In this episode, we discuss:
- Solving health problems through fitness and nutrition
- Approaches to resistance training that build muscle mass and bone density without contributing to injury
- How busy people can get great resistance training in a short amount of time
- The sweet spot between pushing too hard in the gym and not working hard enough
- What to do in the 23 hours outside the gym to make the most of your health and fitness journey
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. Over the last few months, I’ve received a lot of requests for more fitness and performance-oriented podcasts, so I’m really excited to welcome Marcus Filly as my guest.
You may have heard of him if you’re in the functional movement space. He’s the creator of Functional Bodybuilding and a former six-time CrossFit Games athlete with decades of experience coaching and designing both individual and group training programs. Marcus was very active in the CrossFit community, but after suffering from burnout and injury, he developed a new type of training that blends bodybuilding with functional movement. I’m really excited to talk to Marcus about this. We’re going to dive into approaches to resistance training that build muscle mass and bone density without contributing to injury, how busy people can [fit] great resistance training workouts in a very short amount of time, the sweet spot between pushing too hard in the gym, which can lead to injury and burnout, and not working hard enough, and what to do in the 23 hours outside of the gym to make the most of your health and fitness journey. I really enjoyed this conversation. I think you will, as well. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Marcus, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you.
Marcus Filly: Thank you very much for having me. I wanted to say that, first and foremost, I’ve been following you for a long time. So to have the opportunity to come and speak to you and share something that I do with your audience, it’s a true pleasure. I really appreciate it.
Chris Kresser: You’re very welcome. I’m really looking forward to talking to you about this because I’ve never been in CrossFit myself, but I have [had] a lot of patients over the years who’ve been pretty active in CrossFit. I know it can be a powerful and positive experience for so many people, and I also know that there can be a dark side, or things can go wrong, let’s say. I’ve had a number of patients over the years who got into CrossFit for all the right reasons. They wanted to get more exercise and be fit, they love the community aspect of it, and [they love] the challenge. I think CrossFit is so good at that—people pushing each other to their limits and really supporting one another. But they were wrecked. They had severe [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] axis dysregulation, [their] cortisol and [dehydroepiandrosterone] (DHEA) were in the tank, [and] they were experiencing a lot of symptoms of overtraining. I know you have your own personal history here. You’re a very accomplished CrossFit athlete. You reached a very high level in that world, and then something happened. Walk us through that, just a little bit about your background and your relationship with CrossFit and that [type] of physical activity.
Marcus Filly: [I’m] happy to share a little bit about my story. [I’ll] start by saying that I was a CrossFit coach and CrossFit affiliate owner for about eight years, starting in 2009 [or] 2010. That’s what I devoted a lot of my life to. Principally, I was a coach and trying to build a fitness coaching business [and] a career helping people get better. At the same time, I also started to compete in the sport of CrossFit. I think [that in] those early years of coaching and competing, one of the biggest challenges that faced the community was that the two were getting closely linked together—coaching [the] general population and competing in a sport, trying to win points. The intention behind both should be different; however, they were getting overlapped and the lines were very unclear. It was very blurry. If you want to play [recreational] sports, you don’t train like you’re in the NFL, right? And vice versa. You’ve got to have a clear understanding of what physical activity [is], what’s here to get somebody healthy and strong, and then what is here to push the limits of human performance.
I didn’t really know any of that until much later on, [after] having seen examples of myself and clients pushing too far. My career in the sport of CrossFit was on an upward trajectory for seven years until 2016, when I finished 12th in the worldwide CrossFit Games. [I] had my best season and performance of my life and had reached what I thought was the peak and the pinnacle of my CrossFit career. And I could see going forward that I didn’t have room to keep pushing the limits of this. Because, and many people [who] were in the CrossFit community [can attest to this], a 2016 CrossFit Games athlete [who’s] close to the top 10 in the world is [maybe] going to earn $15,000 total on the year from earnings. You’re not a professional athlete. You’re a recreational athlete [who’s] pushing your body like a professional athlete.
So I had to do all the other things outside of my sport to stay growing as a person [and] in my career. I’m getting married, [I] want to have a family, [and] we want to have kids. I needed to build something else. When you push yourself physically and you’re also pushing yourself in your career and [with] the time constraints, something has to give. And typically, [it’s] the body. The body just starts to shut down. Like you mentioned, people’s hormones [are] out of whack, [and their] energy levels [are] not optimized. Something just starts to feel off. My experience, trying to push as a professional athlete but also build a business and build a family and do a bunch of other things, was very similar to that of my clients who came to me already overstressed with a poor nutrition profile [and] not in a good movement practice. Maybe they had kids in the last two to five years and they’re adjusting to being parents, [or] they work very demanding jobs, the list goes on. Then we hit them with, “Hey, go high intensity four or five days a week with your physical movement; that’s going to solve all your problems.” Well, it solved some things, but it [also] added to their stress profile and compounded certain problems, six months, 12 months, 18 months, 24 months later for them.
