Aaron Williamson Demystifies Functional Fitness

by Arthur Vandelay on March 12, 2015

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What is functional training?
That’s a great question. I get it all the time. Functional training is essentially exercise that mimics real life movements and activities. Most training is based around core strength, which is really important for what I do with my clients. It teaches the muscles how to work together. You are doing full body movements that work more than one body part. For instance, doing a burpee or a jumping jack, you are using your arms and your legs and your chest. The muscle groups in your body are working together.

Why has functional training become so popular?
There’s been so much hype about it. The first reason is just for the fun factor alone. Not having to go from machine to machine at the gym, or be stuck to a dumbbell or a barbell. You truly have to be into another style of training to enjoy that on a daily basis. But for the normal person, when you can go into a functional training facility or a room that has battle ropes and kettle bells and monkey bars and stability balls, you can do so many different exercises. It changes the monotony of the gym. It’s a different feeling of going in there and being depressed because you’re gonna have to get under heavy weight and do ten reps, four different times. In addition, it helps keep your body injury free. If you’re doing it right, your muscles are going to be a lot stronger and you’re going to be more conditioned, which gives you that more lean, toned look people seek, and film actors especially want.

Even when you’re doing a functional training exercise that might be targeted at your legs, you’re still using your back and your arms and other muscles in lesser ways?
Absolutely. These exercises are typically always based around your core stability, so if you’re turning from side to side or you’re jumping down on the floor and then getting back up every time, you transition from one position to another and your core is indirectly engaged. You really don’t think about it engaging, it’s just naturally happening which is such a great way to train.

How does this type of training differ from traditional weight training?
Traditional weight training is exactly how it sounds. It’s your normal gym feel. You go into the gym and you have a specific body part you want to work out. Something very common is for people to come in and train chest and triceps or back and biceps. You’re going in, doing specific exercises for a certain number of sets and a certain number of reps, and you’re targeting a certain body part. But it’s not all working together like it would if you were going into a functional training room and doing a cardio circuit or a plyometrics circuit, where you’re going to engage everything at one time. You’re going to work your whole body through one workout but you can come in again the next day and do another workout, but you’re not going to be overly sore.

It sounds like it reflects real world activities. If I’m going to outside and stack wood, I’m not isolating my biceps. It’s a full body exercise to do that.
Some of the people I train, even non-film people, are folks I’m just trying to get back in shape. And they actually noticed a difference even driving in their car. Turning a corner, they can feel their abs engage and it’s something they’ve never felt before. There’s a connection there now. Even for the average person, it’s a great way to get back into the gym and get into physical fitness because it can be low-impact or high-impact. It can be whatever you make of it. There’s just so much room to be flexible with the training.

Do you recommend one style of training over the other?
It really depends on the goals. If I’m training a film client, it depends on what their character needs to look like. I like both styles and I incorporate both of them into my training. I actually do a lot of functional fitness for my cardio, but I’m a meathead at heart. I love to just get in their with dumbbells and lift heavy stuff all the time but that’s just me. I know it’s not for everybody.

Do you train most of your film clients with functional training when you’re preparing them for action films?
Most of them right now, yes. This is the preferred method of training. First, for its ability to keep them injury free, and, second, if they’ve had a long day, it needs to be fun. It needs to be something that will allow them to stay engaged with what they’re trying to do. If you come into a gym, and someone doesn’t really like to lift weights, it’s not going to be a good experience for either of you. Most actors really don’t like to just come in and ground and pound with heavy weights. So, every time they come in, there’s a different workout, a different circuit and a different style of training. One day we might focus more on cardiovascular stuff. I can actually put workouts together with treadmills, stead mills and rowers. It doesn’t have to be what you would think is workout equipment.

