Most people would agree that the fitness industry has changed considerably in the past 20 years. Once considered a sanctuary for muscle growth during the bodybuilding era, the fitness industry is now shifting in many directions to offer an increasingly varied array of services to please the ever-growing public demand.
One such direction the fitness industry has taken, which is unfortunately often misunderstood by the public, is functional training. To help facilitate this growing demand, many gyms are have started adding “functional training” to their program offerings. In some cases, gyms are trading in their bulky isolation-based training machines for functional training equipment and are adding floor space to accommodate the increased movement that this type of training requires.
For example, one of Asia’s largest club chains recently opened a mega gym in the heart of Singapore. Next to the standard offerings of weight training equipment, it also added a complete sports training pitch with artificial turf and pretty much every movement-based tool in the market as well as a Mixed Martial Arts octagon fighting cage. This is probably the most beautiful facility in the whole of Asia by far, and projected to be the most successful in terms of revenue. But one question does come to mind: How effective will the added facilities and tools be in increasing functionality and fitness in clients training independently without expert supervision? Of course, only time can tell, but one thing is certain...this new gym is the start of a trend that will more likely become the norm rather than the exception in future fitness centers.
Inspired by this shift in trends, this article will attempt to answer the following questions within the framework of evolutionary brain theory:
- Does the fitness industry use functional training tools in line with the way that the brain was programmed to use tools?
- Can evolutionary brain theory help us train our clients to use functional training tools more effectively?
Human Evolution, Energy Efficiency & Tool Use
Since the dawn of mankind, three major trends have occurred in human evolution that set us apart from other animals:
- we became bipedal,
- we began making tools, and
- we grew exceptionally large brains relative to our body size.
Even though most theorists agree that bipedalism preceded tool-making and brain growth, there are a number of divergent theories, including Morgan’s (1982) aquatic ape theory or Lovejoy’s (1981) carrying hypothesis. Even though each of these theories creating interesting narratives as to why we may have become bipedal, no single theory has been unanimously accepted in the scientific arena.
One common idea is that humans became bipedal in order to travel longer distances in search of better living circumstances as the environment changed. This, in turn, led to greater brain use and more complex tool development, and enabled our ancestors to acquire and prepare foods (Stanford, 2003).
Aeiello and Wheeler (1995) hypothesized in their “expensive tissue hypothesis” that as our ancestors’ brains and bodies grew larger, they required more energy. The theory proposes that because energy management is essential to survival, as human brains grew in size and demanded more energy, the body decreased its gut size to maintain a manageable Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This may have resulted in a shift in diet to include more meat consumption.
This phenomenon is called the “Dynamic Energy Budget” (DEB) theory (Sousa et al., 2010) in theoretical and mathematical biology circles. The DEB theory is a mathematical theory based on the conservation of mass, isotopes, energy and time, including the inherent degradation of energy associated with all processes, which is shared by all animals. In other words, the survival of the animal is dependent on the balance between energy expenditure and energy consumption.
What this means to us is that we have a survival mechanism embedded in our DNA that gives us an insatiable drive to consume as much food and expend as little energy as possible. Our primal instinct – shared among all animals – is to seek the path of least resistance in search of the greatest energy stores.
As a result, it is plausible to assume that as the environment changed over the past few million years, so, too, did our food supply. This forced us out of the trees and into the savannahs to seek food while still expending as little energy as possible.
In those times, physical activity was the only means of transportation, food acquisition, and security. As such, unnecessary energy expenditure would only have lead to an early demise. Our primal brains learned to use energy as a commodity, and every investment of energy needed a positive return. Too many poor investments would mean extinction of the species.
Based on the DEB theory, we can speculate that early humans developed the ability to invent, create, and innovate as a means to conserve energy. Somewhere down the line, however, homo sapiens took energy efficiency to a whole new level. We developed creative capabilities unparalleled by any other animal species, which ultimately lead to our position as the dominant species on the planet.
Modern-Day Implications of Evolution & Functional Training
Interestingly, as we fast-forward a few tens of thousands of years, humans have not changed much as a species, which includes the primal desire for energy efficiency. We have invented, created, and innovated to such an extent that we have ultimately altered the very environment we were designed to thrive in. Physical activity is no longer a requirement for food gathering or avoiding predators, but we still have the innate desire for energy efficiency embedded in our DNA.
Perhaps this is the reason why so many people do not like to exercise. Their primal brains simply do not understand that the energy benefits of exercise far outweigh the costs, but perceive exercise as pointless since there are neither animals to chase for food, nor predators to escape.
While our clients’ primal brains may perceive exercise as a useless waste of energy, we fitness professionals have learned that physical activity is the elixir of life. Our own brains have learned to perceive the benefits versus the costs, which reinforces why we should exercise regularly.