This was the awakening for me where it was like, “Okay, I love this sport, I love this community, I love these movements, [and] I love this way of training. And I don’t want to go back to doing something totally different and less interesting and less functional.” I couldn’t see myself regressing back to the way I trained a decade earlier, where it was three sets of 10, biceps, triceps, elliptical. No way. This is way more interesting, way more compelling, and way more motivating and inspiring. And there’s something about the way I’m approaching it from, “I want to be the best and push myself and always win the time trial.” There’s something about that approach that’s clearly not conducive to long-term wellness, especially with a movement practice like this. So how do I navigate away from that without losing the essence of, “I want to move functionally, I want to build strength, [and] I want to challenge myself.” These are things that have to be central to any movement practice. Otherwise, you will not get stronger and feel better. You will, over time, feel worse, get weaker, [and] have atrophy—things that we don’t want.
This was what inspired the change in how I was going to approach being a coach and an athlete and what spawned the next phase of my career, which was moving away from [the] CrossFit brand [and] starting my own business in what is now called Functional Bodybuilding. That’s the way we train, to solve this question that was there.
Chris Kresser: Great. I definitely want to dive in more to what Functional Bodybuilding is and get into the details of what that looks like. Before we do that, I want to linger a little bit on some of the challenges that you faced personally, and also saw your clients facing as a CrossFit coach and a CrossFit athlete. [I’m] not here to bash CrossFit. Like I said, I have a ton of respect for it. I think it helps a lot of people, and there’s a lot of positive things about it. I’ve spoken to many, many CrossFit gym owners and people I know who were heavily involved in the CrossFit community, [and] their views of how that should be approached have evolved over time. If we take the standard CrossFit programming, maybe we could say the old-school CrossFit way, what’s the problem with that? What are the risks for people who are just getting into that, and what should people watch out for?
Marcus Filly: Yeah, that’s a good starting place for the discussion. I also want to say that I have the same feelings about CrossFit. I have a tremendous amount of love and respect and appreciation for what [it] did for me and my career and getting me started, and I still see there’s a lot of value to that community and what people are building in their gyms. One of the main challenges that people face when they’re starting an exercise program, or training, or learning about proper training, is teaching themselves how to push their effort sufficiently [enough] that they start to see change. There [are] more people out there in the world [who] are exercising and not really working that hard, and I want to applaud them for getting in movement and just moving, but they expect to see all these benefits and they’re afraid to go and push themselves hard. It’s fearful, it’s scary, and it’s just flat-out difficult to go in and lift weights and push close to failure. Not failure, but to push yourself. It doesn’t feel great to do interval sprints on a bike. You don’t love it right away. Most people do not love it right away.
You’ve got a lot of people exercising and not getting results. They’re like, “What’s going on?” It’s like, “Well, you need to work a little harder.” And it’s hard to teach people that. CrossFit kind of had this new tool. It’s like, “I can’t seem to get this nail to go in with this really flimsy hammer.” “Oh, well here’s a powerful hammer that can hammer hundreds of nails in two seconds. Here’s this new tool. Go ahead.” That’s what CrossFit was to people. They [showed] up, and it packed a powerful amount of intensity into a short amount of time, [and] people learned very quickly how to overcome this challenge of not working hard enough. We put people through one of the most straightforward CrossFit workouts on their first day. You row 500 meters, you do 40 squats, you do 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, and 10 pull-ups. You’re told [to] do this as fast as you can, but you’ve got to hit your range of motion, [and] you’ve got to do the full reps. And this put 85 percent of people flat on their back. They would stand [up], and the thought that went through [their] minds was, “Holy crap, I’ve never done anything this hard in my life, and that took seven minutes. Whoa.”
CrossFit brought a lot of intensity in its essence [and] its original form. And [it] used some very simple principles to get there—choose the right movements, choose the right weights that allow people to move with a decent amount of power but quickly, and organize the workout structure, the repetitions, the sets, the reps, in a way where people don’t have to slow down and take long breaks. They can just keep going, and they build this massive momentum of intensity without knowing it. Now, when people get exposed to this, they’re like, “Great, I’ve got the solution. I can work hard in 10 minutes and get all these results.” They start to see change. Their bodies are like, “Whoa, this was a massive stress. I have to adapt to this.” We’re resilient humans, so initially, people’s bodies start to get stronger, [they] lose weight, [they] feel more energetic, [they] do whatever it takes because tomorrow, [they’ve] got to show up and do this crazy thing at the gym again. [They think,] “I better make some changes. I better upregulate whatever metabolic pathway is helping me utilize energy better for this sprint, [or] this attack that I’m going through.” So this is good on the front end.
