I’m on the functional training warpath again.
Over the last day or two, each time I’ve had a few minutes to waste on facebook I’ve been confronted with videos.
Video’s of people demonstrating “functional training”
Video’s of people doing stuff.
With words that sound like they mean something but are essentially bullshit.
Yesterday morning I had a client in who asked about one such video he’d seen, so we had a little fun with it.
While he performed an exercise I gave him, I explained it to him in the kind of terminology he had heard on the video.
He looked at me like I had two heads, yeah I sounded impressive, to the point where he wasn’t sure if I was serious or joking, but he also had no idea as to what I was talking about.
But it sounded good.
Yay! I’m being functional!
And this is my problem.
The good guys, the guys that know their shit. The guys that train actual people, maybe work with athletes, who get the results their clients want by applying tried and tested methods, usually backed up by some sort of scientific literature or at least by a stack of experience.
These guys who are well read, be it classically educated or have gone out on their own volition to read, learn, analyse and test.
These guys talk sense.
They talk plain English, they drop in big words and scientific language but usually also explain it in laymans terms so that the user can understand what they’re saying.
The reason they use the scientific or proper terms are so that the client can also learn, understand and if they go to another coach, they won’t be lost if these terms are thrown about.
It’s a way of getting everyone on the same page.
It’s not about sounding smarter than everyone else, it’s about raising people’s knowledge.
But I’m starting to digress here.
What makes training functional?
Ok, lets look at like this.
First word: Functional
Second word: Training
- The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour:
in-service training for staff
- The action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event
- (see the Oxford Dictionaries full definition here, opens in new tab)
You can see the two words have a few cross over points. Functional a special purpose and Training denotes as particular skill or behaviour.
Both terms are quite specific.
Put them together and we have “Undertaking a course or exercise designed to impart a specific skill”
That’s not a bad definition, I could work on it and make it better, but I reckon that’s good enough.
One word sticks out.
And there, right there is the problem.
So few people can say what is so specific and magical about their training in a manner that the lay person will understand or the researchers will give a thumbs up to.
You can’t break down human movement into training protocols, it’s too vast.
Anatomy in Motion is far and away the leader there, and that is because it focusses around the gait cycle, the human animals most primary and basic of movements.
Mr Anatomy in Motion himself
Everything else we do in the gym environment is just an exercise.
Each exercise should have its own function.
The function of a bicep curl is to train the elbow flexors, in most cases to stimulate hypertrophy. And for big arms, that’s as functional as you get.
The function of a bench press is to overload a horizontal pressing pattern. The problem with horizontal pressing is that gravity is uncooperative and only works vertically. So we have to lie on our backs to press weight out.
Or we go face down and perform a push up, we will need to load the body to bring the intensity high enough that we stimulate the central nervous system.
The squat is hugely functional. It trains the three main joints in the lower body (ankle, hip & knee) to flex and extend in a coordinated fashion through their full range of motion.
Do a stack of bodyweight squats and we stimulate a cardio-vascular effect, load up and we massively stimulate the central nervous system and elicit some real strength and hypertrophy through the entire structure of the body, primarily the legs and spinal extensors.
Is the pistol squat more functional than a front squat, is a front squat more functional than a back squat?
Define the function you are looking to fulfil and we may be able to answer that question, until that function is established, it’s nothing more than in internet flame war waiting to happen.
Pistol Squat, lower body strength without the spinal compression or sheer from an external load
If the goal is to move the most amount of weight, back squat.
If the goal is to train the lower body with an emphasis on the quads and/or anterior core, front squat
If the goal is to improve mobility, proprioception and hip/core stability, pistol squat.
Three differing squat movements, non of which are any more functional than the other. It’s a case of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Everything trumps everything else in the right context.
And that my dear readers is what functional training should be all about.
The exercises you use in the weight room don’t have to bear the slightest resemblance to any movement you will make in the outside world, but they do have to elicit some form of training response that will serve to increase the potential of the body to perform in the desired manner. Be that to look huge, to run fast, to hit hard, to jump high, whatever.
Getting stronger is almost universally functional. And you need to perform high intensity lifts in a stable environment to achieve this. Think Squat, Deadlift, Press, Pull and Carry.
Building Endurance is almost universally functional, who wouldn’t want to be able to train longer and recovery quicker? How you develop this can depend on your specific needs.
Mobility is almost universally functional as it allows us to move freely, to be strong at end range. And when is that ever a bad thing?
Bodyweight training usually functional as it helps develop proprioception, burns a stack of calories and builds coordination. But it’s limited when it comes to maximal strength.
Lisette Krol – demonstrating ridiculous body control & strength
Barbells are functional as they’re highly adjustable, from massive loads to build maximal strength to light loads for endurance.
Kettlebells are functional in their ability to develop power endurance particularly in the posterior chain and are great for challenging core and shoulder stability.
Heavy windmill with ketlebells, functional? You decide
Is one more functional than the other, again it’s all down to context.
So next time you hear someone talk about some piece of kit that is so functional or some funky exercise that is “functional” ask them to define the function, to clearly and concisely explain the context in simple laymans terms.
Any fancy speak or unpronounceable science speak, walk. Just walk away.