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Categories: General Health

The Functional Fitness Approach to Getting Lean & Strong

By Marc Perry / July 6, 2017

For most of my life, I followed a bodybuilding approach to fitness based on aesthetics, frequent eating, and targeting 1-2 muscle groups each workout.

My fitness bible was “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Guide to Modern Bodybuilding” and I “chased the pump” for many years. I worshipped hugely muscular dudes with 20-inch biceps, so of course I did their 20-set arms routines, which I read in Muscle & Fitness magazine to get my 12-inch teenage guns bigger.

After over 10 years of following the bodybuilding path, I realized my athleticism and overall health were declining. I was tighter than Tin Man, I lacked the balance and coordination I enjoyed as an avid athlete growing up, my frequent eating schedule created unnecessary anxiety in my life, and finally, I had an unhealthy focus on how I looked.

I’m not writing this article to say the bodybuilding approach to fitness is evil, or wrong. There are many bodybuilders who I’ve learned from and respect like Tom Venuto, Dave Draper, & Franco Columbu to name a few.

I’m sharing my opinion on how following a functional fitness approach based on how our bodies are built to function may lead to better health, more happiness, and greater longevity.

1. Use Your Body As One Piece

If I could sum up the functional fitness approach to exercise in one phrase, it would be to “use your body as one piece”.

The human body is an amazing interconnected web of muscles, fascia, bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves and other matter that collaborate seamlessly to create movement and support life.

Focusing on one, or two body parts each workout is like turning the human body into a dumb machine comprised of disparate parts. But this is not how the human body works, or is structured. If you watch a human dissection (videos are available on YouTube), you’ll see that trying to “target” specific muscles through exercise is almost laughable.

Anatomist Thomas Myers concluded the human body is like “one muscle separated into 600 fascial pockets”. Fascia is the collagenous web that connects our muscles together.

A full-body exercise approach based on fundamental movement patterns like squatting, bending, pushing, and pulling uses the body as one piece to develop functional strength that carries over into your daily life or sporting activities. This approach also promotes better cardiovascular health and mobility.

A full-body approach is arguably superior for building muscle, burning fat, improving strength, and increasing athletic performance.

Finally, a full-body, functional approach that emphasizes movements over muscle groups can help address (or identify) weaknesses you may have, which in turn boosts your overall strength and athleticism.

2. Focus On Performance, Aesthetics Will Follow

While how you look is probably very important to you, does that mean your training should be structured around aesthetics? I don’t think so.

From a historical perspective, the purpose of exercise was to prepare for physical challenges, typically sport or fighting. My guess is that Spartan Warriors were not worried about getting a biceps pump.

By focusing on improving performance, as you become stronger and more athletic, your body will start to look more athletic, lean, and fit. In other words, aesthetics are a byproduct of improved performance.

Most importantly, focusing on performance creates a healthy mindset shift from obsessively thinking about how you look, to approaching exercise as a skill that is developed and refined. This can be a liberating experience.

By challenging your entire body as one piece, you develop your muscles in a way that is naturally aesthetic. You won’t have to worry about gross muscle imbalances like an oversized chest with small arms. You won’t have to worry about doing abs exercises to get a six-pack.

3. Eat To Support Your Lifestyle

The typical bodybuilding approach to nutrition is to eat frequently, as many as 6 or 7 meals per day. Most of these meals are comprised of whole foods, with a couple protein shakes.

Bodybuilding is also associated with heavy use of supplements and ergogenic aids like steroids. Supplements in particular are promoted by reputable fitness models who are sponsored by the supplement companies. While some supplements can make a difference, most are a waste of money in my opinion.

Research has shown meal frequency does not boost your metabolism, nor does it help you burn more fat1. Whether it’s eating 3 square meals per day, or 2, or 7, go with whatever best fits your lifestyle.

How do you build a strong, lean, athletic body? – Train like an athlete by using a full-body approach to exercise and fuel your body with whole foods, eating however many meals makes sense for you while meeting the demands of your active lifestyle.

Have you ever followed the bodybuilding approach before? Have you made the shift to a functional fitness approach?

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60 Comments

  • Javed Shaikh says:

    Hi Marc,

    Greetings for the occasion.

    I am of the opinion for the lean body and am following this routine and please suggest if something needs to be added or cuttoff.

    Warmup with some stretching exercise and barbel squat of 17 reps at present (one reps increases every week for all exercises).

