WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL TRAINING?
There is no universally agreed upon definition for functional training. One sect of the fitness industry may claim that functional training involves performing cleans, snatches, and burpees with maximal effort, while another sect may say that it is any type of exercise performed without the use of machines. However, one thing that most people in the fitness industry will agree upon is that functional training emphasizes the use of multi-joint movement patterns that are performed in daily living (e.g. squatting, running, or rowing), and stresses different energy systems (i.e. improves power, strength, and endurance).
HOW FUNCTIONAL TRAINING CAME TO DOMINATE THE FITNESS INDUSTRY.
In the 1970s, the “golden era” of bodybuilding took the fitness industry by storm. Legendary muscle-men like Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, and of course the charismatic movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger had the world convinced that muscle mass was synonymous with health and fitness. It was in this era that single-joint, bodybuilding-style exercises and strength training machines (e.g. Nautilus) became the dominant modality for improving fitness. For over thirty years, that was the way things were until “functional training” started to take over in the early 2000s. In comparison to bodybuilding training, people were amazed at the real fitness gains that this new style of training could develop. The simple act of adding endurance training and multi-joint, full-body movements had people feeling much healthier; in terms of improving cardiorespiratory fitness, orthopedic (joint) health, and athletic performance, bodybuilding couldn’t hold a candle to “functional training”. Fast forward to present day and we are still reaping the positive benefits that functional training gave us a decade and a half ago. Never in the history of the fitness industry have people shown more interest in all the different types of full-body exercise systems out there. From powerlifting to yoga, from gymnastics to circuit training, people are participating in and combining all kinds of different modalities in order to improve strength, cardio, body composition, and mobility! Unfortunately, there is a growing population of functional training enthusiasts who are taking things too far by doing more than they can handle, or by combining modalities in a way that serves no purpose at best and leads to severe injury at worst.
HOW FUNCTIONAL FITNESS HAS CHANGED (and it’s not good).
People are going too hard too soon in one specific training modality, or they’re combining different modalities and fucking themselves up. I’ll give you a couple examples…
Crossfit. Crossfit is great if you have the prerequisite mobility, coordination, and baseline strength and endurance to perform the exercises – I truly am a fan of the system for people who have those prerequisites. But it’s horrible if you don’t. Let’s say you lack axial rotation in the glenohumeral joint (fancy talk for “your shoulder doesn’t work well”) and on day one of Crossfit class, coach has you perform multiple reps of overhead squatting. Guess what? Something is going to break. As a matter of fact, I’m currently working with someone to undo years of aches and pains accrued from Crossfitting without the prerequisite mobility (what’s up, Nick Lightfoot). And this dude is a stud who frequently competed in, and won, those crazy Perform-1000-burpees-followed-by-deadlifting-375-pounds competitions. He just played himself by going too hard too soon without taking care of the aspects of fitness he should’ve been working on first – namely, mobility!
Example two: Combining different modalities and fucking yourself up. Functional training is great. Ask anybody in the industry and they will tell you that full-body movements performed at varying intensities is a recipe for fitness success. But, let’s leave the bosu balls for rehab, heavybags for punching, and kettlebells for lifting. We are currently experiencing an epidemic in the fitness industry of functional training “experts” combining two or more modalities to create new exercises that serve absolutely no purpose other than increasing injury risk. To prove my own point, I literally just typed #functionaltraining into Instagram and lo and behold, the first thing that popped up was A GUY WALKING ON HIS HANDS WHILE HOLDING A KETTLEBELL WITH HIS TEETH. Combining the modality of gymnastics (handstands) with the modality of retardation (carrying heavy kettlebells with face) may increase shoulder and jaw strength, but the benefits far outweigh the risks – and this theme of dangerous exercise is much too common for my liking in the functional training scene. Clearly, it’s time to revamp our definition of what functional training is…
REAL FUNCTIONAL TRAINING.
Training that increases the ability to perform a function that is unique to a person’s goal. Once again, training that increases the ability to perform a function that is unique to a person’s goal. Sam’s goal is joint health? Okay, well then functional training for Sam would be performing controlled articular rotations of his joints in tandem with basic strength training. Sarah’s goal is to run a marathon? Okay, well then functional training for Sarah would be running, and possibly strength and mobility training to keep her body resilient. Mike’s goal is to look good in tank tops? Well then guess what, functional training for Mike would probably include bicep curls!
As you can see, in this new and improved definition of functional training, exercise selection is completely dependent on what someone is trying to accomplish in their life. Sure, if they want to be a circus clown, max effort deadlifts on a bosu ball may be functional. But most of the time people are simply looking to feel healthier and look better naked; so for most people, functional training will look like a mix of very basic strength, cardiorespiratory, and mobility training. To my colleagues in the fitness industry: let’s do everyone a favour and keep functional training simple, the way it’s supposed to be.
As always, if you’d like to know more about, and start taking responsibility for your own health, fitness, and wellness, please reach out to Crux Fitness Richmond for any of your personal training needs.
Patrick Koo – Personal Trainer at Crux Fitness Richmond