How does cardio factor into functional fitness?
Cardio’s a huge thing because of the toll it takes on your body to do full body movements like burpees, squat jumps, TRX bands and using balls. You’re going to find that your heart is going to beat out of your chest before your muscles actually fatigue out. When getting into functional fitness, there’s a progressive approach that you have to take because you’re going to want to beat the world, but your heart’s going to tell you to slow down a little bit. That’s where you have to start to do a little more traditional cardio, eat a little cleaner, stop smoking and other things that’ll help your respiratory system.

So cardio’s incorporated into the training?
Yes. I’m not a big cardio guy. I’m not up before the sun and on a treadmill with 30,000 other people. If you really engage in functional fitness, your cardio’s going to be built into the workout, so you’re actually going to knock out two birds with one stone. You’re going to get the benefits of both.

terminator-genisys-webWho have you recently used functional training techniques with to prepare for a film?
Recently with Jai Courtney for the new film Terminator: Genisys. Out of everyone I’ve worked with, I’m most jealous of his genetics. We had to be very careful with training him because he can put on muscle really easily. So, we stay away from lifting heavy weights and focused on a lot of plyometrics. A lot of box jumps, burpees, TRX, a lot of stability work. We were on the battle ropes everyday doing different intervals. He progressed on this show tremendously. I’m excited to see him on screen July 1st.

How does nutrition differ while in a functional training program versus traditional weight training?
It can differ greatly or it can be pretty similar, depending on the goal. When I’m training my guys and we’re trying to get lean, there’s going to be more meals that are frequently eaten. Your metabolism’s going to be higher doing functional fitness. It’s a type of metabolic training. Your body is burning fat over a certain number of hours a day. Essentially, you can eat more when you’re training in a high level functional capacity. How hard are you training when you go in to lift weights traditionally? Are you feeling the pain from lifting weights? Or are you just going through the motions? Because if you’re doing that, then your nutrition’s pretty much always going to be off. It all goes back to your goals. With nutrition, there’s always going to be deviations and variations. Maybe I need a little more carbs on days I do legs, or if I’m doing a high intensity day, maybe I need to eat certain foods the day prior. There’s a lot of variables with nutrition with both styles of training. If you’re going to really get into one or the other, make sure you have someone who can guide you in the right direction with nutrition.

It’s really easy to see how you can lose weight with functional training. But can you bulk up?
It’s going to be a lot harder to bulk doing functional training. In order to put on or gain more muscle, you need to be eating more calories than you’re burning off. When you’re trying to put size on, you need to overload the muscle with weight in a progressive fashion for that muscle to be able to grow. The muscle’s going to break down, it’s going to rebuild while you’re recovering, and then you go back into the gym and you want to expand on that. You want to lift heavier, lift stronger, and that’s where the weight’s going to come from. With functional fitness, it’s not really geared around putting mass on. It’s going to be a lot harder because functional fitness lends itself more to losing weight and to toning up.

What advice do you have for people wanting to explore functional fitness further?
Look at some videos online and see what functional fitness is. Everyone’s got a different take on it. Some people say it’s this, some people say it’s that. But at the end of the day, it’s really anything that mimics what you would do on a normal day. Picking up your grocery bags out of the store and loading them in your car. Picking up wood. Shoveling snow. Those are all movements that you can mimic in the gym. I recommend that you find a good trainer to show you the basics and how to keep yourself safe and injury free. It can be high impact and if you’re doing it incorrectly, you can get injured very easily. Have someone show you the right form and how to progress into it.

True or false: functional fitness was invented by Sylvester Stallone when he prepared to fight the Russian in that movie where the Russian was in the gym the whole time and Rocky was in the mountains lifting logs and rocks?
Ha! That’s probably some the most creative functional training I’ve ever seen. I think people still want to train like that. Go into a place and be that creative in trying to figure out how to train with such limited assets. Even for us over in Iraq, you’re using water jugs and you’re using sandbags. You’re using whatever you can use and that’s functional fitness at its best right there. Be creative with what you have and make it work.

For more health and fitness tips, read the Health Scene online at health.sceneent.com and visit Aaron’s personal website at aaronwilliamson.net.