What is Functional Training?

Recently I read an article in a fitness trade magazine regarding Functional Training. The writer called it a “New Trend.” As I read the article, I realized the type of training she was describing has been around since Spartacus. It was just new to the author.

As an industry we need to market to the public for a couple of reasons. First, we need customers or we won’t remain in business. Successful marketing should create interest in our products or services which will hopefully result in a purchase. Secondly, we want to help the public engage in a healthy lifestyle because in the end, all parts affect the whole. If we can help others stay healthy, we ultimately help ourselves.

Marketing is an essential aspect of any business. When a person views advertisements on television for drugs, insurance or financial planning, we would hope they realize the people they’re watching are only portraying roles of a doctor or a banker. It’s an advertisement. You would also hope the public would keep in mind, actors or celebrities are being compensated for their endorsements. However, when a real doctor or pharmacist informs us of a new drug or a Stanford M.B.A. educates us regarding the stock market, we generally give it more clout. Why don’t we see exercise physiologists, strength coaches and athletic trainers as judges on Dancing with the Stars or film critics on Extra? How come it’s always the other way around? It’s because television and marketing have an entertainment value in their message. When I read a trade magazine I would like to be educated or informed first and then entertained second. If there is such as thing as Functional Training, then as an industry we should be clear on the definition. Consumers aren’t always interested in the definition but, between ourselves, as an industry, we should attempt to be more concise. Exercise and nutrition are the “drugs” or recommended “investments” we make to our clients and members.

We know marketing works. Is Functional Training a marketing term or is really a type of training? For example, can we define aerobics? Jogging? Yoga? Mind body exercise? Plyometrics? I think we can. However, it’s very difficult to settle on a definition of Functional Training. Although the article I read in the trade magazine had many good points and some great recommendations, the article never defined it. The article quoted a fitness expert who stated their program “reached beyond the scope of basic exercises.” This quote led me to believe their functional training exercises were superior when it came to function. This seems to contradict itself. For example, a foundation of anything usually consists of the basics. However, anything above the foundation is superior. In mechanics, a foundation or basic design always dictates its function. I mean, you could use a guitar as a hammer, but it won’t last very long. (That was a joke.) Plus, shouldn’t a person learn the basics before they progress to more complicated exercises?

We function every day. We squat, lunge, curl things towards our bodies, curl out of bed, place stuff over our heads, pick things up off the floor and push and pull with both arms, or one at a time. Sounds like squats, lunges, curls, sit ups, over head press, dead lift, row and presses to me. I rarely see people in their normal day with one or two feet wrapped in a cord performing an exercise, standing on a dome-shaped ball lifting a weight, climbing on monkey bars, jumping on a trampoline or swinging ropes. Again, if you practice guitar, you become a proficient as a guitarist, not a drummer or for that matter, a better parent. Of course, your sense of time, intonation and overall musicianship may become enhanced and you may improve as a drummer. Maybe even your hearing will become more acute and as a parent, you’ll listen more. (Another joke!) However, according to the S.A.I.D. Principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands), the adaptations are specific. Hold on….. I’m not for one instant stating these functional exercises won’t enhance function, but, as an industry speaking to each other— should we define only those types of exercise as functional training? Are these exercises functional because they are not in a fixed plane? Walking is in a fixed plane — predominately the saggital plane. Does that mean it’s not functional? Is it because it’s unstable? Most chairs are fairly fixed, especially the first chair you sit in the morning. Does that mean it’s not functional? Is it because they are multi-joint or compound exercises? So are squats, cleans and dead lifts. Are these basic exercises less functional than performing those same movements on a ball, a foam roller or strapped in a swing? Maybe the author should have revised the message to “How to increase function in your training!”
Almost every exercise can be argued to serve some type of function however, it’s up the trainer or exerciser to determine what piece of equipment or “tool” to use to enhance that function. I just read this studyhttp://www.ptjournalonline.org/content/early/2008/02/21/ptj.20070045.abstract entitled Patterns During- Sit-to-Stand Task One Year following Unilateral Total Knee Arthroplasty. The study concluded that the test subjects had weak quadriceps so they relied more on their hips to stand up. In essence, they weren’t functioning properly. As they exercised and rehabbed their knees, the quadriceps got stronger but the altered movement patterns remained.

