Is That Functional?

If you search “Functional Training” on google images, this is one of the first pictures to come up.  In fact, if  you read many articles or blog posts about functional training, this picture is used.  Functional training developed out of the rehabilitation protocols of physical therapy, and intended to be applicable to the activities of ones daily life.  Unfortunately, over time it has devolved into bastardized exercises and froufrou movements.  The following two videos are examples of the kind of ‘functional’ training that people are doing.

Difficult?  Maybe.  Impressive?  Possibly. Functional?  No.

Steven Plisk, MS, CSCS,*D offers several definitions of functional training in a paper presented as part of the NSCA’s Hot Topic Series.  They are:

  • An exercise continuum involving balance and proprioception, performed with the feet on the ground and without machine-assistance, such that strength is displayed in unstable conditions and body weight is managed in all movement planes.
  • Multi-joint, multi-planar, proprioceptively-enriched activity that involves deceleration (force reduction), acceleration (force production) and stabilization; controlled amounts of instability; and management of gravity, ground reaction forces and momentum.
  • A spectrum of activities that condition the body consistent with its integrated movement and/or use.

Even simpler, we can consider this: Functional Training is training that brings about the desired results. If training in a certain modality allows you to reach your goal, then it is functional for that goal.  It may not be functional for my goal, or your brother’s goal, or your grandma’s goal, but for your goal, it’s functional.  Keep this in mind when you judge the guy squatting on a BOSU ball; maybe he’s getting ready to squat while on a sail boat in rough seas; if that’s the case, it’s functional.  Unfortunately for him, I’m not playing devil’s advocate, and it’s a stupid exercise.  Plus, research shows that unstable surface training can decrease power output and lead to tentative movement patterns.  I’m not sure how functional it is to have great balance at the sake of being weak and slow.

Currently, functional training may have a negative connotation, as many people regard it as overly complex coordination and/or balance intensive exercises that tax the core.  If you’re standing on a swiss ball and performing a curl with one hand and an overhead press with the other, you must be working your core, right?  Of course you’re working your core, but is there really a training effect on the muscles of your extremities?  Probably not.

Instead of associating functional training with emphasis on balance and core stability, I think we should instead focus on exercises that demand movement from our limbs while demanding core stability.  One of the simplest exercises to consider is the deadlift.  (Yes, I know you’re sick of me telling you to deadlift…so just start doing it already!)  Deadlifting requires concentric extension of the hip and knee while maintaining a spinal extension.  Your ‘core’ remains stable while you extend the joints of the leg.  How does the deadlift relate to real life?  How often have you heard the phrase “Lift with your legs, not your back?”  Whenever you pick an object up off the floor, from a toddler’s favorite toy to a heavy couch, you’re executing the same movement.  When you use a common movement from daily life as an exercise in your program, it becomes far easier to complete on a regular basis.  I think that is functional training.

While this individualized definition of functional training may allow for adjustments to specific situations, I don’t think it’s entirely open-ended.  I don’t think that isolation and machine exercises are as functional as compound movements with free-weights, but they may have a place in specific programs.

Let there be curls...maybe.

If you’re just beginning, or you don’t have a hell-bent desire on being known as a walking gun show, you don’t need to do curls.  There are better exercises that give you more benefits.  However, if you’ve been training for a number of years, and follow a higher-frequency high volume program, curls are a necessity; you can’t do high volume chin-ups day after day and gain results; you’ll probably just get hurt.  In a case like this, curls may be necessary.  In general, isolation exercises should be the last thing programmed, designed to fill in the gaps; hopefully there aren’t any gaps though.

Functional training comes back to exercise efficiency.  Truly functional programming will allow you to get the best results with any given amount of time; it’s working smarter before you work harder.  When you consider your overall program this way, you’ll be able to edit it for content; remove the exercises that aren’t the best application of your efforts, and replace them with exercises which allow you to improve your performance both inside and outside of the gym.

How do you know which exercises to include in your program, to maximize efficiency?  Well, you don’t.  Quite simply, you should be using scientific studies to select your exercises.  ‘Brogramming’, or choosing what ‘feels good’ or what your cousin Vinny uses, is rarely the best way to go, as you should be selecting exercises specifically for your goals.  Most people should be following a general template of movement patterns instead of muscle groups, and exercise selection should include variations that emphasize your goals.  For example, you may be squatting deep as a knee-dominant bilateral exercise.  Should a specific goal be hypertrophy of the lower quad, then you may choose a front squat over a back squat, to be more efficient in reaching your goal.  It’s a compound movement, requiring you to use many muscles at once, and it caters to a specific goal of yours.  That’s functional.

I love sending people to “Program Design for Dummies“, at article written by Tony Gentilcore in 2006 to explain the basics of exercise selection.  It’s a detailed but concise explanation of what functional training should be; safe, compound movements that make you strong, keep you flexible, and help you get better inside and outside of the gym.  If I were you, I’d read that link.

Remember, kids, the shake weight isn’t functional.


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