But as people start to develop a bit more fitness and they’re able to push more through these workouts, we start to add in some complexity of movement. And people don’t have these physical positions, or they don’t have the requisite time and energy and knowledge to recover from those events, or they don’t have the space in their life to recover from it. If you go to battle for 15 minutes, what should you do for the next four hours? You should go and [lie] underneath [a] tree and just recover. But they don’t do that. They jump in their car, they commute to their job, they’re drinking a bunch of coffee to keep them going because they’re tired but they’ve got meetings, they skip lunch, they didn’t get a good night’s sleep, [and] they’re not doing any of the things that are required to keep them healthy and recovering from these acute bouts of stress. Not to mention that now we’re starting to exercise or train at a level of intensity where there’s not a lot of room for error anymore. If you move incorrectly going 100 miles per hour, your knees are going to tweak out. If you move incorrectly at five miles per hour, you just have a little wobble and you can course correct.
Chris Kresser: And there’s another factor all along here, which is both a pro and a con of CrossFit, that there are a bunch of people around cheering you on, watching, [and] supporting you. As human beings, we are competitive by nature, and we don’t want to fall short in front of our peers. So that’s a whole other influence that’s operating during this time.
Marcus Filly: Yeah, absolutely. And, hey, I want to be in a room of people cheering for me when I’m on the assault bike and trying to push myself and the room for error is pretty big. I’m not going to get hurt by pedaling too hard. But if I’ve got a roomful of people cheering me on for a maximum snatch, which is a very complex Olympic weightlifting movement, I’m gonna drum up some extra energy [and] lift [the] extra 10 pounds that I would have never lifted [if] I didn’t have this room in front of me. But I didn’t catch it well, the bar fell on my head, and now I’ve got this contusion. I’ve maybe tweaked my C4 [or] C5 disc. That was not the situation [where] I wanted to be pumped up and cheered for. It’s just a Tuesday at the local gym. I’ve got to go to work. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
So [like] you said, the pros also became the cons. We have this way of delivering a lot of intensity to get people to do hard work that they otherwise [would] have shied away from or never were able to access. That’s a good thing. But at the same time, that intensity potentially introduced risk that we have never encountered in the gym. Most people who are looking for general fitness don’t need to be encountering that kind of risk.
Chris Kresser: What were the typical responses that you saw? I think one of the things that can happen, [and] this is not just true for starting an exercise or fitness program, it’s also true when people start special diets or new supplements or things like that, there’s an initial period of feeling better and then, over time, feeling worse [happens] gradually. Sometimes so gradually that it’s difficult for people to even track what’s happening. And when that person starts to reflect on why [they’re] feeling so much worse now, they don’t think about whatever it was that they started six months ago, because when they started it, they felt better. There’s now an association in their mind between whatever that thing was and feeling better, and they therefore don’t become aware that [the] same thing that initially made them feel better [is now making them] feel worse. One thing that I’ve found can be helpful with my patients is just [telling] them some of the things that can happen in that situation. What are some of the symptoms [and] the signs? As a coach, what did you look out for in your clients or in people who are coming to you from other situations? What were the typical symptoms or responses, other than the obvious injury or something like that, that you saw in people who were overtraining?
Marcus Filly: Well, it’s a good question. When I was in the mix of it all, I was not proactively looking at and seeing the signs and thinking of solutions. I was very reactive. I was like, “Hey, you’ve been here for two years, and suddenly, things aren’t going well. You were the perfect client. I don’t know what’s happening.” I just saw that enough times to really be like, “Hey, I’m scratching my head. This doesn’t make sense. What’s going on?” I had some mentors at the time [who] were further along in their careers as coaches [who] could make sense of it from a scientific and physiological perspective and helped me understand a little bit of what was happening. I think when I arrived at the tail end of my career and started to transition to coaching in a different way, because I was speaking about it and welcoming a lot of people to come into my circle and say, “Hey, I have the same problems. I lost a tremendous amount of drive and energy to come to the gym and perform. I can’t bring myself to do the thing that you’re asking me to do,” this was a thread that I [heard from] so many customers. After a couple [of] years, I just didn’t want to race against the clock anymore. I just didn’t have it in me. I just wanted to go to the gym and lift weights. I didn’t want to go and do the metcon. That’s the super hard, fast, classic CrossFit conditioning workout that’s got running and kettlebell swings and burpees and all the things. So there’s this physical shutdown. My body’s just not feeling up for it.
The second part was [that] people [were] having a really hard time following basic nutritional prescriptions and programs. They didn’t have a good appetite control mechanism; the feedback loop on satiety [and] the decisions around what foods appeal to them started to get really out of whack. They were feeling like, “Man, I’ve been doing this thing, and I’m seeing negative changes in my body composition and how my body looks and feels as a result of [not being] able to bring a level of energy into my training. Therefore, my movement is suffering overall, I’m not moving as much, and I’m not moving with as much intention as I used to. I’m so depleted and my stress profile is so swayed toward overstressed that I can’t seem to navigate these sugar cravings that I’m having. I’m basically wanting to eat processed carbs and fat all the time. That’s hyperpalatable.” That combination was what I saw in a lot of people. What that looked like was, “I don’t feel energetic, and my body doesn’t look as good as I want it to look,” which is [why] people showed up at the gym originally. They came and they said, “I want to look better, [and] I want to [have] more energy.” So when the opposite is happening, people start to question their fitness program. “Why am I doing this? I look worse than I did last year. I had those initial six months of things getting better, but now, things are worse, and I don’t understand it.”
