Alright, I admit it: Sometimes I can be a little bit of a muscle head. Maybe it's the gymnast in me. I can still vividly remember my coach yelling at me, "Come on, you're not done yet! You've still got five more to go!" as I am desperately trying to finish my set of pull ups on the rings. That was usually followed by three sets of toes raises on the horizontal bar and four sets of dips on the parallel bars. All the while he was yelling "We love pain, we love pain!" There were times that I wanted to strangle him. But the payoff was always well worth the pain. I was brought up performing the most traditional exercises that had ever been invented. The results from these exercises spoke for themselves, and for a shy gay boy like me, that was a huge deal. I came to know and love these traditional exercises and the benefits that they brought. That's why I was unsure of how to react when I started seeing things like stability balls, BOSU'S, and balance boards in the gyms. Even more unusual were the weird movements people were doing on the cables. I may have been judging, but I was also curious. This curiosity was one of the things that lead me to become a personal trainer. As I began my research, I learned that this form of training was in fact legit and also had a name: functional training. However, I was still not sure how I felt about it. I needed to know more.
Functional training is described as exercise that is specifically designed to improve performance of functional activities outside of the training environment. These activities include movements from daily life, work, and sports. Examples would include climbing stairs, carrying or lifting loads, or even jumping. While traditional strength training focuses on isolated movements, functional training incorporates multiple muscle groups and emphasizes correct movement patterns. These movement patterns require coordination, balance, and control of muscle groups and, in essence, "trains" them to mimic the movement of functional activity. This form of training follows the "specificity of training" principle, which states that for an individual to become proficient at any given movement, that movement itself must be trained and practiced. For example, the action of picking up a bag of groceries from the floor and placing them on the counter can be mimicked and practiced by performing the same movement on an adjustable cable pulley. The weight of the cable stack replaces the weight of the grocery bag and the movement itself is practiced. This would be a considered a basic movement pattern. But other more advanced movements, especially those aimed at sports performance such as golf swings or free throws can also be trained in a gym.
At this point some of you may be asking "Ok, this is all great, but will it also help me build the body that I want?" The answer is yes it can, or at least it can help. Progressive overload is essential to promote increases in strength and hypertrophy. Overload can be applied during a functional exercise; however, the maximum load lifted will be limited to the ability of the smallest muscle being used during the movement. This means that many of the large muscle groups are not adequately stimulated to promote adaptations in strength and size. This is where traditional lifting comes back into the picture. In my opinion, functional training should never be a sole form of training, at least not for the general fitness enthusiast. Also, due its nature, it is recommended that previously untrained exercisers begin with a period of traditional isolated muscular training before starting functional exercises. This introductory period will not only allow them to develop a base strength, but it will also allow them to become familiar with how to correctly control muscular contractions during resistance training. In addition, muscular imbalances must be eliminated before attempting to make total- body, coordinated movements. Traditional isolated exercises are the best way to overcome imbalances.
It is also important to mention that functional training can be risky because of the difficulty in spotting multi- joint movements, the use of higher speeds, and the incorporation of unstable environments to train balance and coordination (stability balls and balance boards). Careful instruction is mandatory and care should be taken at all times to perform the movements correctly.
One of the great benefits of functional training is the emphasis of core stabilization (challenging the abdominal and back muscles to hold the spine in the appropriate position during movement of the extremities). Since the core is involved in almost every movement made in everyday life, work, and sport, functional training is a great tool to utilize. It places demand on both active and stabilizing muscles of the abdominals and back. This combined with traditional core training will insure that you are covering all of your bases. More than any other muscle group, it is highly important to have a strong and stable core.
So do I think that functional training is a valid form of training? Yes, absolutely. Is it the only form of training that I use? No, definitely not. I would say that functional training comprises about 20% of my overall training as well as my clients'. Others trainers use it more than me and others use it less. Functional training is most valuable to athletes who are training to become proficient in their selective sports. By training the specific movement patterns of their chosen sport, they are sure enhance their performance. For the general fitness enthusiast, it has been known to provide excitement and variety to their routines. The unique and fun quality that functional training provides can be a strong motivating factor to keep people training on an ongoing basis. And as my gymnastics coach used to say to me, "Once you start, you don't stop!"
Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website, www.MichaelElder.com.