pass tests of weight lifting before they were allowed to enter the armed forces. The practice of lifting huge stones formed the basis of weight lifting competitions in Greece in the 6th century B.C., an era labeled “The Age of Strength” (4. The Iron Game by David Webster) and continues to this day with competitions held at the Highland Games and other strong man competitions. The ancient Greeks are likely to be the origin of many of the functional exercises such as squatting, lunging and pressing used today.

Functional Exercise Today

The ancient systems of Yoga, Tai-Chi, Qigong and many forms of martial arts are still with us today. The use of ancient systems of exercise like Cong Fou for the purpose of healing dwindled in the past 100 years with the rising popularity of drugs and surgery; people are always after a quick fix! With the rising popularity of Newtonian thinking came the isolationists point of view; seen in anatomy tests today as isolation of individual muscles, joints and physiological systems with little description of systems integration; the result in medicine has been the development of highly specialized doctors that only operate on one part of the body (e.g., the knee or hand) or treat one system (e.g., endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, neurologist…). The resultant change in our approach to exercise philosophy has been modern bodybuilding. Modern bodybuilding is synonymous with and both the machine and supplement industries that have also broken the body into component parts with a machine for each muscle group and a supplement for any illness or aesthetic desire you can think of! 

Today, it has become glaringly apparent that athletes succumbing to modern isolationist exercise methods and influences are suffering higher incidence of injury. Clinically, I can assure you that isolationist exercise approaches have limited value, which is why you have seen a massive transition away from very expensive isokinetic machines and the rising popularity of more integrated systems like Feldenkrais, Alexander, Tai-Chi, Qigong, and even the system of corrective exercise and holistic health now practiced by Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology (C.H.E.K) Practitioners all over the world. We are also seeing more recent systems like Pilates go through a transformative process under the influence of people like Elizabeth Arken, who has introduced other apparatus such as Swiss balls and more weight bearing exercise.

Old Meets New!

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. All the existing ancient systems, and many of the modern systems of functional exercise see the body as an integrated system, a synergy of the physical-emotional-mental-spiritual energies and aspects of reality. My clinical observation and experiences in conditioning and rehabilitation have left me with a firm belief that the ancient founders of the great systems of exercise were called wise men for good reason! With that in mind, I suggest that in order for an exercise, or an exercise system to be called functional, it should meet the following criteria:

  1. It must support life, improving, not detracting from vitality; the exerciser or trainer must “train, not drain”. Failure to follow this directive results in diminishedcapacity for anabolic rebound. Chronic exposure to such poorly thought out training philosiphies as “no pain, no gain” and training to failure frequently extinguish vitality, resulting in dysfunctional exercise and less functional people!

  2. Functional exercise is always a means to an end; gathering wood to stay warm, lifting stones and doing calisthenics to be strong enough to fulfill the duties of a soldier; training movement patterns that are essential to your work or sports environment; training muscles for increased mass with isolation methods if your goal is to increase mass in a specific muscle for bodybuilding competitions or for specific rehabilitative procedures…there must be a goal motivating the selection of exercises or one can not ascertain whether the outcome is functional or dysfunctional!
  3. The 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, neurological). Every intent and attempt should be to improve the exerciser’s physiology through exercise, or the exercise regimen can’t be considered functional.
  4.  The selection of an exercise or exercise regimen must consider the affect on the emotional, mental and spiritual components of the human being; common to the gym today are exercisers suffering depression and a plethora of mental/emotional imbalances, complete with spiritual bankruptcy and the expenditure of life force energy on a leg press or in a step class is not bringing them closer to Well-being! When an exercise program is functional, the body becomes progressively more healthy, positively influencing the emotions, the mind and affording the spirit greater freedom of expression.

The keystone of functional exercise (as intended by the ancients who displayed mastery of the human being and an understanding of nature seldom displayed today), is that it improves the health and vitality of the participant. Eugene Sandow began Bodybuilding competitions to encourage the application of his living philosophy. Sandow, like the ancients of Yoga, Tai-Chi, Qigong and others, believed that man could not achieve maximum strength until he was healthy on the inside. Sandow himself used a comprehensive system of gymnastics, ate real food and was truly concerned that people not only looked better, but became better human beings using his system of exercise (Life Is Movement). My career as Trainer of amateur and professional athletes, Holistic Health Practitioner, Clinical Massage Therapist and specialist in orthopedic rehabilitation has afforded me the opportunity to see the sad endings that result from dysfunctional exercise practices and allowed me to value the wisdom of my elders; Mother Nature and the great saints and sages that developed Yoga, Qigong, Tai-Chi, and the many existing systems that serve to facilitate evolution of our species. A walk through most gyms in the world today (and I’ve been around the world in gyms!) will confirm that functional exercise, once both life and the way of life, has been pushed aside as humanity explores the exercise applications of an isolationist consciousness. Together, those of us with enough foresight can bring back functional exercise, but let’s start here, now, because we may not have time to wait for another Italian Job.  


  1. Sandow, Eugen (1919) Life is Movement, The National Health Press, London.
  2. Taylor, George H. (1885) Health by Exercise, John B. Alden, New York.
  3. Tiller, William A. (1997) Science and Human Transformation: Subtle Energies, Intentionality and Consciousness, Pavior, Walnut Creek, CA.
  4. Webster, David (1976) The Iron Game, John Geddes, Irvine.
  5. Wharton, Charles Heizer (2001) Ten Thousand Years from Eden: Metabolic Man, 1st edition, WinMark, Orlando, FL.




  5/8/2009 2:11:02 AM
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