    Workout starts with Pushups and barbel press and thereafter with each exercise for neck, shoulder, biceps, triceps and forerms, abs workout on alternate day.

    I follow this routine daily for 6 days, with sunday as rest, some times 2 days rest in case of sprain in any part.

    Please advice.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Javed - it's hard for me to comment on a specific routine, but I have an article I just wrote today about how to structure a full-body workout that I suggest you check out. May give you some more ideas on how to structure your routine.

  • Anthony Riojas says:

    Great article Mark. As a user and success story of your built lean program (1.0), I've always appreciated your insight and find your studies very informative. I plan to try to apply this to training going forward to build function, and let form follow. (Recently put on a little weight, so looking forward to getting back to it). Can't wait for BL version 3 soon also. I'll bet functional training is incorporated into its core.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony. I'm super excited for you to try BuiltLean 3.0, I think it's the best program yet, and yes, functional training is at the core of the program.

  • Robert gerber says:

    I'm a tennis player and am 72 ;I play 5-6times a week ;I work out three times a week doing push pull and full body workout trying to keep muscle mass sort of an aerobic workout and some yoga and Pilates my question is this similar to what your offering ?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Congrats on staying active, Robert. It sounds like you are following a functional fitness approach. In terms of my new program I plan to launch very soon, it's based on 3 full body strength circuits per week.

  • Alan says:

    Marc - interesting read, looks like you've been busy. I was wondering why the articles had slowed a bit in between.

    My question is - do you forsee your training program (I've purchased) undergoing any changes since the last revision?

    Best wishes for 2016

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Alan, thanks for the comment. Yes, I have been very busy and I'm super excited to have the newsletter started up again and also consistent articles. The new program is based on the same principles as the old one, but it's almost entirely new. It's a different program with different workouts and it's been lengthened to 12-weeks.

      • Alan says:

        That's great to hear Marc. you know how to get a person hyped haha. looking forward to the update. any indication when you will have it out? Thanks

  • Tom Roman says:

    Marc, great article! Yes, I made a switch to CrossFit last year and feel incredible. Thanks for the article!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks, Tom

  • Jimmy says:

    Great article and excited to learn about the new programs. Ever consided creating a home workout plan for those without access ago a gym or weight? For at home and traveling?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Jimmy, thanks for your interest. The new program I plan to launch soon requires only dumbbells, a pull up bar, and a jump rope. So you can do it either at home, at a gym, or on the road. The exercises can also easily be modified to suit whatever space / equipment constraints you may have. One of the key changes I made with this new program was to make it more accessible.

      • Jimmy says:

        Thanks. Excited for the new program. Sounds better then the last one. Which I did do so well about without a gym. Can suspension straps be used instead of dumbbell?

        • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

          Happy to hear you are excited for the new program! The new program is more accessible than the old one, meaning it's easier with even less equipment. I guess you can create substitutes for most of the exercises as long as you have experience using the suspension straps and doing many different exercises on them. If you have any questions about exercise substitutes, we can give you some ideas.

  • Theresa Watson says:

    I cannot say enough how much I appreciate this article. The timing also has been perfect. I'm 54, female and have trained since 2008 strictly weight lifting. Early this past summer, I began training, with a trainer, doing the full-body training. It has taken months to adjust to and convince myself to switch. I don't so much care that I'm not as aesthetically defined anymore. I'm stronger and with getting older, feel so much better training full-body instead of body parts. And, my nutrition now is SO much easier to deal with as well. I'm happy you'll be coming out with a 12-week program. Thank you again for such a great article! Happy New Year!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for sharing, Theresa and congrats on your results

  • Dave Ashworth says:

    Great article Marc. The reason I've subscribed to your programs in the past is because of the implied goals in the "Builtlean" brand name. I don't like the ripped look, and aim to be lean, flexible, fit and healthy. I guess at 58 years old my goals have to different anyway. Functionality, flexibility, planning for continued independence and still being vain enough to want to look as good as possible in nice clothes are way more important than how much I can bench press. I also struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food and am sick of worrying about it. Looking forwards to the release of your new program this month, as mentioned in your subscriber email. Cheers, Dave

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dave. Super excited for you to try out the new program when it's ready.

  • anonymous says:

    Hi Marc,

    Great news on the new and improved program! It's been too quiet for some time with regards to updates and I was getting worried you may had gone back to your old job ;). It's great to see you posting again! I really enjoy the website and it has been a great help and support in my quest to become healthy again.

