The evolution of fitness.

Posted: July 26, 2011 in Fitness

Good afternoon readers!

Having developed a functional fitness program and being a functional fitness trainer, I can forget that my understanding of what functional fitness trainers do is not fully understood by civilians.  It occurred to me this morning that the bridge still needs building.

So, here’s a short essay defining functional fitness and outlining a brief history of fitness over the last, let’s say, 50,000 years.  (*Full disclosure: any information presented henceforth should be considered my best-guessed fact rather than established fact.)

FUNCTIONAL FITNESS DEFINED:  The goal of functional fitness training is that the participant becomes more and more able to perform simple, complex and common and necessary movements with confidence, strength and ease.  Training in functional fitness requires multi-joint movements and compound exercises where muscles are firing efficiently relative to the imposed movement.  Being functionally fit is measured by the client’s own yardstick.  The training is process orientated and is not primarily driven by specific and measurable results.


50,000 BC  – 5,000 BC (around the advent of agriculture) – People killed animals to eat.  They were often at war. They made shelter and other useful stuff by hand, lived out in the elements, were hungry and faced constant threat from predators.  Sport, where it existed, was in the realm of hunting and war games. People had to be physically fit to survive.  Where they functionally fit?  Baby – they could have written the book on it!  Paleo Diet?  Our mates here invented it!

Wow - look at that deep squat!

Agricultural times – increase of leisure time and sport but the large majority were still very physically involved in their own survival.  They built their own homes, crafted tools, toiled the fields.  Sport continued to be based around fighting and hunting and also done for the sake of it.  There is no doubt (in my mind) that sport was a supplement to survival.  People were still functionally fit.

Ancient Greece – sport became more affiliated with the affluent as the rich weren’t toiling as hard but still wanted to rock the Toga.  Ideal physical form for men was considered to be strong, lean, powerful and skilled.  Looking at the images of the Gods – you’d think they were athletes.  Poor people still worked for a living and beat each other up.  The “Gymnasium” (Greek word for “Place to be naked” – I kid you not) propped up and young gentlemen performed naked exercises, naked bathing, and naked studying.  Oh – those were the days!!

Middle Ages – Poor people still beat each other up.  Boys starting to wear clothes to the gymnasium.  Sport was big but again revolved more around fighting skills for men.  Laborers were everywhere.  The rich were getting kind of doughy but they were both admired and feared, so they didn’t care.  A dichotomy began to appear among people – most were functionally fit but the rich might not have been.  Leisure was coveted which led to…

The Industrial Revolution – Sport became more codified and separated from everyday life and so did physical movement in general.  Machines started doing the physical work that people used to do.  Physically fit bodies were on the decline.  Poor people still beat other up and were now getting paid for it.  If you look at an image of a poor person in industrial America in the 1940’s – they’ll be skin and bones.  Compared that to today where a poor person could just as easily be obese (a result of machines making “food product” for super cheap).

Poor man in the 1940's

Panhandler in the US

Modern Times (late 1960’s – today) Gymnasiums began to include women and everyone has to wear clothes.  Then my best guess as to what happened next is this: men wanted bigger chests so they started to train their pecs hard.  But then their biceps looked weird, so they started to train those hard.  And then their backs looked funny – so they started to train them too.  They ignored their legs and rear ends – because who the hell looks at them anyway?  On and on they trained… one muscle at a time.  Some of them shaved off all their body hair, poured oil on themselves and then showed off each muscle in turn.  Bodybuilding was born and every man wanted to be one.  This was the Nautilus revolution and the birth of the modern gym.  BAM!  We got ourselves a fitness industry.  Machines were designed to isolate and strengthen muscles.  Meanwhile, the women chanted in unison: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust”.  And they invented aerobics.  And everyone wanted to look the same.  Perfect!  But was anyone functionally fit?  Only the athletes.  The rest of us schleps are pushing paper and shopping carts and when we do exercise, we are strengthening our muscles without really moving very much.  A great many of us are stressed, obese, self-conscious and depressed.

Functional Fitness asks: what are these muscles for?


The present moment and beyond.  Functional Fitness has returned.  We see it in bootcamps, CrossFit, all fitness books and magazines, Hit to Fit, The Biggest Loser, Paleo Diets and fitness conferences everywhere.  It looks like jumping, pulling, running, tossing, balancing, stretching, and gadgets like TRX’s, BOSU balls, medicine balls, boxing, and battle ropes assist us.  I believe the functional fitness movement at its highest aspiration is training people to find their strength, enjoy their bodies and sustain long lives in healthy and capable bodies.  We may not currently need to stay fit for our physical survival – but we do need to be fit to feel good.  I’d even say, to feel human.  Functional Fitness isn’t new.  It’s primordial.  And it’s back – coming to a gym or park near you.

In health,



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