What is Functional Training Anyway?
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
I often hear trainers and individuals that want to focus on “functional training”. This type of training began in the rehabilitation world and has spilled over into the fitness community. I believe that many people are using it as a buzz word and they may not truly have an understanding of how to correctly incorporate it into exercise and rehabilitation. People tend to blindly believe that push ups on a bosu ball is functional exercise and bicep curls are not.
If the belief that training for everyday life is functional then I would argue more people bend there elbow joint to pick up heavy groceries than standing on unstable surfaces. This might mean that functional training is a lot less sexy than most people think.
Many people tend to progress in an exercise setting much quicker than they should because of a cool class at the gym or simple boredom. However, sticking with the buzz words, I could also argue these people are trying to perform “functional training” on a “dysfunctional framework”.
If you really want to be a master at functional exercise I would make sure you graduate through these three stages first.
Physiological function. Basically making sure that the underlying processes within your body are optimal (i.e., inflammation from an injury). This might mean good old RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) or something of that nature if you are injured.
Secondly, establishing biomechanical function. This essentially means establishing proper movement between the bones and muscles in the area. This is where things get complicated but we might use manipulation, soft tissue therapy, stretching, and strengthening etc. to help the joint move as optimally as possible.
Lastly, we need to establish neuromuscular function. This means that we are getting proper motor control of the muscle. This is very specific for the patient and usually consists of strengthening weak inactive muscles and trying get others to stop over compensating. A simple example in the scenario of lower cross syndrome is strengthening the abdominals and glutes and getting the lower back muscles and hip flexors to relax (in very simple terms).
Only when these criteria are met can we implement compound movements like deadlifts or kettlebell swings and proprioception training such as single leg stance (the sexy functional training exercises).
Following these principles sometimes “functional training” for my patients consists of movements that many would deem not functional at all. Yes, that means that sometimes doing exercises such as lat pull downs, wrist curls, and bicep curls is a lot more functional for a patient than doing push ups on a bosu ball.