Over the past few decades, the fitness industry’s response to this public lack of energy expenditure is to create environments (gyms) where, just like in early evolution, physical activity is a requirement. Our ability to innovate and create has also enabled us to develop training tools that trainers can utilize in these environments to once again ignite the evolutionary genome so it can once again operate as it was designed to millions of years ago. In short, with our evolutionary capacity to innovate we created “functional training.” In neuroscience, this response to changes in the environment that we have created is coined “niche construction.” “Niche-construction” denotes an evolutionary process whereby the activities of organisms modify their habitat, to which in turn the organisms evolve to adapt, thus creating their own “ecological niche” in the environment (Iriki and Taoka, 2012). In short, the fitness industry is evolving in response to an environment that fitness professionals, as a “species,” have created.
As stated by the American Council on Exercise (Bryant, 1999): “Functional strength training involves performing work against resistance in such a manner that the improvements in strength directly enhance the performance of movements so that an individual's activities of daily living are easier to perform.” Considering our population’s inherent lack of physical activity, typical activities of daily living in today’s society are not very challenging anymore.
Based on our evolutionary heritage, perhaps we should be saying something in the form of: “Functional strength training involves performing work against resistance in such a manner that the adaptations of training directly reinforce our evolutionary inherited movement capabilities.
When ACE mentions “work against resistance” and “enhance the performance of movements,” this means that most functional training tools will provide resistance and enable movement. From a fitness standpoint, equipment that gives us resistance and makes us move around through space sounds like a great solution. However, let’s consider this from the client’s perspective whose primal brain has been conditioned for millions of years to move as little as possible and conserve energy. The DEB theory implies that the client’s primal brain will only think of using tools to make tasks easier and more energy efficient. So what can you imagine happens in our client’s brain when we ask them to use a tool that actually makes a task harder?
At this point, with the DEB theory in mind, we could theorize that when given a functional training tool and asked to perform physical movements requiring expenditure of energy, the client’s primal brain may respond by making the smallest movements possible in an effort to conserve energy. Even though it was designed with the best intentions in mind, the client’s primal desire for energy efficiency could render a functional training tool useless if the client is not under the watchful eye of a very observant trainer.
The Brain & Handheld Tools
Another issue to consider is the neurological response that occurs in the brain in response to using a handheld tool. Many functional training tools are handheld. But what is the brain’s neurological process as we grasp these handheld tools? Also, does grasping a handheld weighted tool naturally elicit an appropriate neurophysiological response that optimizes movement, or is some other neurological process needed before the tool can elicit the desired response?
Research shows that the human ability to conceptualize and manipulate a wide range of tools sets us apart from other animals (Corballis,1989; Paillard, 1993; Mithen, 1996; Noble & Davidson, 1997). In order for us to be able to effectively use a simple tool, such as using a hammer to hit a nail into a plank, the brain must apply multiple processes in quick succession:
Figure 1. Cortical circuits related to human use of tools and pantomiming use of tools (Lewis, 2006)
- First, it must be aware of where the various body parts are moving through space and time, known as body schema (Paillard, 1993; Iriki et al., 1996).
- The brain must then assimilate (Lewis, 2006) with the tool (develop a level of familiarity that enables the brain to treat the tool as an extension of the body)
- Finally, it creates an action schema, which is a plan of action to develop motor skills to be able to produce motor procedures (Norman and Shallice, 1986; Goldenberg, 1995; Rumiati et al., 2004; Johnson-Frey et al., 2005).
As Figure 1 illustrates, a simple task such as striking a hammer on a nail requires a tremendous amount of neural activity from the premotor to the primary motor and the primary somatosensory cortices in the left hemisphere (heavily covered areas on the left side of the image). These areas of the brain are responsible for planning, executing, and perceiving movements.
This figure clearly shows the amount of cortical organization dedicated to movements of the hand. Of concern here is that functional training not only involves movements of the hand, but requires the entire body to move through space in a synchronized manner. Since the brain is programmed to dedicate so much of its resources to hand movements, the handheld functional training tool may actually distract the brain’s attention away from what the body is doing and focus primarily on what the hands are doing instead, thus ignoring correct movement patterning from the body.
If this is the case, this could prove potentially disastrous for the trainer, since functional training can quickly degrade to dysfunctional training.
Ways to Make Functional Training Tools Functional
Even though this information may seem bleak to proponents of functional training, the truth is that functional training is an evolutionary process in response to the environment that we have created. As society continues to evolve into a sedentary environment with potentially devastating physical adaptations we will be forced to continue to evolve our functional training tools and training methods to counter these maladaptations.
As the old cliché goes: ”You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.” A better understanding of our evolutionary roots can help us better understand our present, which in turn will give us a clearer direction of where to go with functional training.
Let’s explore a few ways you can apply to enhance the effectiveness of functional training and training tools with you personal training clients:
1: Learn more about why people behave the way they do.
