It’s All Functional, Right?

In my gym, I have a reputation as a ‘functional training’ guy.  I have no qualms with this, because it’s true to a certain extent…it’s just probably not what you think of as ‘functional training’.  There is no true definition of functional training, because an exercises ‘functionality’ is based on the results that it delivers, not on the way that it looks.  According to this, almost anything is ‘functional’ if you reach your goals, but I think that’s a little bit of a cop out.  Most people can look at a leg press and say ‘Hey, that’s not all that functional’, but most people also think that this is the epitome of functional training:

Not the case, and definitely not what I do.  In fact, I think my only interactions with the BOSU ball in the past 2 years was to move it out of the way.  I’ll admit though, I used to think it was a good idea for some things.  Sure, I practiced body weight squats on that unstable hemisphere, and I stood on it and wobbled through sets of curls.  Looking back, I can call myself an idiot with absolute certainty.  I have certainly learned a great deal, and continue to learn, as time passes, and I can think about those times and say “I just didn’t know any better.”  Now I do, and I’ve stopped doing stupid stuff in the gym.  I’m sure that in 3 years, 10 years, and 30 years, I’ll be able to say the same thing about things I might have done; I just don’t know if they’re a good idea yet.  Hindsight is always 20/20.

There are plenty of lackluster attempts to define functional training, and I don’t really bother trying to define it.  I think if you look at a program, and you look at a body, you’ll intuitively be able to tell if it makes sense.  That ability should be independent of formal education:  You know there are researchers with PhD’s busy studying the benefits of the leg extension machine, without ever looking at a child and realizing that pattern is never executed in daily living.  Attempting my own definition of functional training would be foolish, and I prefer to use what was written in the NSCA Hot Topic Paper about Functional Training, authored by Steven Plisk, MS, CSCS*D.  According to this document, Functional Training is:

  •  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, acceleration,  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 is integrated movement and/or use.

Confused?  Don’t worry, it’s not that bad, and rather easy to simplify.  When considering any exercise, and a program in general, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you standing?  Good.
  • Are you using body weight, a free weight, band or cable?  Good.
  • Is it a compound movement?  Good.
  • Are you moving through a full range of motion?  Good.
  • Are you moving in all three planes of motion?  Good.
  • Are you focusing on developing strength or power?  Good.

Now, each exercise doesn’t need to satisfy ALL of these conditions, but you should get pretty close.  Exercises that are functional are going to give you the best results that are sustainable over a life time.  Isn’t that what you want, anyway?  Plenty of retired body builders complain about joint aches and pains that were a result of their reliance on isolation exercises, and that it limits their ability to train now that they’re older.  Learn from those mistakes, and use your body the way it’s supposed to move!

The human body is amazing at moving, and if you’ve ever watched a toddler or child move, they explore their ability to move as much as possible.  For some reason, the fitness industry disconnected this normal human desire and ability to move, and turned us in to machine using robots.  I think there is a major role of movement and play in adult fitness, and this can come from involvement in various sports activities, but should also come from strength training programs.  Comparing the benefits of ‘functional’ training programs over traditional machine/isolation based resistance training, I think that the amount of movement involved in a functional training program lead to it’s greatest benefit; that it’s fun.  If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to enjoy what you’re doing.  This past Friday, I used a combination of rope rows and bear crawls using the Prowler for conditioning, and it definitely did it’s job.  More important than the cardiovascular benefits was the fact that I had a blast doing it:

It’s going to sound corny, but I need to say it:  Functional training is fun training.  It’s a lot more fun to do push-ups and pull-ups and crawls and lunges then it is to sit down on a machine or peddle a bike, and it’s better for you too!  I like being known as ‘the functional guy’ at my gym, because I can share smarter, more effective training ideas with people.  Don’t like doing direct ab work, but doing rows?  Multitask, and give yourself the same benefits:

Developing systemic strength and teaching the body to work as a unit is going to be beneficial for you, improving on the already numerous benefits of machine based work and isolation training.  I doubt that many people would disagree with this, and most people understand the importance of resistance training in general.  We know it’s beneficial, and that everybody should be doing it.  However, people seem to disregard their natural instinct for movement and focus on machines, individual muscles, and specific isolation exercises.

Don’t do that.

Your body will be much happier, you’ll see better results, and you might start to enjoy the time you spend in the day.  If you are completely lost on what to do, simply ask for help!  Ask your local trainer, ask a friend that seems to ‘get it’, or send someone like me an e-mail or message.  It’s what we both want!

2 Replies to “It’s All Functional, Right?”

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