Why Marcus Filly created the functional bodybuilding method
MARCUS FILLY DOES NOT he wants you to pound EMOM thruster tricks until your shoulders can barely move, and he doesn’t want you to go so hard during Murph that you’re a shaky mess when you’re finally done. Yes, the former CrossFit Games competitor knows that past fatigue is a CrossFit staple, and he understands why you think the secret to building muscle and strength is always to work harder. But the veteran coach has other ideas.
Of course, you have to push your limits in your training. But CrossFit — and, more broadly, the dogma of no-pain, no-gain fitness — has long pushed you well past exhaustion, often leaving you flying off the ground after every workout. And Filly has seen what that leads to: it can blast calories and help you build muscle in the short term, but it can lead to diminished results in the long run. This usually causes burnout. From running to bodybuilding, too much of the fitness industry pushes you to chase fatigue above all else. “Blow through all of your mental, emotional, and physical resources in your workouts and you won’t have the same capacity for your job, wife, husband, or other interests,” says Filly, a California-based trainer. You’re looking for better health, but you’re actually depriving yourself of it, he says.
The solution is what Filly calls Functional Bodybuilding, and it’s a softer, gentler version of classic HIIT that still helps you build muscle, but doesn’t leave you feeling (and fearing) every moment of every workout. It’s an eye-catching approach: Filly has nearly 860,000 followers on Instagram and her Persist workout program has around 10,000 followers. He even has an exercise, the Filly press, named after him. (You’ll learn it, too.) The protocol itself grew out of Filly’s own experience. Six years ago, he was one of the strongest in CrossFit, in part because of a three-day training regimen. Yes, three a day! Every session was exactly what you’d expect: Filly took WOD after WOD, lifting heavy and scoring plenty of reps as he sculpted six-pack abs and forged elite strength, hitting a deadlift of 550 lbs.
The approach paid off, propelling Filly to a 12th place finish at the 2016 CrossFit Games. The downside: His mind and body were destroyed. A few days after the Games, he struggled to find a reason to go to the gym. Worse, all those repetitions of power cleans, pull-ups, and burpees left him struggling with constant pain in his shoulders, hips, and “places I had never treated in the past.” “I was toast,” he says. “I went from feeling like the fittest person to the least fit person in the room.”
Filly ended up leaving the gym altogether for two full months (an eternity for today’s restless runner or bodybuilding fiend), but his mind was never far from fitness. Finished with CrossFit, Filly, who had majored in molecular and cellular biology at UC Berkeley and started medical school before turning to the program, rethought his entire workout plan, looking for ways to build strength without exhausting your body with heavy weights and huge reps.
When he returned to the gym, he had built his own style of training, which emphasizes form during EMOM and AMRAP challenges, increases recovery time, and allows you to work with lighter weights. And the three key tenets of his style can be applied to any workout you do, CrossFit or not.
Marcus Filly’s Rules for Functional Strength Training Success
Rule 1: Technique versus tonnage (and tons of reps)
Filly knows all about the classic stereotype of the CrossFit pull-up, the athlete’s full body bobbing in the air as he rips through reps. He understands it too. “In competition,” he says, “you’re trying to do the minimum you can get away with. That means performing each rep in a way that barely crosses the bar of acceptable norm.”
Chances are you’ve done this in your own workouts as well, rushing through extra reps of bicep curls or pushups. These rushed repetitions with a fragile form invite injury.
Filly’s programs use two tricks to break this habit. The first: strict tempo. During the downward portion of any exercise, count to 3 seconds. Pause for 1 second at the bottom of the exercise. Next, aim to lift quickly. This tempo keeps each exercise focused on the muscles you’re training, sparing joint pain and injury.
The second: focus on form. One way to do this is to incorporate a rep and a quarter, which can be used during most strength-based exercises. Filly often does this in the cycling squat. You’ll settle into a goblet squat position, your heels on a weight plate, then bend your knees and hips, slowly lowering yourself into a squat (for 3 seconds). Instead of standing up, you will go up a quarter of the height, come back down, then stand up. Try it for 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Rule 2: Get out of balance
When you follow Filly’s first rule, you will inevitably have to use lighter weights than usual. That doesn’t mean you won’t challenge every muscle. It makes sure your whole body gets a workout using staggered load motions, which allow you to lift weights with one arm or leg at a time.
And no, it’s not as easy as it sounds, because the staggered load moves require your abs and glutes to go into overdrive to stabilize your body. You do not believe it ? Think back to the last time you lifted a heavy suitcase into the overhead compartment before a flight. Harder than a side raise, isn’t it? Filly knows why. “It’s a one-arm lift with a twist and a slight lunge,” he says. “All unilateral moves.”
Staggered load moves can challenge your entire body even more if you hold weights in both hands while performing single-sided reps. This is the idea behind the Filly press, a shoulder press variation named after the trainer. To do this, stand upright holding a kettlebell in your left hand at your shoulder. Hold a dumbbell at your shoulder in your right hand. Keeping the kettlebell close to your chest, press the dumbbell overhead, then lower it. Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side. And expect it to be harder than you think: the mid-back muscles on your left side are working overtime to maintain kettlebell stability.
Rule 3: Be a versatile star
Yes, Filly wants you to do cardio. He keeps it fun, though, by relying on intervals three times a week.
Yes, it’s tempting to focus on building muscle or doing an exercise (think deadlift or bench press) super strong or dominating every morning run. After all, most athletes focus on specific traits (endurance, speed, strength). Filly knows it too. “That was true for me back in the days of the competition,” he says. “The marketing message we hear is that if you achieve an elite level of fitness, you will naturally look and feel healthier. But that is completely incorrect.
The truth is, focusing too much on a few gym ideas can be detrimental to your health. You might want to build a massive chest, but if you never perfect your flexibility or cardio, you’ll have a hard time carrying a bag of groceries several blocks away or reaching the top shelf at the grocery store. painless.
Filly’s solution is a hybrid workout three days a week: Spend 10 minutes stretching, 10 minutes building strength with exercises like dumbbell rows, 10 minutes doing muscle exercises like the Filly press, and 10 to 20 minutes (yes) of cardio. This cardio shouldn’t be a crazy run or walk. Filly offers you this circuit which can be done rowing, ski ergometric, cycling (or running):
Run 500 meters, then rest 45 seconds. Walk 350 meters, then rest 45 seconds. Do 200 meters, then rest for 45 seconds. Repeat for 3 rounds.
Expect to finish in about 15 minutes, but don’t expect to feel overwhelmed. Marcus Filly doesn’t want to kill you, remember. He wants you to leave this workout feeling your best.
This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
Andrew Heffernan, CSCS is a health, fitness and Feldenkrais trainer, and an award-winning health and fitness writer. His writings have been featured in Men’s Health, Life Experience, Onnit.com, and open layout, among other outlets. An omnivorous athlete, Andrew is a black belt in karate, a dedicated weightlifter and a frequent finisher in triathlon and Spartan races. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
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