Craig Valency, CSCS
Part 2: What is Functional Training? – Don’t Join the Circus!
The True Definition of Functional Training
Michael Boyle, world renowned strength coach and author of Functional Training for Sports, defined functional training as, “. . . a continuum of exercises that teach athletes to handle their bodyweight in all planes of movement. The coach uses bodyweight as resistance and attempts to employ positions that make sense to the participant.” In his follow-up book, Advances in Functional Training, he goes on to say that, “. . . function is essentially purpose. Functional training can, therefore, be described as purposeful training.”
I agree with Boyle, but I have decided to define the purpose. Functional training has only one true meaning: If you match the demands of what it takes to be a healthy, fully functioning human with your workout program, it is functional. Humans move in multiple planes of motion in a connected, smooth chain reaction of neural innervations and muscular reactions. Does the exercise or routine contribute to allowing the body to move optimally; to move in patterns and full ranges of motion that preclude compensations from other muscles? Can the body support optimal ranges of motion with proper stability? If the answer to these questions is yes, the workout is functional.
Some trainers like to say that functional training is relative. So, for instance, even though a muscle-oriented bodybuilding workout does not translate as well to real life movements, it is a functional workout if your function is to be a bodybuilder! While I get their point, that’s just not true. Don’t confuse sports or task-specific workouts with functional workouts.
A Circus Act?
Unfortunately, the functional training trend evolved to look more like a circus act than training. Whenever there is a new movement or trend, the pendulum inevitably swings too far in either direction until it eventually settles in the middle. With the pendulum rocketed up high to one side, the backlash began. People were standing on stability balls (and falling off of them) and attempting to do squats; they were kneeling on stability balls and doing dumbbell overhead presses; or they were standing on a Bosu on one leg and pulling a cable with one arm. I could go on, but I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it.
Belts, Straps, Wraps . . . What’s a Girl to Do?
An important hallmark of a functional exercise is that you are not lifting or carrying more than your core, grip or joints can handle.
The purpose of a belt is to increase intra-abdominal pressure, thereby aiding the back muscles to stiffen up and create good extension under heavy load. Using an external belt negates the action of our “internal belt,” the deep abdominal and thoracic muscles that we develop when lifting heavy loads unaided. Long term use of a belt will make you dependent on it and more prone to injury when lifting without it.
When lifting straps are used on the wrist and wrapped around the bar, the goal is to be able to lift more weight than your grip can handle. This allows you to focus on lifting the most weight possible. The focus is on developing maximal strength or building extreme muscle size. The same principal is at work when we use free weights in certain ways, like when we do a bent over row with the torso or head supported on a bench, or when weight training machines that stabilize the back are used. This is fine in the context of the sport of power lifting or body building, but from a functional standpoint, this creates a body that is doing what it was not meant to do.
The extremities eventually get stronger than the core can handle, and the natural balance is lost. A tree trunk is always thicker and stronger than the branches for a reason!
Jim Wendler, author of, 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength, surprised me with his thoughts on wrist straps. He used them when he was younger, but he had come to the realization that he was better off without them. Even though his book was about achieving massive, crazy strength, he saw the importance of the grip. He mentions, “Grip strength is essential in all sports, and in life.” He says not to worry about the limiting factor of grip weakness when starting out, because grip strength will quickly catch up to the strength of the large muscles of your lower and upper body.
Wendler stresses how important it is to train with as few “crutches” as possible in order to gain complete full body strength. Before Jim Wendler wrote this influential guide to gaining raw strength, he had an epiphany that motivated the creation of this new system. He felt lousy, and his workouts were only making things worse. In the introduction to his book, he says, “I was fat and out of shape. And even though I’d recently squatted 1,000 pounds, I really wasn’t strong. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t use this strength for anything other than waddling up to a monolift and squatting.”
Many non-functional workout routines create people who are “gym strong,” yet completely useless outside of the gym, without any real, usable strength.
In Part 3, I will take a look at the “sport of being human.” What is the best way to train to be a fully functioning human? We’ll explore our evolutionary past to see how humans were designed to move, and how we moved before the advent of video games. Next, we’ll look at the way a baby moves and develops, which can help unlock the secrets of pain-free adult movement and training. And finally, you’ll learn my two favorite exercises in the world. Don’t miss part 3. You need to know this!
To read the complete series start here for part 1: From Muscles to Movements