Here was their conclusion:
The increased hip extensor moment demonstrated that subjects adopted a strategy to avoid the use of the quadriceps femoris muscle, yet this strategy persisted as the quadriceps femoris muscle strength improved. This pattern may be a learned movement pattern that may not resolve without retraining.

The same thing can happen increasing their strength or fitness in the gym. A person gets stronger, but unless specific retraining of the altered movement pattern is introduced, strengthening alone won’t solve poor mechanics. Poor mechanics result in poor function which eventually leads to dysfunction. In essence, you have a stronger person functioning incorrectly. This is an important concept to always remember when exercising or performing any movements in general.

Many of the exercises or modalities called “functional training” are cool and a lot of fun. For most people, it’s a new way to train and may cause members to stop and watch. Equipment manufacturers who sell these functional training tools or equipment use the term functional and have science to back it up. The industry changes so fast that they responsibly recommend we attend yearly seminars and workshops. Marketers and the press can also increase the demand for these new tools and programming. Some trainers and coaches in their excitement, are quick to use these tools. They may however, lack the knowledge of biomechanics or progression to incorporate these tools, or, in many cases, may have too many participants to properly supervise them. I myself have witnessed clients, who in an effort to keep up, compensate with an altered pattern to complete the exercise, or use the new tool. The client is now reinforcing a poor altered pattern or actually, creating another compensatory pattern and may not even know it. Good trainers can spot this. In order to correct these patterns, a trainer must often use slow and controlled, isolated movement to reprogram their movement patterns. In fact, a leg curl, knee extension and a lateral raise are all single joint motions that are basic exercises and supposedly non-functional, however they are staple exercises commonly used to rehabilitate knees and shoulders to help people function properly in their daily activities.

I found a few definitions of the word functional:

• Functional – Of or pertaining to a function or functions.
• Capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.
• Constructed or made according to the principles of functionalism or primarily as a direct fulfillment of a material need.
• Designed for or adapted to a particular function or use.
What is Functional Training?

• Something you do in work, daily life or sport.
• Exercise that mimics work or daily life.
• Integrated movements are functional.
• If knee flexion is 90° or shoulder flexion is 120° you are “functional.” Orthopedic surgeons.
• Sport Specific Training versus Functional Exercise.

As an industry, we need, and will keep evolving. Ironically, that can mean reviving older tools or techniques, in a fresh new way. Using “Functional Training” as a marketing term is effective for attracting new members and clients. Even vaguely defined, the concept of functional training is worthy of health and fitness professionals to incorporate it as a programming term. However, rather than a marketing term, I would like to think of it as —-an excellent concept. Kind of like……..having fun or being happy! When we’re functioning we’re happy!

I’m my opinion the fitness industry has never been better, or more informed. Exercise in general has the ability to increase function. Metaphorically speaking, all of our drugs and financial advice work to some degree or another.

Professionally, or as a trade, we should recognize that Functional Training is another tool in the toolbox and if we’re going to use it, we should know what the definition is and what we should be looking for. Especially, with the modern day’s level of fitness and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that technology is leading us towards. As an industry, we can help improve them and ourselves; we must be careful though…. We don’t want to market without substance. We are a service industry first and a sales industry second. When it comes to discussing exercise programming as a profession, I hope we’re trainers that can sell, not salespeople who can train. We have to do both well; let’s just watch the grey area so it doesn’t get too blurry.

Most people need to begin exercising with the basics and progress properly from there. As one of the quotes from the article stated, “Education is key!” Otherwise, let’s call it what it is and instead, the title of the article would have been “How to Increase Sales with Functional Training!”

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