Functional training is one of those terms that we all hear a lot these days, although if you ask most people what functional training actually is, most people are quite unsure. You could even ask 10 personal trainers and you’d probably get 10 different answers.
Many people could tell you what it might look like as it conjures up images of people jumping around with medicine balls, swinging around kettlebells and performing exercises on a TRX.
The case can be made that functional training is really just training that is intended to assist with a specific purpose or goal.
If your goal is to be a bodybuilder then using certain weight machines can be considered functional.
If you are a gymnast or circus performer then walking on your hands might be considered functional training.
If you compete in tri-athlons then sitting on your bum riding a bike for hours on end is ‘functional’
You could argue that almost anything is functional as long as it relates directly to improving function or performance in whatever endeavour you are trying to improve.
Although I think most people use the term Functional Training to categorize exercise into something like:
‘Exercises or movements that will help people to function better in daily life’.
It entails incorporating movements that resemble tasks that the human body needs to be able to perform on a daily basis in the real world (or at lease used to perform daily).
Movements where you have to use your own sense of balance, co-ordination, & proprioception, to move your body through space (squatting, walking, running), or to manipulate objects in your environment (i.e. picking things ups, carrying things etc.).
It is generally recognised that the human body has 7 fundamental movement patterns, which we all ‘learn’ by going through the various developmental stages as a baby (rolling over, crawling, squatting etc.).
- Gait (walking & running)
Any ‘workout’ you have ever done on your feet, any sport you have ever played, any physical activity you have ever done has incorporated a combination of these movement patterns in some way, shape or form.
When we are born, we start out as basically helpless ‘blobs’ on the floor who can’t move at all. By the time we are toddlers, we have a full spectrum of movement capabilities we are able to utilize to navigate our way through the world.
No one had to ‘teach’ us these things, we taught ourselves (with the help of some innate genetic instructions). As we all move through the developmental patterns as an infant we are developing the strength & motor control required to transition to the next phase of movement, we are basically ‘programming’ the software (our nervous system) of our body’s movement capabilities with the end result being a ‘functional’ human who can perform all the fundamental human movements listed above.
Next time you’re around young children, you can observe how well they move, effortlessly with no tension or stiffness. This is a freshly programmed system, and the desire to run, jump, crawl and climb is further cementing these movement capabilities and strengthening the programming.
Enter modern life…
If you think of baby’s rolling & crawling as programming your software, you can think of modern day life, which involves a lot less moving and a lot more sitting as DE-programming your body’s movement software.
Its really that old story of ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’, and its now commonplace for people as young as teenagers to be UN-able to perform many of these innate movements with proper form, full range of motion & stability.
Their movement software has been de-programmed.
And if you function for long enough with compromised software, then the hardware will usually downgrade, that’s where some longer lasting muscle weaknesses, imbalances or structural issues will start to present themselves. This is where muscle & connective tissue strains, cartilage wear and tear, and bulged discs start to appear, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’
If person A does 200 bad squats every week, and person B does 200 perfect squats every week, guess who’s programming terrible movement patterns and slowly wearing away at their joints and connective tissues?
In 1,2, 5 or 10 years person A will breakdown somewhere and have to rebuild, re-learn and re-program OR completely change the type of training or exercise they’re doing.
It works the same in reverse too, as we see much of the initial gains in strength and capabilities of a beginner trainee comes in the form of neural adaptations. The software is upgrading and improving.
Once the software has improved to a certain point, the hardware upgrades in the form of structural adaptations like increased muscle, improved posture, stronger connective tissues etc.
Which brings us back to functional training…
For a start we should look to be able to tick the boxes on the 7 fundamental human movements first:
- Gait (walking & running)
If you can’t do all of the above movements with full range of motion & good alignment, then that’s a good sign you’re not at a level of function or capability which is ideal, and your body has broken down somewhere in regards to strength, stability, mobility or flexibility.
It also means you have no place jumping in a generic fitness class which often requires a lot more advanced movements, often with an additional weight.
To train like an athlete (the way a lot of fitness classes advertise) will need an even higher base level of strength and functionality.
Most people just assume they can do these things well, but most people are in the category of ‘unconscious incompetence’ and they are unaware of what they don’t know. It is rare that I take the average new client through their initial functional movement assessment and they don’t need to fix up a few things first before they join our group training sessions.
One thing they have in common is they never knew this beforehand, they knew they had a sore hip or knee or back, but thought their squats and lunges were just fine. There is often a light bulb moment when I help them connect the dots.
If you have no idea then get an assessment from someone who knows what they are doing. Something like the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a good example.
So for many people, functional training needs to start by re-claiming their lost function.
To RE-program your body for better quality movement we will often revisit a lot of movements that resemble the developmental patterns that got you there in the first place.
But it might require some more focused correctives or stretches to overcome specific limitations that the body has developed
So in theory it is generally a good idea to include ALL of the fundamental movements in a training session for a total body workout.
But remember Functional training is not really determined by the equipment you use, or even necessarily the exercises or movements you do.
I can give you a TRX or a Kettlebell and you can perform these movements using completely incorrect technique and faulty movement patterns, and whilst it looks like ‘functional training’, it is actually just creating problems for future you, when you’ve compromised the hardware enough to elicit an injury or pain with movement.
So whilst your training should focus on these fundamental movements, just remember:
Training & strengthening squats are functional, but training & strengthening bad squats with bad form are not
Training & strengthening push ups is functional, but training & strengthening bad push ups with bad form are not.
and that applies to everything you do in the gym.
Your training needs to be built on a solid foundation, and functional training should first address the aspects of the foundation that are lacking.
So in summary:
Get assessed for your ability to perform the fundamental human movements with good form, full range of motion & structural integrity. The vast majority of people that we initially assess at the Fit Stop cannot do many of these things with passable form, which is why we avoid loading up these movement patterns with weight or lots of frequency & (bad) repetitions until it is corrected.
Correct any movements that are compromised and address mobility, stability or motor control.
Then perform variations of these movements regularly as part of your training, get technically proficient, get strong at them and build up your performance & work capacity.
Now you have done some functional training.
To book in for a Functional Movement Assessment, or for some personal training or group training sessions, call us on 1800 024 994 or fill out the contact form at the top of the page.
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