    My entire life I've been told I have short muscles. I remember from elementary school I couldn't do certain exercises. Later in high school I joined a basketball team and was amazed by the flexibity these guys had in their joints. Again I was told I just had short muscles. Like it was something I just had to accept and nothing could be done about it. A few years later I started to get pain in my knees. Noticed it when squatting or cycling or climbing stairs. When I went to the doctor (on several occasions actually) I was told it was growing pains or something, either way it would go away by itself and it was nothing to worry about. In my early 20's I got a deskjob and I stopped stopped sporting. I've been sitting on my behind for over 20 years.

    In 2014 I weighted 242 pounds. Resting heart rate was around 80. Walking up and down the stairs at home and I'd be gasping for air.

    I couldn't stand on one leg (balance issues), I had very weak muscles in my legs, I could barely get up from a squat position and often used my arms for support. Poor locomotion, especially in legs, and I was getting kind of clumsy overall. It's embarrasing when you're unable to correct some movement and either loose balance or bump into something or someone.

    It turned out I've been having patellofemoral syndrome in my knees - thanks to the Doc for taking me serious as a kid! They could have fixed it then, now it's chronic. I'm also severely limited in movement in all my joints - especially shoulders. For example, I could barely reach behind my back to pull a sleeve to take off a coat but I also couldn't sit straight up on the floor with my legs strechted in front of me (hamstrings). I also developed a severe hunchback posture. The back of my neck had this huge lump from my spine sticking out, and my shoulders hanging forward.

    The list goes on and on, you get the idea. I wanted to turn things around in 2014. With that weight and my knees I couldn't go running so I opted for cycling. After a few months I lost about 30 pounds but ran into several injuries, severe pain in my neck from the forward position on the bike, an infection in my shoulder and another one in my heel. I went to the doc and a PT and I was told to stop. It took almost 4 months to recover after which I was really depressed and demotivated to continue any kind of workout, and I also started to gain some weight again.

    In the first half of 2015 I picked up again. I stopped eating junk and generally watched what I was eating. I started walking and slowly started cycling again. I lost another few pounds but hit a wall. That's when I ran into builtlean.com. I spent days reading on your site, read about the radroller, foam roller, watched your videos and learned about diet. But with so many sites promising weight loss and improved health, I was extremely sceptic about your 8-week program. When I read the money back garantee I decided to take the plunge and purchased your program.

    Unfortunately, I was unable to complete the program. I ran into so many issues, I was unable to complete the movement screen tests for instance, I was unable to do even a single push up or pull up, when doing goblet squats my knees were absolutely killing me - it was a nightmare!

    This time, I didn't give up though. I decided to completely throw my eating habits out the door. I switched to an almost 100% biological diet, whole vegetables only, I stopped eating anything processed, only drink water, black coffee or tea and eat several pieces of fruit every day. I also stopped adding sugars everywhere and I started logging and weighing anything I eat, as accurately as possible to calculate my calorie intake. I've been doing this for about 6 months now. Weight plummeted down and for every 10% weight loss I adjusted my calorie intake down by 10%.

    By the start of this year I had lost a total of over 66 pounds, I'm down to 176 (I'm 6 ft)! That is almost 2.5 pounds per 10 days on average since I picked up in 2015 again. With the accumeasure clip and charts I can measure body fat %, it's down from an estimate of 30% (didn't have the clip back then) to 16%. I'm not sure how to calculate it exactly but I reckon I must have lost some muscle mass as well due to the fact that I couldn't follow the 8-week program.

    But I continued with the exercises that I could do like the breakout exercises from the screen tests and I continued doing the warmup exercises. I continued cycling and found what must be the best PT in the country (treats professional athletes too and trains a lot too, going for the iron man later this year). He's been a great help and support and we are working on my hips, legs and knees so I can start running. I've been really wanting to start running and this week we are going to see if that's possible.

    I've also been using the radroller and foam roller. The lump in my neck is completely gone and I fixed my hunchback posture for 99%! Thanks to your tips and the builtlean website!

    I am now back to your 8-week program and intent to finish it. The past 2 days I've been sore from the sideplank with rotation :). I've been doing push ups and can do 3 sets of 10 while before, I could do maybe 2 - not sets, single push ups!

