Why Should Athletes Bother with Functional Strength?

We have to balance swim, bike, and run with the other chaos of life, so it's easy to neglect or completely ignore strength training.

We have to balance swim, bike, and run with the other chaos of life, so it’s easy to neglect or completely ignore strength training. That’s a huge mistake!

The ultimate goal of our workouts is to expand our library of kinesthetic sense.

Think on that for a moment. That’s a wonderful image. Your body retains its familiarity with different movements much like a book collector keeps volumes in his library. Remember the old maxim that once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget? To a large degree, it’s true.

The more volumes you have in your kinesthetic library—meaning, the more movements that your body is familiar with—the greater your ability to move safely and gracefully in sport, work, and life. Every time we add a movement or a new wrinkle to an old movement, we expand this library, preparing ourselves to use our bodies in new ways if called upon to do so.

Performing repetitions in the gym translate into a movement easily accessible to your brain’s neural network. Using a machine that rotates your hips simulates a movement you need when kayaking down a river. An exercise with a dumbbell in the gym mimics the movement your body does when shoveling snow. These are examples of functional strength, which I define as strength developed not for its own sake or for the performance of particular exercises, but in support of real-life activities. Whether you are kayaking or shoveling snow, moving furniture or trekking the Himalayas, this is the kind of strength that will make a difference to your quality of life in the long term.

Now here’s the really interesting part: While much of the neural development that leads to specialization occurs early in life, scientists have discovered that this process can occur anytime, even in elderly adults. If practice really does make perfect, as the science suggests, then some level of perfection can be achieved at any age. In other words, there is always the possibility that we can improve ourselves. The only thing stopping us is a reluctance to push out of our comfort zones.

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