Chris Kresser: Yeah. That’s pretty similar to what I saw in patients. I would add [that] disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms was a major factor for most of them. They had big imbalances in cortisol and DHEA. I would see, in men, declines in testosterone or increases in sex hormone-binding globulin. So, a decrease in free testosterone. In women, I would see sex hormone imbalances, as well, [and] sometimes digestive issues because of the chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system. So I think we’re tuning into a lot of the same issues.
Marcus Filly: By the way, those were my blood markers to a T when I wrapped up my competitive career.
Chris Kresser: Right. So you became aware of this, and it was impossible to ignore, at some point. And despite the fact that you’d invested a ton of time and energy and achieved a very high level in CrossFit, you decided to step away from that. [It] sounds like [you] tried to retain the best parts of it, the things that were most inspiring for you and most attractive for people who are drawn to CrossFit, in general, [like] the more dynamic and functional movements rather than just, like you said, three sets of 10 and [the] more traditional approach to weightlifting and strength training, [and] to do that in a way that would not only prevent, or at least greatly reduce, the risk of injury and mitigate some of the potential downsides of all of that overtraining, but in a way that people would still meet their original goals [of] getting stronger, getting fitter, [and] looking better, which is what drew them to [CrossFit] in the first place. How did you approach [the] process of thinking about it [and] designing it? I imagine [there was] a lot of experimentation and trial and error until you landed on what you’re doing now.
Marcus Filly: I think there were probably two main things that helped and [were] what I leaned on the most. The beauty that I saw in CrossFit, even from the early days, [and] what inspired me to join that community and get my start as a fitness coach in CrossFit, as opposed to any other avenues that I could have taken to coach fitness, was that for about a decade from when I was 15 to 25, I trained in gyms a lot. I was a gym guy, and I also played a lot of high-level sports. I was [always] doing things that were, to most people, obscure and [limited to] a very small group. I did power cleans, I back squatted, I liked to deadlift, I did all this stuff, and nobody ever wanted to do any of that. But suddenly, CrossFit made that stuff sexy. It made it cool. I go to this example just because when it started to happen, I was like, “This is the last group of people I ever thought would come to the gym and want to power clean and deadlift,” but it was my soccer moms that I was working with. These women are showing up at 9:30 a.m. after dropping [off] their kids, and they want to deadlift, and they’re learning power cleans, and they want to do this. They’re fired up about it.
Something [that] I knew for a decade before I ever got into CrossFit was that weight training is the recipe for most people to achieve the look and feel that they want in their bodies and their fitness. Yeah, cardiorespiratory fitness is important. I want people to do cardio, but I want people to get strong, and I want people to lift weights. I want people to do resistance training. You’re not going to get the same value from doing yoga or pilates. Those are valuable tools of fitness, [but] I want people to lift weights. The vast majority of people I know [who] lift weights with intention, before CrossFit, but they bodybuil[t] or did some type of strength training, they usually looked pretty darn good and they move well, and they could do a lot of stuff. Those of us who came into CrossFit and were in the first couple [of] years the best CrossFitters, ask any of them what they were doing, it’s like, “I was just bodybuilding [and] doing strength training for the last 10 years. And on day one, I could do all the fancy stuff.” So what is the best part of this whole thing? The best part of this whole thing is [that] it got people lifting weights. It took Olympic style weightlifting, which was an obscure sport, and made it mainstream. Not that we need everyone to clean and jerk and snatch. But it got people picking up weights off the ground. It got my mom to start doing resistance training. You’ve got people doing this stuff [who] would have otherwise never done it. Okay, cool; we got you weightlifting. Now let me tell you that if we keep weightlifting but we turn the volume down on the intensity and the burpees and the cardio while you’re doing the weight training, you can still get a ton of benefit. People who just resistance train with [a] good prescription feel and look amazing. So let’s keep that. Let’s keep that going. So number one was, we got people lifting weights. Let’s keep them lifting weights, but now, let’s implement some control around the intensity lever that we’ve been hammering for the last couple of years.
