You heard me, I hate the current trend of what is being espoused as ‘functional training’. The idea that ‘this or that’ is ‘functional’… Functional for what?
To understand the idea of what functional training is, we need to answer that question. What are we training for, what is the desired result? What is functional for a marathon runner may not be functional for a strongman competitor. So this becomes goal dependent.
The basis of what is deemed functional training can be broken into a series of simple movement patterns:
- Hip Hinge
- Push (vertical and horizontal)
- Pull (vertical and horizontal)
- Rotation (and anti-rotation)
- Trunk Flexion (and anti-flexion/extension)
- Sling systems (a complex system involving unilateral movement using the above patterns. Sounds complicated until you simply throw something over your shoulder!)
For an individual to be considered ‘healthy’ they should maintain a balance between all of these movements and systems. And it’s not just the specific exercises and movement patterns; it’s how they are performed:
- Grinding (slow and controlled)
- Ballistic (super-fast and powerful)
- Long Slow Duration
- Interval based training
- Set and Rep schemes
- The list goes on…
Athletes, strongmen, soldiers, martial artists and weekend warriors have been training functionally for centuries. They did ‘biggest bang for your buck’ exercises that had carry over into their chosen field of specialism. They didn’t need swissballs or wobble boards, instead they performed resistance type exercises and endurance feats (but given current scientific understanding some of these have been shown to be better replaced with other activities).
For example, wrestlers would do a lot of traditional strongman style exercises (but not at the detriment to their training time as wrestlers) because they knew that this would allow them to become even stronger and in a shorter time than by wrestling alone. They knew that becoming stronger allowed them to more readily man-handle their opponents (if wrestling skills were equal) and become more durable/resistant to injury. So they would practice lifts that had direct carryover into wrestling like the deadlift, squat and overhead press. Specialist training would include ballistic lifts to generate power and throwing/slamming heavy sandbags, kegs, logs, etc.
A lot of this style of training fell out of favour between the First and Second World Wars, for lots of socio-political reasons that I won’t go into here.
Post second world war and the increase in popularity of team and racquet sports in Western culture, a lot of the traditional training methods were pushed into small spaces and even outdoors. The lack of fancy team attire and social inclusion when compared to team sports probably didn’t help either.
Fast forward to the 1960′s and the introduction of the Nautilus machines….
To make gyms more space and time efficient, the good people at Nautilus had the brilliant (at the time) idea of creating a machine that could replicate the traditional lifts but allow for a fast changeover of the load used. This was during the ‘circuit training’ boom, originally circuit training was not much like the concept used in gyms but based in lifting heavy (but submaximal) loads in one lift and then quickly moving on to another. The Nautilus machines allowed gyms to run circuit training sessions with multiple participants in a kind of ‘follow the leader’ fashion. If the guy in front of you was using too light/heavy a load you could easily change it by simply moving a pin.
The problem with weight machines is that they limit you into a one or two dimensional plane of movement, with little to no rotation around those axis. Humans are meant to move in three dimensions and to also rotate in these planes, this is where the term ‘six degrees of freedom’ comes from. The machines eliminated most rotation and one or two planes of movement. The muscles often referred to as ‘stabilisers’ don’t have to work and what happens is that you overdevelop some muscles compared to others. This can lead to injury.
People were sent to the physio – who identified that the stabilisers were weak – and gave the client some exercises to do that focused on strengthening them. Things like using rubber bands, wobble boards and swiss balls.
Roll on the 90’s and the clever people have figured out why their athletes/clients are getting injured (in fact, the really clever ones never stopped using their barbells!). But rather than teach them how to lift weights properly (some ‘coaches’ have never learned to lift correctly, so they avoid the problem) they look to the ‘functional’ exercises. The functional exercises tended to be tricked out versions of the rubberband/wobble board exercises that the physios prescribed as part of rehab. The bonus here for PTs is that clients generally come to a PT to be one part trained and two parts entertained, so the ‘functional’ exercises give them a whole new bag of sweeties to dole out to their clients.
The horrific irony here is that people were now doing two sets of exercises, the machine weight exercises (because free weights were too dangerous) and ‘functional’ exercises to address the imbalances caused by the machines. So why the hell not just do the exercises properly in the first place!?!?!
But then the horror happened… the sweeties became the main meal! And as we all know, you can’t survive on M&Ms and Pepsi! So your trainer prescribes for you one legged squats on a bosu ball. How the hell is that functional, what is it functional for? Having put a lot of thought and effort into this one of my clients came up with the answer:
Ice skating on an oil tanker!
And who needs a bosu ball and some weights to do this, why not make it better and cheaper by doing it on your bed mattress holding two 2 litre jugs of milk?
True functionality is the identification of movement patterns and how they are to be performed for your particular goal. It is true that everyone should have a foundational base in the same movement patterns. Your ‘functional’ training programme should identify any problems in your movement, fix them and then strengthen them.
Where I see ‘functional’ training going bad is when I see fighters punching with dumbells, or doing striking drills with resistance bands attached to them. Not only are they loading the body in planes in which it is not in the sport, they are negatively impacting on the technique that the fighter has spent a long time developing.
Another common example is weighted lunges. Almost every day in the gym I see this one, someone with a poor lunge pattern loading themselves with weight and doing walking ‘lunges’ the length of the gym. This is an invitation to a major injury! It’s like driving a Ferrari down the motorway as fast as you can, but the tracking in your steering is out. You might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later you are going to have a crash.
The most functional exercises are the ones that have the greatest carryover into your life or sport. Most people aren’t elite athletes, so for them the most functional exercises are the basic lifts: deadlifts, squats, presses, pulls and lunges. The ‘simple’ versions, not the one-legged-stiff-deadlift-on-a-bosu-ball horsecrap versions!
So, whenever your trainer/coach/class instructor tells you to do something because it is ‘functional’, challenge them! Don’t do an exercise just because of the novelty value, do it because it works towards your goal. Remember, time is one of the things that you can’t get more of, don’t waste it on foolish exercises!
Are you in the gym to get strong, lose fat and improve your life, or are you there to be entertained?
Be fit, be strong, be happy!
“Whatever you decide, don't let it be because you don't think you have a choice.” - Hannah Harrington, Saving June