Perhaps more than anything else in recent memory, functional training has been the most hot topic to take over the fitness industry in the last decade. This one to me is probably the most annoying. The definition of functional training has evolved from a spinoff of the training principle of specificity (train for what you do most often or what you are competing in) into a ridiculous circus act using a cluster-fuck of downright stupid exercises. "Functional” training should not necessarily be considered synonymous with training specificity. They are in fact two separate definitions. Functional training means something different for everyone, but here is my take on it.
So…what IS functional training?
Considering the entire foundation of my style of training is based on building what I call “functional strength,” you might find it pretty ironic that I’m picking apart the term “functional training.” However, I have a very definitive explanation for what I consider to be functional training. We need to understand that the human body has evolved to utilize specific movement patterns to accomplish any given physical task. If we need to get from one place to another, we usually walk or run to get there. If we need to pick something up off the ground, we either squat down or bend over to grab it and lift it. If we need to get up off the ground ourselves, we might roll over onto our belly, push ourselves up with our arms, get into a kneeling position, then do a lunge to stand up. Basic movements are a part of our everyday lives, and without them, we would have a pretty hard time functioning.
Sometimes these movement patterns are referred to as “primal” movement patterns. These movement patterns include squatting, deadlifting (hinging), pushing, pulling, rotating, and carrying. Training these foundational movements should be the basis of any “functional” training system. By training and building coordination and strength in each of these natural movements, we ensure that our bodies are well-equipped for almost any type of body-challenging scenario out there. The goal with functional training is make your body bigger (muscle, not fat), faster, stronger, and more mobile, stable, and resilient in a variety of different scenarios. Sticking to the basics is the best way to accomplish this.
Even the most complex looking of exercises are usually just variations or combinations of the basic primal movement patterns; our primal movements are the building blocks for all other forms of movement. One problem we run into often with working out is that we tend to gloss over the basics because they aren’t trendy or “in.” We instead opt for flashy exercises that seem fun as an onlooker, because they easily grab our attention. However, no matter how advanced you may be with your training or athletic ability, you should never deviate too far from the big foundational movements. Instead, it is a good idea to frequently utilize them, and include other more complex accessory exercises to compliment them. Building our bodies, and consequently our training programs, around mastery of the basics will give you the best results with your training no matter what your goals may be.
We also need to understand the difference between training basic fundamental movements and training specific skills. This is perhaps the biggest delineation between REAL functional fitness and the gimmicky bullshit you see under-qualified fitness professionals often writing about or posting on social media. Often times when people think of functional training, they associate it with multi-directional agility drills, squats on unstable surfaces, fancy-looking stretch techniques, or exercises that you require special equipment. However, even at the most elite level of athletics, training for optimal functionality should primarily consist of utilizing the basic fundamental strength exercises that I listed earlier. Why? Because that’s what works in the real world. Creating an elite level of foundational strength in the squat and overhead press has FAR more carryover to the field or on the court than single-leg bosu ball squats or band-resisted twisting single-leg bounds. Without a mastery of the basic foundational movements, no amount of “sport-specific” type training will help make you an elite athlete. You can't build a house on sand.
The function of an exercise is to accomplish a specific goal. Most peoples’ goals revolve around improving body composition, increasing athletic performance, or improving overall health. The most bang-for-your-buck movements, our “primal” movements, tend to help us accomplish these goals better than anything else out there. You don’t need to add rotation to every exercise you do. You don’t need to add unstable surfaces. You don’t need to be using any more than one or two pieces of equipment at the same time. And you certainly should not be avoiding awesome exercises like deadlifts and back squats, because some functional fitness guru said they aren’t “functional.” The human body is the human body, regardless of what your goals are. How the human body is meant to function is not dependent on your goals, activities, or sport.
What does this mean for me?
As a fitness or health professional, understand that people train for a variety of goals. However, most of these goals have some sort of overlap, and the majority of what people want to get out of their training and workouts can be most effectively accomplished by training basic fundamental movements. Don’t get caught up in elitist dogma. Be able to thoroughly assess your clients and patients, identify their weak points, design programs that help to address both their weaknesses and their goals, and learn to masterfully understand and teach the basics before you worry about anything else. 99% of the people you work with will benefit far more from learning and mastering the basics than anything else.
As a regular gym-goer, be cautious of any fitness or health professional who makes absolute claims about certain exercises being “good,” “bad,” “functional,” or “non-functional.” It’s usually a bunch of scare-tactic jargon. Understand that you only really need to be able to do a small amount of basic exercises, you just need to be able to do them well. Once you have at least a moderate level of mastery of the basics (which realistically could take years if you are new to training or have a lot of dysfunction to overcome), then you should begin to explore other more complex variations of the basics. Don’t get caught up in the overly-complex, fun-looking, multi-equipment-using exercises you might see some people doing in the gym. Chances are they are doing more harm than good.
My goal here is to help both fitness professionals and regular joe-schmoes understand the truth behind these buzzwords. Knowing how to spot the bullshitters is easier said than done. Hopefully this series hprovides you a reference and helps to shed some light on what “corrective exercise,” “muscle imbalances,” and “functional training” actually mean, and how you can use this knowledge to better spot the wanna-be gurus.
There is a lot of conflicting information out there, and I definitely know it can be hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong. However, know that my goal is not to prove anyone right or wrong, only to provide you with the most accurate, genuine, and pertinent information. No hidden agendas here. If you have any other questions or need further clarification on these topics, feel free to comment or private message me!