What if the secret to staying athletic and feeling good is not by stressing your body out with one punishing workout after the next, but rather knowing exactly when to push and when to pull back? Marcus Filly explains how you can use Functional Bodybuilding workouts to get confident and fit—and still have energy left over for the other things you love in life. #chriskresser #functionalbodybuilding
Marcus Filly: The second thing was, with that specific community, to teach this principle of “less is more.” There was a period, which I think about it differently these days, but back then, I had people come into my gym who were like, “Marcus, how do I do a double day? I want to start doing double days.” I’m like, “Jesse, you’re 42 and you’ve got two kids. I love that you want to move, but maybe double days is not what we need to be doing right now. What else is going on in your life where you feel like you need to get to the gym twice a day? Why aren’t you stoked to go out and do [another] activity?” Or, I don’t know, not to make judgments, but the body that you want, the feeling that you want, the athletic pursuit that you have, we can find that in less time, and you need to actually [do] a few less of those hard conditioning workouts. You need to tone it down a little bit, and then you’re going to succeed. And what was that about? Well, we had this phenomenon happening where people were like, “Okay, I did a little bit and I saw some results, and then I plateaued. So I’m going to do some more, and I’m going to see some results, but then I [will] plateau. The only way to get better is to do more.” What they weren’t realizing was that, in this effort to do more and more and more, they were not addressing other important health pursuits and markers and tools that they can change and mitigate in their life to see results. The more they trained, the crappier their diet got because they were like, “I just need to eat all this food, and I’m going to eat processed food. I need to get calories, and I need to get protein, [and] I need to get carbs.” The quality of their food choices [was] going down and down and down as they got more and more competitive and [started] training more and more and more. This was the case for me. At the end of my career, I [was] eating pints of ice cream on a daily basis next to my meat and vegetables and all the good things I was eating. I needed to supplement with a lot of sugar and a lot of processed food to get sufficient energy. So my food profile was not as good as it could have been, [or] as it is now when I train a third or a quarter of the amount.
In pursuing more and more and more and more, other factors [were] getting thrown way off. So that was the other thing, was teaching people, “Hey, if we do a little bit less, [but] we do it with a lot of great intention and we reserve that energy you would have spent going and doing another hour of cardio, let’s spend that hour planning out a good week of food choices. Let’s go and shop and be intentional about what you’re going to put into your kitchen, and maybe spend an hour prepping out a couple [of] key meals that fall at times of [the] day where you’re really strapped for time and you might otherwise reach for something that is of lower quality.” That hour that you didn’t do cardio just made a huge impact on your wellness and your health going forward for months and months and months. [I] started to lean into [this] a lot with the approach to training that we brought forward. While sticking to, “I’m still going to do some of the movements; I’m still going to own some of those really fun and engaging parts of CrossFit.” We’re going to get away from the time on the whiteboard being the most important thing, to instead [the most important thing] being the quality of the movement and reserving enough energy that you can dedicate to the other factors that influence your health every day, 24/7.
Chris Kresser: That’s interesting. I’ve been a huge fan of outdoor sports for my whole life. I grew up on the beach in Southern California, so I was surfing from a very early age. I would get up and surf before school and surf after school. Then later, [there] was also skiing and mountain biking, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, etc. And again, there’s no right or wrong way to do things. People have different interests. I’m not saying that way is the best way. But for me, those were the activities that brought me so much joy and satisfaction, not only because of the activities themselves, but because that was [how] I connected with nature and got sun exposure, I often did them with other people, [and] they’re super fun. They satisfy so many different needs above and beyond just fitness and being in the gym. I’ve always approached training, strength training, things like that, as something that I do for my health but [also] something that I do to improve my athletic performance in these other areas and reduce the risk of injury, stay strong, etc.
I’ve sometimes [thought] that this is true with anything, where we can become hyper-focused, almost myopically focused, on one particular thing, and leave out a lot of other things that can be beneficial and helpful for us. I’ve often wondered in that context, when I’ve had a patient who’s like, “Yeah, let’s do two-a-days in the gym.” I’m like, “Maybe you could take a bike ride outside instead of that second one, or maybe [pick] up a new hobby or a sport,” because there are ways [in which] that stimulates the brain, learning different kinds of movements [and] different kinds of motor activity. I think that supports neuroplasticity in the brain, helps us slow down the aging process, and keep our brains sharp. I’m curious how you think about that with your clients, because it sounds like you have moved toward trying to shorten the time [commitment in the gym and] maximize the [return on investment]. Less time in the gym [and] more time for other things outside of the gym.
Marcus Filly: Well, as somebody who went through a phase of life where the gym was life and I wanted to be in there three [or] four hours a day, I got a tremendous amount of value out of that period of time. I grew as a person in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t know if I could have ever found and fostered other activities. So I hesitate to tell somebody, “Hey, you shouldn’t be in the gym [for] more hours, if that’s what you really want to do. But it’s more getting people to ask the question, “Is this really where [I] want to be?” What if I told you that in [one] hour, three or four days a week, you could have the body of your dreams and you could feel great and you could have great sex drive, and you could find a partner and love life? They’d be like, “Yeah, I’ll do that over 12 hours in the gym,” or they’re like, “No, I want to go to the gym, and I want to keep doing this thing because it’s super fun for me.”
Chris Kresser: Nothing wrong with that. That’s their choice.