Take some time to explore our own evolution and in particular the evolution of our brains as all behavior starts in the brain. Even though the human brain has evolved considerably over the past 3 million years, it has not evolved much in the past 50,000 years or so. Our brains evolved in an environment full of danger and physical activity was at the core of our ability to survive and thrive. During that time, we developed genetic predispositions that are primal drivers from within the deepest parts of our subconscious brains and are for a large part responsible for many of our behaviors today. From the impulsive desire to seek reward – such as in food, alcohol, or drugs – or to avoid perceived threats – such as our fight-or-flight responses – many of these behaviors can be recognized in our clients’ struggles to stay afloat in the modern day world where the brain is constantly bombarded by nuclear rewards and where natural threats, such as lions and tigers, have been replaced by chronic social threats such as co-workers, managers and other perceived social threats.
Your client may therefore be motivated by the perceived “reward” that a certain training tool or exercise method, such as “functional training,” may provide better and faster results than traditional weight training. Of course, we all know that no single training tool or exercise method is better than any other unless it is used in the manner it was designed to elicit the appropriate physiological adaptation for that client’s needs at that time.
Rather than simply abiding by a client’s desire to seek immediate gratification, take some time to educate your client on what is happening inside their own brain and to explain why the greatest training benefits will come from a sound exercise program where all exercise variables are utilized appropriately at the appropriate times.
In the long run, the client will appreciate your expert opinion.
2: Understand that the brain’s main function is to conserve energy in an attempt for survival.
This means that our client's primal driver is to move as little as possible in order to save energy. When introducing new functional movements, give the brain time to learn that the benefits of the movement far outweigh the cost of movement. Once the brain is convinced of this, your client will enthusiastically partake in any complex movement with full dedication.
With the brain’s primal driver to conserve energy, there is a potential for the client to perceive a new training tool or movement as a potential threat. The brain’s preoccupation with this threat while introducing a new tool or movement may not be the most favorable scenario.
If a threat response is suspected, choose to regress the exercise by either choosing a different or lighter implement, or remove the implement altogether and focus on the movement first. Another option is to break down the movement pattern into a series of simple little movements first and let the client practice those basic movements to develop a level of confidence with each movement. For example, if the goal is to do a complex movement pattern such as a lunge while doing an overhead dumbbell press, ensure the client is confident and strong in both the lunge as well as overhead press individually. Then, when introducing the combination, start slowly without any weight whatsoever and build from there.
3: Be sensitive to the overload of information processing occurring in the brain when grasping a training tool.
If you are using a handheld training tool, understand that most attention will initially go to the hands rather than the body. If this occurs, consider teaching the movement without a tool until hand-and-foot coordination has occurred. Even then, the moment a tool is introduced in the hand, coach the client diligently to ensure the client’s brain also pays attention to what the body is doing.
4: Remember, although the use of training tools fits well into evolution theory, our clients did not create these tools.
The client may think that the tools we introduce waste energy. Take time to introduce and educate the client on why using this particular tool will benefit them so they, too, can learn to perceive the training tool as a cost-effective means to achieve their goals.
5: Use many different tools.
Research shows that when the brain learns to utilize new tools, it actually grows new brain cells as seen in studies done with macaque monkeys (Quallo et al., 2009). It is therefore possible that when we introduce a functional training tool and are able to manage the concerning issues presented, the brain may actually benefit from being introduced to different tools, giving them a whole new appreciation for functional training tools.
Can use this information to answer the two questions posed in the introduction?
First, does the fitness industry use functional training tools in line with the way that the brain was programmed to use tools?
Well, that depends on indvidual perspective. For example, a personal trainer's job may be made easier by a good training tool that is used according to appropriate training guidelines. Movement-based training tools are often invented and designed by trainers who are seeking a more effective training tool. In contrast, a client may find that the tool makes their workout more strenuous and energy costly, which may make understanding its benefits less intuitive. The instinct to conserve energy may inhibit the client’s movements when attempted under load, which in turn may contribute to movement inefficiency and chronic injury rather than improved functionality.
Based on evolutionary brain theory, we should err on the side of caution when introducing movement-based training tools to ensure the client’s brain is fully committed to expending valuable energy on correctly performing movement patterns under load.
Second, can evolutionary brain theory help us train our clients to use functional training tools more effectively?
The short answer to this is YES! By being more aware of the brain’s need to utilize tools to conserve energy over expending energy, as trainers we can be more effective in coaching our clients and in identifying when we need to regress a client.
The challenge however, will be for the clients utilizing movement-based training tools without expert supervision. Looking back at the relationship between how much of the brain’s resources are dedicated to the hands versus the rest of the body, it will be extremely challenging for the average client to develop enough body awareness to self-assess whether he or she is moving effectively or whether the brain is inhibiting movement in an attempt to conserve energy. Whether or not this will lead to greater movement effectiveness in fitness centers or not is still too early to tell and will surely be the topic of future scientific studies.
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