It was the end of 2016 and Marcus Filly had hit rock bottom.
Athletically, his career was skyrocketing. Filly —coming off his third individual trip in four years— had placed a personal best 12th at the CrossFit Games. From there, he went straight into the now-defunct Grid League. His social media, thanks to both sports and and a chiseled physique, was exploding. His protein, Revive RX, was starting to gain some traction.
But his overall health couldn’t have been worse.
“My body, my brain, I was at rock bottom with all of it,” Filly said. “My coach [OPEX Director of Coaching Mike Lee] said we needed to lower the load. But it wasn’t a month deload. I needed more like four months, six months after years and years of getting after it.”
The goal was simple: to let Filly’s central nervous system (CNS) recover with lowered volume and intensity. He worked on things that purposely kept him from pushing to the brink, allowing the then-32-year-old to heal.
It was the first time Filly had ever slowed down, had concentrated on how he felt within a movement. Slowly, he became more balanced. Energized. Excited to train. And Functional Bodybuilding was born.
“People are addicted to that high-intensity interval training [HIIT] and think, ‘I need to do a lot’. It’s kind of the same thing as the low-carb craze, where people thought, ‘If I eat a carb everything will fall apart,” Filly said.
“They got so wedded to it because they had success early on. If you cut carbs out you will see changes. If you do that and do HIIT [like CrossFit] you’re going to crash at some point.
You’re going to start to see injury, body composition reversal and people are going to freak out and then they will resist carbs even more. That’s the same thing for high intensity people. They came in and did HIIT and six, 12 months maybe even two years of progress and then they stalled out, have ache and pains.
Then people tell them you have to do less intensity and less volume and they’re like, ‘What! No, that can’t be right’. But think about it: you’re beat up, plateaued and lost some of your drive, why wouldn’t you take a step back?
That’s something people are challenged with in this culture. I don’t see it as my mission to change their mind, but an opportunity to show people that there is a different way.”
Filly never went back to his old training. Instead, he started a deep dive into the world of bodybuilding, the principles of resistance training and concepts of absolute strength and aesthetics.
“My body, my brain, I was at rock bottom with all of it. My coach [Mike Lee] said we needed to lower the load. But it wasn’t a month deload. I needed more like four months, six months, after years and years of getting after it.”
The former scientist, who created a protein shake when he didn’t like anything else on the market, Filly isn’t afraid to do what’s different. Using the seven years he spent as an athlete, coach and competitor, he worked with Lee to develop what was eventually hashtagged on social media as #FunctionalBodybuilding.
And people around the world, eager to look and lift like Filly, started asking questions.
What was he doing?
Was it functional?
What is enough?
“With the tools we have and training philosophies there’s a lot of people who don’t need to be told to work hard. They know they have go work hard. As coaches and gym owners, we have to protect them,” Filly said.
“They are ready to go run through a wall if you tell them that’s what they are supposed to do. There’s definitely an obsession with the workout and being the best at the workout.
But if you come in after a long day of work and are exhausted maybe it’s not the best time for you to do this eight-minute pain train workout.”
And then they experience it and are like, “Oh I felt really great doing that,’ instead of feeling like they have to go home and take a nap.”
One of the people paying attention to Filly’s social media postings, was Misbah Haque. The founder of the Airborne Mind podcast, Haque had several years of CrossFit and competitive weightlifting under his belt. He was burnt out, beat up and fascinated with what Filly was putting out on Instagram.
“I was like, ‘Wow, how has no one talked to this guy?,” Haque said. “I remember him coming on the show, maybe the second time, and said he was considering a group program. There was a lot of people following along who were like we’ve been playing around with this [functional body building] stuff and it feels good, but how do I combine it with what I’m doing?”
People are addicted to that high-intensity interval training [HIIT] and think, ‘I need to do a lot’. It’s kind of the same thing as the low-carb craze, where people thought, ‘If I eat a carb everything will fall apart. They got so wedded to it because they had success early on. If you cut carbs out you will see changes. If you do that and do HIIT [like CrossFit] you’re going to crash at some point.
The answer came with Awaken Training Series (ATS), a 12-week program that first launched in April of 2017 and opens four times a year.
A combination of functional bodybuilding, basic barbell training and conditioning work in a much different domain than most high-intensity athletes are used to, Filly hopes ATS will help change the way people think about training.
“I want to give people an option to feel and think about what they are doing. There’s nothing that bothered me more than seeing an athlete who was moving poorly shut their brain off and go to town and grind it and push themselves like crazy,” he said.
“I was like, ‘This is such a bad situation’. If someone wants to move and they have poor mechanics they shouldn’t be kept from training, but they need to be put in a situation where they are more mindful of how they are moving.”
“We believe in managing intensity and building up over six weeks as opposed to two hard weeks and then a week off because your back tweaked.”
Haque —now part of Filly’s Revival Strength coaching team— was part of the pilot ATS group and went through the three follow-up programs (2.0, 3.0 and 4.0) before transitioning to individual design.
Filly does functional bodybuilding three times a week and maybe one or two for-time workouts. Neither eschew CrossFit or its benefits, but both believe the message and intent of the early CrossFit.com workouts has gotten scrambled along the way.
“Today in my lifestyle and my family life, if I really dig in and do more than 1-2 [high intensity] workouts [a week], I get home and I’m struggling to focus on my daughter. And I don’t want to be at that place. That’s how I found balance for myself,” Filly said.
“It’s easy for people to walk away feeling like they worked hard because you slap them with intensity, but how do you make them feel like they worked hard and did something good for their body without wanting to puke?
It’s so easy to write an intensity workout where someone goes in and crushes themselves. It takes more thought to design training where you work hard, feel like you accomplished something, but you are going to leave with some energy.”
The buzz around ATS and Filly’s programming (which now offers a group Functional Bodybuilding option for gym owners) has grown quickly. Now, Filly hopes people can take the principles of slowing down and quality movement as better benchmarks than the whiteboard.
“I want to create excitement about people moving better, not just moving faster,” Filly said.
“There’s a place for isolation movements within a functional training program. If Functional Bodybuilding is helping bridge that gap and show people that, then I’m stoked that I’m making a difference.
I recognize that I have a large audience and people want to see what someone who has competed [at the Games] is doing. I love to showcase the fact that I do this stuff all the time and its what keeps me balanced and keeps me looking forward to training.”
To experience Functional Bodybuilding for yourself, get a free 3 day sample of Awaken Training Series (which launches September 30) at revival-strength.com.
Photos: Ghitta Larsen