Marcus Filly: That’s totally their choice. So it’s about asking that question [and] getting people to really evaluate the purpose and the goal of this thing. I’ve tried to pare the training back to less than what I do today, and I found that there is a threshold where I was like, “I just want to be at the gym. I don’t really want to go for a walk or a hike or a bike ride. I want to just lift some weights, so I’m going to add another day back to the gym.” And I fluctuate depending on the time of year and what’s going on. But I also think that there are people who are a little misguided. They think that the only way to achieve a certain look and feel in their bodies is through X number of hours [and] X number of days in the gym. The goal is to really show people, “Hey, that’s an unrealistic expectation for your lifestyle, and it’s not true.” We can do it [in] other ways. And we could probably find ways that are much more interesting and fun and engaging for you, based upon your personality type and what you like to do. You like to be outdoors, [and] you like to do sports. Why don’t we make that a central focus and then make training simply a complement to that to keep you being able to enjoy it as much as you want to enjoy it?
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that makes sense to me. And again, I really do appreciate that there are people [like that], and I was, at one time, [one of them]. I spent a lot of time in the gym, and that was great at that time. Some people just love that experience, like you’re saying. But for those who are in the gym because they think they have to be [there] for 12 hours in order to get the results, that’s what we’re addressing here.
Marcus Filly: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: And some people might be more motivated to go to the gym if they love tennis or skiing and they want to push that to the next level. Having that goal and using training as a way of not only meeting the basic needs like building muscle, or maintaining muscle mass at the very least, but also helping them achieve a different level of movement and attainment in something that they’re really interested in could help with motivation a lot.
Marcus Filly: Oh, yeah, certainly. Finding a way to connect what you’re doing in the gym to what the actual outcomes that you want in life are [is] central to this. Don’t just blindly go to the gym and follow a generic [prescription] that’s out there that might not even really apply to what you want. “You’ve got to go 90 minutes, five days a week.” No, you don’t. You don’t have to. Let’s look at a bunch of different ways that we can do this. I think what we were seeing toward [the] tail end of when I was coaching a lot of individuals in CrossFit was that there’s all this time and dedication to the gym, and I think it got way out of hand for a lot of people. They hit a wall, and they’re like, “What am I doing? Why am I spending so much time here?” That happens when people start doing anything without intention and thinking about the big picture [and] what they want out of it. They’re just following the herd.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, [that’s] often not a good strategy in life for anything, much less exercise. So, walk me through a typical workout. What that might look like in your approach, in terms of the types of exercises that are done [and the] rest periods. What does it actually look like?
Marcus Filly: I really believe firmly [that] the most important 10 minutes in the gym [is] how you start. The warm-ups that we coach people through put a lot of thought and intention into getting people to arrive into the gym space in a purposeful way. You’re transitioning from whatever you’re doing before the gym, to the gym. A lot of people [go to the gym] at the end of their workday, or even before they start their workday, [and] they [have] a bunch of things on their mind. So we always start with a 10-minute focused warm-up that gets blood flowing, gets [the] respiratory rate up, and works on stability or mobility-type movements. Things that are going to put some attention to your joints, joint health, and range of motion prior to training. I like to say [that] if you’re going to commit to one thing today, just go into your warm-up. By the end of your warm-up, you’ll probably want to do the next part. You’ll be ready.
Then we always have a strength training component. I bias toward a lot of timed strength training formats, like every minute, you’re going to do five back squats or you’re going to do 10 strict presses. And you do that for a certain number of minutes. Or maybe you superset that with another strength training exercise. A lot of the strength training that I write in our programs is about efficiency and keeping people focused when they’re in the gym. I think one of the challenges a lot of people face with weight training is that it’s less engaging [than] a bootcamp style or cardio class or something like that, where it’s like, “Hey, the clock’s going; I’ve got to keep going.” It brings some of those elements into weight training so that people feel like they’ve got time motivation. They’re not wasting minutes getting pulled into their phone on social media while they’re resting for their next set of bench presses, or whatever exercise they might be doing.
So [there’s] a big strength training component of each session, and for that, I like to stick to a lot of the traditional compound exercises. We have options for people at different levels of training. That [might] be power cleans for somebody, but it could be a split squat or weighted lunge [or] something [else so] that, for whatever skill level you’re at, you can give a lot of intensity and a lot of effort, but be working in a safe environment. Going back to the original CrossFit, what was so great [is that] it got people weight training, but in a class of 20 people, [only] four people could safely do power cleans at an intensity level that would make positive change in their body, [and] the other 16 were either having to do really, really light weights because they needed to work on technique and skill, or they were using weights that were too heavy for their technique and were at risk of injury. So how do we take the best of that and create the right environment so that somebody can come and lift weights, push against resistance hard enough to make change, but [the] skill is well within their wheelhouse and their repertoire, and they’re not going to get injured and be at risk? That’s always part two of training.
Chris Kresser: So Marcus, how long would that take? [There’s a] 10-minute warm-up, and then how long would that strength training component be?
Marcus Filly: Probably in the 15-minute range.
Chris Kresser: Okay, so it’s pretty concentrated.
Marcus Filly: Yeah, it’s concentrated, and this is also not going to be the only resistance training we do for the day. But this is the concentrated lifting of the day, where I want you to actually get close to failure. I want to push you to a place that feels a little uncomfortable with your weight training. That’s where we’re going to see change.