    You know what the hardest thing of it all is? It's not the diet or constantly having to weigh and log everything. It's not the exercises or setbacks I've been having. I've been having some motivational dips here and there and I've slacked some of the exercises now and then. But that's to be expected, isn't it? No, the really hard part is the constant nagging of friends and family telling me I'm good and I need to stop. Only 1or 2 seem to really understand or at least, show understanding. The fact that they have no idea what I'm trying to do, even though I've been trying to explain it, it just flies straight over their heads. I want to go down to around 10, maybe 12% body fat. I estimate another 8 to 10 pounds. I still have a good layer of fat covering my torso. I want to get a healthy, active lifestyle, regularly doing sports, running, cycling. I broke with my eating habits, I need to break with my sedentary lifestyle too. I'm looking at indoor climbing - just need a partner and I'll go. When I talk about these plans people just look at me like I'm speaking in some alien language - and all they can say is that it's not healthy for me, I'm too old and I can't weigh less than 175 lbs! I can get so angry!! Everyone complements me on my weight loss and that great, really. But that's the easy part. I could really use some understanding and support from my family for what I'm trying to accomplish, a few encouraging words and show some interest; but stop telling me I can't do this! Alas, that's too much to ask. It makes me sad and honestly, it hurts.

    I'm 44. I'm not old but I feel old. Not because I'm getting old like everyone seems to like for an excuse not to be more active, but because I haven't been active in the first place! I need to turn things around before it's too late.

    Here's the thing: I've been working my ass off for the past 6 or 8 months. I don't need people to tell me it's "good enough"! I only 6 to 8 weeks to go to reach my weight loss goal. Like I'm going to quit now when I'm almost there? Not a chance! Good enough isn't what I want! I have my mind set and I need to get there or I might as well just quit entirely and go back to my old lifestyle.

    Because, isn't that what this is about? It's not about the number on the scale - because really, I don't care whether it says 167 or 175. It's about changing mentality and lifestyle. It's about doing the right thing and those changes take time. Not weeks or months, not even a year - for the rest of life! Because some things will never change. I need to keep doing this. No, I want to keep doing this. Going back is not an option for me. Quitting is not an option but nobody seems to care and that hurts - great, now I'm crying too. This is really the hardest thing for me.

    Anyways, no point in feeling sorry for myself. I realize I'm doing this for myself and nobody else so whether they like or not, in 6 to 8 weeks I'll reach my weight loss goal. I'll keep weighing my food and balance the macro nutritients. This year I can actually start thinking about training for a 1/4 triathlon - how awesome would that be? Keep setting goals and work on getting there.

    Feels good to get this off my chest and hopefully, it will motivate others struggling with some of these issues as well.

    Take care and thanks for reading!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Wow, this is an epic comment! Thanks for sharing your insights and your story, I do hope it inspires others. Of everything you discussed, what really stuck out at me is listening to your own inner voice and moving forward. It's tough to have the courage to do so. And as you know 44 is NOT old at all. My dad is 70 years old and crushes 15 kettlebell swings in a row with a 53 pound kettlebell. It is disconcerting that so many people do not question cultural norms and conventional wisdom about aging, but the truth is that cultural norms can make people unhealthy and reduce quality of life. My opinion is you can become stronger, more flexible, and fitter as you age.

  • A.J. Wagoner says:

    What happens if you don't have the funds for a trainer or a program or well even equipment?? I want to get my body to be the way I want it to be....strong, lean, fit...but do not have the funds for anything. I could trade you a prophetic poem or three for you to come show me some things I could do at home in Florida?? eh?? ;-) (worth a shot! lol)

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey A.J., while access to a coach / trainer in person would be great (even just for a few sessions), I think you can definitely use your own bodyweight to get lean and strong. It will take effort on your part.

      Some ideas:

      1) Push Ups
      2) Pull ups - plenty of parks have pull up bars, even kids playgrounds have pull up bars
      3) Bodyweight squats
      4) Running / Jogging - both flat and uphill
      5) Yoga in general

      I think a combination of these can help you get a functionally strong and fit body. In terms of how to apply it, keep things simple. Good luck!

      • Allison says:

        Hi Marc,

        Love your website and articles, I'm looking forward to reading more articles about functional fitness and incorporating them into my routine. As a natural sprinter who has trained pretty much since I was age 8 or 9 (I'm now 48) I love to read all the new scientific research around fitness and nutrition. I think variety is to key to all fitness and nutrition. I have always combined weights, cardio, HiTT and long slow walks/swims/bike rides for recovery.
        When I initially subscribed I was a hit sceptical about paying, but it has definitely been worth it. Thanks again for all your great work, I look forward to another year of interesting articles. I haven't checked out YouTube connections to this site, but that would be great too for form during push ups etc.

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