Misunderstandings about Functional Training
Functional Training. Sport Specificity. Strength Training. Resistance Training. CrossFit. Powerlifting. Core Training. P90X. Olympic Lifting. Insanity. Yoga. Pilates.
I could go on. Let’s face it. Nowadays, there’s as many ways to improve your health as there are restaurants to choose from in Louisville. Maybe today you’re feeling the flavor of strength training, the next a rear-in-gear P90X class workout is calling your name. The underlying principals of physical activity to promote wellness can oftentimes get diluted and all people understand is that it works.
I don’t have an axe to grind but today I do want to tackle the animal that has become ‘Functional Training’. This can be a touchy subject, especially for someone who’s sports performance company works hand in hand with physical therapists. I seek only to shed light on what is and what is not functional training when it comes to sport.
A quick internet search. Enter ‘functional training’ in google and the top hit is Wikipedia, hop on over there and our definition is “a classification of exercise which involves training the body for activities performed in daily life”. I think this is a fair delineation of what functional training is, and is not.
Gary Gray, considered the father of functional training, writes that there are a “multitude of core functional activities” which need to “be considered as the essential basic components for all of human global function”. These include:
Ok. So we look over this list and it seems that Wikipedia and Gary Gray agree. Just about anything you do when your brain communicates with your muscles to move your bones can be deemed functional.
To my knowledge, a physical therapist’s job is to identify underlying causations, assess your limitations, and implement manual modalities/therapy, advanced treatment protocols and lastly, functional exercises that have progressions and regressions for a patient at any stage of post-op rehabilitation or pain management. Their goal is to allow you to be able to complete any of the actions Gary listed above pain-free.
When fitness industries, personal trainers, strength coaches start to wave the flag of “functional training” in their advertisements, I start to get irked. If I write a barbell workout that has pushing, pulling, squatting, lifting, etc. every last bit of that workout is functional. My point being: every workout is functional but true functional training addresses underlying biomechanical issues in order to form a more whole human being.
Trainer A gives both Client A (a middle-aged man trying to regain strength after years of inactivity) and Client B (a youth golfer) some cable chops and calls it functional training because it strengthens and stabilizes the core musculature through a multitude of planes. The trainer isn’t wrong, all of that is true.
Here’s the difference: the cable chop may not be used in life often by Client A but it allows him the ability to strengthen muscles in unfamiliar planes so that he can pursue activities like skiing again where he may be challenged in unusual planes and yet, the cable chop is sport specific to golf for Client B. So you can have one exercise that is functional for one client and sport specific for another.
Please. Please don’t try to start attaching the sport specific label to everything. Don’t drag it through the mud like what happened to functional training.
Sport specificity is simply recreating sport movements in the weight room or during resistance training to place an exaggerated load on the athlete. For example, a baseball player may utilize a set of overhead 20lb dynamax ball slams for overhead power production. We overload the system with a large ball that’s over 60x as heavy as a baseball so that we can train his power production with an alternative technique. That’s what being sport specific is about.
Each element plays a role in performance. I have golfers deadlift. Not once during golf does a golfer squat down and pick something up that weights 1.0-2.0x their body weight. It’s not sport specific and truthfully, it’s not really functional either. However, research tells us that stronger glutes means a stronger drive off the tee and every 15-yard increase off the tee, a golfers 18-hole score decreases by 2.
You see, many times, strength is functional. Strength is sport specific. Yet, I can’t build strength if you’re not functional first. This is why I love partnering with physical therapists, they educate me on activities I can work on with a client to reduce knee or hip pain so that I can have an athlete squat effectively, build strength and perform better.
Side note: To some extent, I believe every professional in the fitness industry overreaches their boundaries at times, and we have to, in order to be successful. I love researching nutrition and relaying that information to my athletes, many of whom are in a physique dependent sport (swimming). I have no formal nutritional education (I’m not a RD but I let people know that nutrition was lightly covered in my Master’s degree and I don’t try to take on special issues like obesity, eating disorders or diabetes. We have to know our limitations. When coaches start telling their athletes issues that are best left to MDs or Physical Therapists, the athlete could potentially suffer the consequences.
So this is effectively my own position statement. I know there are a ton of people out there who would argue me and more than likely point me towards research that would suggest I’m wrong. That’s ok. Our philosophy at AllPro is to build a functional foundation, add a strengthening, agility, speed and power layer and top it off with sports specific exercises. We believe this creates the most successful athlete who is physically trained for sport and physically prepared for life after sport.