The next section of training is what a lot of people would think of as accessory weight training [or] accessory lifting. We like to call it strength-balanced training. This is where, rather than going to this set of split squats or single-leg [Romanian deadlifts] with the intention of [wanting] to push [yourself] as hard as [you] can, instead, I want you to think of this as your quality movement sets of the day. How can you extend your range of motion? How can you work on your coordination [and] your balance? How can we get into positions that enhance your mobility? I think that a common misconception is that weight training makes you get tighter and lose flexibility. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Proper resistance training is the best way to enhance range of motion and mobility. All the best protocols for getting you more flexible involve resistance. It could be isometric resistance, but it’s still resistance. [If you look at] the functional range conditioning people of the world, they’re expanding [the] range of motion in [their] joints through isometric contractions. Look at high-level gymnasts. When they are improving range of motion and flexibility for their sport, [they’re doing] tons of bodyweight resistance, compression drills, [and] extreme levels of isometric contractions, as well.[The] same can be said for lifting weights. Ben Patrick, who’s the knees-over-toes guy [and has] gotten a lot of attention over the past couple of years, [is] using resistance training to expand joint range of motion tremendously. That’s how we approach this second tier of resistance training in our programs—[using] weight training to enhance range of motion, build better mobility [and] coordination, things like that. And that happens at submaximal weights. When you push maximally with weight training, your brain will purposefully close off [the] end [of your] range of motion because that’s where you’re at most risk of injury. But if I take 50 percent of my max and really focus on getting a deep stretch at the bottom of my squat or exploring a different position, that’s where you can see lots of change to the tissue quality and length. So there we are. One, two, three. That’s the third section. That’s another 15 minutes of training before we move into the final part of training, [which is] the functional conditioning stuff that most mimics what CrossFit introduced to my life [and] will stay with me forever, which is the concept of mixed-mobile conditioning, where you take weights, gymnastics, calisthenics, [and] cardio, and you put it all together in a circuit. We have hundreds of different formats that this looks like, but we’ll spend 15, maybe 20, minutes at the end of the training session including that [type] of conditioning.
Now, I [am biased] toward the aerobic spectrum of training. I tell people [that] aerobic training is sustainable training, [and] anaerobic training is unsustainable. With CrossFit, it was, “Go as hard and as fast as you can, [and] get the best time possible.” I’m saying [that] if you go 80 [to] 85 percent of that [and] you stay in much more control, you still work super hard, but you don’t have the thought in your brain of, “I’m going to die. I can’t do this anymore.” [Instead], you are thinking, “This is hard work, I’m doing well, I’m going to finish, and I’m going to end my training session.” And within five minutes of my training session being over, I have my wits about me and can walk out [of] the gym and not want to go take a nap for the rest of the day. So that’s how we construct our conditioning workouts. That’s just from years of practice, and trial and error. Knowing this works, that doesn’t work. If we do it this way, it’s going to push way too hard. If we put in this rest period or interval, or we inject this control point or scenario, [it’s] going to keep people safer [and] moving with better quality, [while still] keeping their aerobic system high. We educate people [on] how to do that.
So [those are the] four pillars of a good Functional Bodybuilding training session, the intention behind each one, and how I arrived at [them]. “Why are we doing that?” Well, because we want to keep people’s joints strong and healthy because [we] want to use the efficacy of lifting heavy weights, [and] because the conditioning lessons that I learned from CrossFit were so engaging and so efficacious for people when they learn how to not push to the red line. It all has gone into constructing this model that seems to work really well for a lot of people. We try [to] use a wide variety of [movements in there] because that’s what keeps people engaged and feeling like they’re learning constantly and not [feeling] like [they] do the same 10 exercises all the time.
Chris Kresser: That sounds amazing. I know a lot of people who listen to the show have a background in strength training, and they know how to do the basic movements. But they might not have someone [who] they’re working with on programming. One of the things I love about your work and your website is [that] there [are] lots of different entry points for people. There [are] eBooks on things like dealing with knee pain, functional body composition, conditioning, kettlebells, etc. You [also] have a membership program called Persist. Tell us a little bit about how that works.
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Marcus Filly: Well, you mentioned a few of the entry points for people to come into the Functional Bodybuilding universe. The Persist subscription was something that was born out of the pandemic and started in 2020, [when] most people didn’t have access to gyms. I created a training program that was built on the foundations of what we’ve been teaching for years, designed for people at home. So if you had a set of dumbbells, if you had a couple [of] resistance bands, [or even] if you [just] had your body weight, you could do Functional Bodybuilding in the way I just discussed. It became a place to bring our community together during a time of crisis. At that point, people weren’t buying eBooks to go to the gym because the gyms were closed. So, once we transitioned out of the severe lockdowns and gyms started to open around the world and around the country, we decided, “Okay, you know what? We’re going to take this central community, the Persist members, and reintroduce [them to] some of the other options for training.” We brought back [a] conventional gym or CrossFit-style gym equipment training program, where it’s like, “Hey, if you have access to this, this is how you can do Functional Bodybuilding.”
