It's Okay to Want to Look Good

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS

Los Angeles, California, United States

Personal Trainer, Strength Training, Martial Arts, Fitness Journalist, Triathlons

Longtime fitness pros remember a time when the term “functional training” didn’t exist.

 

The phrase came into common usage in the early 2000s as a corrective to the bodybuilding approach to training popularized by magazines like Flex and Muscle and Fitness, both of which I devoured when I was young.

 

 

Bodybuilders, the argument went, don’t train to do anything. They only trained to look better. And looking better, the implication was, was silly. Self-indulgent. Not serious.

 

We’re athletes, functional training advocates proudly declared. We train to run faster, jump higher, win championships. If we happen to develop six-pack abs and contoured legs as a result of our functional training activities, we don’t even notice, because we’re too busy at practice with our teammates so we can win games.

 

Functional training was firmly rooted in science: how strong, how fast, how high. If you went to a functional training seminar or summit—and I’ve been to many—no one will talk about building your arms. They’ll talk improving vertical jump, sprint speed, joint mobility. If there’s not a metric for it, by gosh, they’ll invent one.

 

In stark contrast, bodybuilding, for all it’s associated machismo, is an artistic pursuit: “Good bodybuilders have the same eye as a sculptor has,” Arnold Schwarzenegger famously declared in Pumping Iron. “You look in the mirror and say, I need more shoulder still to get the proportions right.”

 

We think of Arnold as the epitome of masculine will, but he’s an artist at heart (he has, after all, spent the bulk of his working life as an actor). To this day, when he discusses bodybuilding, it’s not as a detached commentator, but as a connoisseur of an art. He’ll even refer to a man’s body as “beautiful”—and no one laughs, they even applaud.

 

All this is too much for the functional crowd. How do you quantify beauty? What are those “right” proportions that Arnold sought all those years ago?

 

The Functional Crowd

As currently conceived, the fitness industry has no answer to such thorny questions.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine, which gave me my first cert in 2003, takes a therapeutic approach to training, teaching students to address muscle imbalances, balance problems, and postural issues.

 

The National Strength and Conditioning Association dives deeply into how to build faster, stronger athletes—at least it did in 2008 when I passed my CSCS exam. Despite a few nods to changing body composition (“total conditioning programs are typically used to alter all body composition compartments”) and hypertrophy (“higher overall volume… appears to be optimal for increasing muscle girth”), the authors more or less sidestep the question of aesthetics altogether.

 

And yet: it’s unquestionably the reason most people go to the gym, and to pretend otherwise—to waste a 45-year-old woman’s time on showing her how to improve her vertical jump or perfect an overhead squat—is to deny a basic fact of human nature. We all want to feel good and perform well. But what we really want, in our heart of hearts, out of all our time in the gym is to look better.

 

 

It's Okay to Want to Look Good - Fitness, goals, hypertrophy, mature athlete, daily exercise, functional exercise

 

Thankfully, a handful of fitness pros have started to bridge the gap. For ten years now, ex-competitive bodybuilder Dr. Lonnie Lowry has faithfully broadcast “egghead meets meathead” muscle-and-strength news and tips on his weekly podcast Iron Radio. He’s a PhD, for God’s sake, but it doesn’t stop him from spending an hour telling you how to build great arms.

 

Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, another former competitive bodybuilder, has done seminal work on hypertrophy, and his work with Bret Contreras—known as “the glute guy”—has started to lend scientific support to some of the muscle building and fat-burning practices typically used by competitive bodybuilders. Together, Schoenfeld and Contreras are turning bro science into real science. The name of Schoenfeld’s facts-and-charts heavy website? lookgreatnaked.com.

 

All along, it’s been clear that “functional” training is a problematic term. As Gary Gray, one of the fathers of functional training has said, the term always begs the question: what function are we talking about? “If I’m on the toilet pooping,” he once said to me, “That’s my function at that time.” So what if your function is “looking better in a bathing suit”?

 

One major argument for functional training has been that single-joint movements—staples in bodybuilding routines—don’t resemble “real-life” movements, and so have limited carryover to day-to-day activity (and to the professional-level athletics that everyone who trains ‘functionally’ presumably participates in).

 

But this isn’t true: one recent study (and there are many like this) showed that leg extensions—a movement that has the functional crowd frequently picks on as quintessentially ‘nonfunctional’—had a direct impact on older peoples’ ability to walk. What exercise is less ‘functional’ than the leg extension, and what movement is more ‘functional’ than walking? Increasingly, functional versus nonfunctional training looks like a distinction without a difference.

 

Looking Good Is Okay

I’m not saying there’s no difference between training for aesthetics and training for performance: I’d be doing high-level bodybuilding and strength-and -conditioning coaches a huge disservice. But for the vast majority of clients—non-athletes who want to stay in shape, look and feel a little better who don’t have the time, much less the interest, to get into the weeds of differing training philosophies—the actual difference is razor thin.

 

A bodybuilder might do squats, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, and step ups and call it “hammering quads, glutes, and hammies;” a functional trainee might do these same four exercises and call it “knee-dominant, hip dominant, and single-leg training.” po-tay-to, po-tah-to".

 

Both groups will push, pull, squat, hinge. They’ll lift heavy; they’ll lift light. They’ll do core training. If they’re smart, they’ll stretch and work on mobility so that their training won’t jack them up or slow them down. One group might do a few more curls, another a little more med-ball work. But as any good coach knows, those moves are side dishes: the meat and potatoes of both types of workouts will be remarkably similar.

 

Let’s drop the charade that we’re all training athletes, or that everyone wants to be an athlete, or that an athletic approach is the best approach for everyone. It’s okay to want to look good. It doesn’t mean you’re vain, shallow, self-absorbed. It doesn’t mean you’re caving into some imposed standard of beauty. As Jesse Kneeland wrote recently,

 

"It’s ok to want to be beautiful, and to also reject beauty standards. It’s ok to want to be high-status, and also to believe there should be no such thing as status in the first place. This conflict is normal, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer over it."

 

I fully agree. In fact, however you feel about standards of conventional beauty, you can still go ahead and pursue whatever standards of beauty and performance appeal to you—and enjoy the hell out of the process. You can train both for form and function.

 

Train to be faster and to look better naked. Or just do one of them. Who are we to judge? We fitness pros need to be sensitive to our clients’ needs and wishes—and not sub in our goals for theirs, or shame them for wanting what they want in the way that they want it.

 

Evaluate What Is Functional to You

As part of an article I wrote for Men’s Health a few years back, I visited a training facility in Southern California where some NFL stars were gearing up for the season. Stars like Antonio Cromartie, Colin Kaepernick, and Clay Matthews were all there, and their strength and athleticism was, predictably, jaw-dropping.

 

Kaepernick powered up the infamous Santa Monica stairs over and over, blowing by one earnest exerciser after another. Running agility drills, Matthews’ size and speed were almost incomprehensible.

 

After two hours of tire flipping, field drills, band-resisted sprints, and other classically functional fare, most of the athletes funneled out of the gym to hit the showers. Matthews, however, lagged behind, pounding out set after set of dumbbell curls before calling it a day.

 

Was he working on his ability to fend off an opposing lineman? Shoring up a weakness in his kinetic chain?

 

“Nah,” said his trainer. “He just wants his arms to look good when he flexes for the camera.”

 

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