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Truly fit

Is not, as Bollywood would have you believe, big and beefy. Aspire to be lean, fast and functionally fit. Vidya Balachander tells more.

travel Updated: Dec 06, 2009 18:19 IST

If the body is your temple, should you be praying at the altar of the gym? If you ask Bollywood's bicep brigade, the answer is likely to be a resounding yes. But does being beefy equate to being fit? Now that's a trick question.

Step outside the sometimes-intertwined worlds of Bollywood and bodybuilding, and the definition of fitness changes massively. In sports, being fit doesn't just mean being able to pump iron. It also means having physical and mental strength, stamina, speed, sharp reflexes, and focus. Ace boxer Akhil Kumar can vouch for it. "In the ring too, strength is important. But not without speed and agility."

Big is slow
Viren Rasquinha, 28, former captain of the Indian hockey team and Arjuna award winner, says that bulk in fact, slows you down. "In hockey, you have to be very quick," he says. "I could not be bulky because it would restrict movement. As a player, I preferred to do pushups, crunches and free-hand exercises. The important thing is to have overall body fitness."

In every day life too, how many bench presses you can do in the controlled environment of a gym is not as relevant as whether you can run up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. So how can you ensure that you condition your entire body and become fit enough to deal with everyday situations? Give functional training a spin.

The body as a whole
Functional training emphasises using 'primal' movements that come naturally to the human body, such as crawling, climbing, walking, bending and twisting, in order to work out the body as a whole. As opposed to a gym routine that focuses on working out one part of the body at a time -- such as the upper body, abs or legs -- functional training incorporates movements that work out multiple muscle groups.

Functional training expert Dr Nikhil Lad, who has designed the programme at Half, Mumbai's first functional fitness studio, explains: "In everyday life, we sometimes need to accelerate (like run up the stairs) and sometimes we need slower movements that require muscle control, like lifting delicate crockery and placing it on a shelf. The muscle groups required are different. We incorporate different movement patterns in our workouts. All exercises you do utilise the entire body."

Set your own pace
Take the Jacobs ladder, for instance. Like its biblical counterpart, this piece of functional training equipment may take you to fitness heaven but not before an arduous climb. It is non-motorised and you have to push each rung down to climb to the next, determining your own pace. Unlike the treadmill, which only measures your knee strength and lung capacity, the ladder requires you to use your entire body. "Even someone who can run for one hour on a treadmill can't do more than 10 minutes on the ladder," says Lad.

All movements used in functional training are unsupported. Unlike in a bench press or a leg extension, you can't lean on a machine; your muscle groups need to work in tandem. So, to play catch with a 2-kg medicine ball, you need upper body strength, lower body balance and mind-body coordination.

Do it yourself
But what if you don't have a functional fitness studio close to home? You can still ensure that you're making the right moves. For starters, give the elevator a miss and take the stairs. Don't ask your domestic help to put the luggage in the loft, do it yourself; bend and open a drawer under the bed.

You can even follow the example of world record-holding shooter Suma Shiru. When she travels, she takes along a deflatable Swiss ball. Or she runs. "I run wherever I am," she says. "In Rio de Janeiro, which is very crowded, I ran on the roads. In Europe, where it gets very cold, I run up and down the hotel's stairs. I like exercises that I can do anywhere."

Stretch it out
Yeah, you've heard it before -- stretching before and after any physical activity is good for you. But there's more to it than that. Figure out the basics of stretching so you know just how best to warm up and cool down for your next workout.

There are two types of stretching: Dynamic and static. Each serves different purposes and has its own pros and cons.

Which kind of stretch should you do?
Each serves a different purpose. So before deciding how best to warm up, understand what they're about. Static stretching loosens up the muscles and till recently this is what many athletes did as a warm up. However, recent studies have shown that static stretching can actually lead to a decrease in performance.

Huh, how's that?
Studies have shown that static stretching decreases muscle strength for an hour after stretching and also affects eccentric contraction of a muscle. So that means that your ability to say, bend your legs and jump explosively upwards, would be affected by static stretching. Such movements are part of all sports, right from running to tennis.

So, is static stretching bad for you?
Not at all. Static stretching is great. However, it's not the best thing to do just before you're about to go for a run or start playing. If you're just stretching in the morning after waking up, or cooling down after a sport, it's perfect.

How do you warm up before a game?
Since the goal is to prepare the body for the upcoming activity, it makes sense to incorporate functional movements that mimic those to come in the warm up. This is where dynamic stretching comes in. For example, a tennis player will do a lot of lunge walking and trunk rotations to try and simulate the tennis stroke. A soccer player will do exaggerated kicks to loosen the hips and stretch the hamstrings.
Dynamic stretching has been shown to increase core temperature, elongate the muscles, stimulate the nervous system, and decrease the chances of an injury.

Dynamic stretches you can try

(For hamstrings and glutes) Kick one leg straight out in front of you, toes flexed upwards. Reach out the opposite arm towards your toes. Repeat the stretch with the other two limbs. Do
6-7 repetitions.

Scorpion (For lower back, hip flexors, glutes) Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and feet flexed so that only your toes touch the ground. Kick your right foot towards your left arm, then your left foot towards the right arm.

Handwalk (For shoulders, core muscles, hamstrings) Stand straight with your legs together. Bend till both hands are flat on the ground. 'Walk' your hands forward till your back is almost extended. Keeping legs straight, inch your feet forward. Repeat 5-6 times.

The bottomline
Cooling down after a workout is as important as warming up before it.
Combine the two different types
of stretches to gain maximum
Warm up with dynamic stretches
The workout
Cool down with static stretches