Then we added to that. It’s like,”Hey, if you want to do Functional Bodybuilding with more of an aesthetics focus on building muscle and really building your body composition, then [here’s] a new training track to offer.” And then a year later, it was, “Hey, if you have less than 60 minutes and you just need to get in and do the pillars of Functional Bodybuilding, we have an option for you within this subscription.” So Persist became a place where it’s like, “Hey, I want to be part of [the] Functional Bodybuilding ecosystem. I love what you’re about.” We’re going to deliver you a training option inside of [there] that will satisfy most of the buckets of what people are looking for. For our members, we offer training and a ton of free nutrition and lifestyle resources to help people pair optimal training with the things that will support that training for the other 23 hours of your day, most days of the week.
Chris Kresser: What would you recommend for someone who is relatively new to strength training? Maybe they don’t know how to do a proper squat or deadlift, they don’t have any history [with strength training], and maybe they don’t have access to that [type] of equipment. What would you recommend for them as a starting place?
Marcus Filly: When it comes to people [who] have very limited or no experience with training, it starts with just a willingness. Do you want to try? If you are open to learning and you’re patient, then learning how to go and move your body in functional ways is no different than learning how to roller skate or rollerblade. One day, you’re going to put on the rollerblades, you’re going to be wobbly, and you might fall over. But if you want to learn it and you see the value of it in your life, then [you’ve] got to give it a shot. An entry point for somebody like that with us might be the original Persist minimalist program, where it’s just with a dumbbell, or bodyweight, [or] maybe a couple of resistance bands, [and you] come and do the movements that we tell you to do each day. You’re going to learn how to squat, you’re going to learn how to lunge, [and] we’re going to ask you to do push-ups. If you have a pull-up bar at home, we might ask you to hang from a pull-up bar. Maybe you need to jump rope or run in place. But we’re not asking you to do an Olympic-style snatch in your program.
After you build a little consistency and prove to yourself that you want to learn this, then the ascension from there is easy. Now you’re going to grab the dumbbells. Now you’re going to grab a barbell. Are you ready for that? Do you want it? Okay, here’s a cheap way to buy a barbell and get it in your house, and we’re going to start teaching you how to do some squats. Nobody knows how to squat with a barbell on their back naturally. You’ve got to learn at some point, just like [you’ve] got to learn how to slap on the roller skates and get moving. We can do it in a very slow, gradual way. So Persist is still a place that we can funnel people in, but that initial question I ask [is], “Are you ready to learn? Do you want to learn?” Then you can navigate [from there]. If somebody’s like, “This needs to be so easy and just spoon fed to me,” then you’re probably best suited to find a personal trainer to work with. If you’re in that category of somebody who’s like, “I don’t trust myself to do this on my own,” [then] an online training program might not be the best place for you to start. Maybe you need to hire a personal coach. That could be somebody in person at your local fitness facility or [at] Functional Bodybuilding. We have seven FBB master coaches [who] consult with people online one-to-one. “Hey, Chris, let me write you a personal training program. We’re going to get on a call every two weeks [and] talk about it. I’m going to message you each day.” We have that level of service available in our company, if people are looking for that higher touch point to really get them going from zero to something.
Chris Kresser: Well, this has been a fascinating interview, Marcus. I’m really glad you were able to join me. I think people will get a ton out of this. Where can they learn more about Functional Bodybuilding and your work?
Marcus Filly: I encourage everybody to head over to Functional-Bodybuilding.com/free and get our newsletter. Get on our email list, where every week, I’m sending out [a message]. This week, we’re writing about bridging the gap from a high-stress period to getting back in the gym. “I was sick for a week. How do I get back into the gym?” Or, “My sleep has been disrupted for a month because we have a newborn. How do I get back into the gym?” Just giving people real, practical, useful tips and education every single week on training, nutrition, [and] lifestyle to keep living and breathing the Functional Bodybuilding lifestyle for years and years. So that’s a great place to start. And there [are] lots of free nutrition and training resources that you’ll get right away if you sign up.
Chris Kresser: Great. Well, thanks again, Marcus. [I] appreciate all the work you’ve done, and I encourage everybody to go check it out. [There are] lots of great resources there. And this approach to training just makes so much more sense to me, especially for the vast majority of people who are just trying to meet their goals of staying fit, building muscle mass, feeling good, increasing their performance in other activities, and avoiding injury. As I get older, that’s one of the number one goals that I have. I’m approaching 50, and I don’t recover quite as quickly as I did when I was 20 and 25. Whether I’m skiing, mountain biking, or lifting weights, that’s [always] in the back of my mind—wanting to do it in a way that is going to lower the risk of injury so I can keep doing it. Because I’m super impatient with being injured. I want to be able to get out there and do that every day. So I think this [type] of approach makes so much more sense for most people. So, thanks again for joining me and sharing your experience. And everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.
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