How Functional is Functional Training?
By: Craig Valency, CSCS
In this 3 part series on Functional Training, I will explore the various incarnations of this popular training philosophy. Be prepared for a bumpy ride, as I will challenge some long held beliefs about fitness and training. I’ll also showcase my personal journey from traditional to functional training, and how it saved my back. In this series I’ll go into the finer points of the various aspects of functional fitness, and end the series where you will meet one of my clients, and experience the ultimate functional workout.
Part 1: What is Functional Training: My Journey From Muscles to Movements
“Functional Training” could possibly be the most overused two words in the personal training industry today. The reason those words are overused, however, is because they are a perfect description of a paradigm shift that has led us away from the isolated, muscle-oriented bodybuilding approach, to a movement-oriented, full body training approach.
I love functional training!
Today it’s in vogue for trainers to be haters, to be above it all, and to proclaim how absurd and meaningless the term “functional training” is. Every popular movement or trend gets a backlash as a result of the bastardization and commercialization that inevitably follows its initial popularity.
Muscle Orientated Workouts (You Wore What?!)
When I first started working out, bodybuilding was the rage, and Arnold and Lou Ferrigno were among the men we all looked up to. I worked out with my man crew, decked out in our parachute pants and tank tops in a small private gym in L.A. that was owned by Ken Waller, former Mr. Olympia of Pumping Iron fame. The workouts we did lasted up to 2 – 3 hours per day, 4 – 6 days per week. Always in search of the iconic 6-pack, we also worked our abs daily with hundreds of sits-ups. We worked each and every body part to death. Our typical body split routine was chest, shoulders, and triceps on day one; back and biceps on day two; and legs on day three. Most of the time we pretty much lived on Bench Press Road, the revered shrine of all young men looking to get big.
Today, rather than muscle/ body part oriented workouts, I teach movement-oriented programs with a focus on function and how it translates to real world activities like sports and occupations . . . or, just being a happy, mobile, stable, and strong human. This paradigm shift in my own workout is what helped me go from being a guy with muscles and a bad back to having a leaner, more athletic build and no back pain.
Ten years ago, my chiropractor introduced me to functional training, based on the teachings of Paul Check; and that’s when my back “miraculously” healed. I finally started doing more compound, whole body movements, single leg and arm exercises and I found my inner stabilizing core muscles. I was sold. When I got into functional training, I was re-invigorated by a whole new world of exercise. It was what motivated me to be a trainer again after a 20-year hiatus.
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 body weight in all planes of movement. The coach uses body weight 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 decided to define the purpose. Functional training has only one true meaning: match the demands of what it takes to be a healthy, fully functioning human with your workout program and 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?
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! Not true. Don’t confuse sports or task specific workouts with functional workouts.
Don’t Join the Circus!
Unfortunately, the functional training trend was starting to look more like a circus act than training. The problem is that the pendulum inevitably swings too far in a new movement or trend 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, kneeling on stability balls and doing dumbbell overhead presses, or 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 or joints can handle. When lifting straps are used around the wrists the goal is to be able to lift more weight than your grip can handle so you can focus on developing maximal lower body strength. This is fine in the context of building maximal strength and power, but from a functional standpoint this creates a body that is doing what it was not meant to do. The same principal is at work when using a lifting belt to secure the back, or when we do a bent over row with the torso or head supported on a bench. 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 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, raw, crazy strength he saw the importance of the grip. He mentions that, “grip strength is essential in all sports, and in life,” and says not too 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 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. He says, in the introduction to his book, that, “I was fat and out of shape. And even though I’d recently squatted 1000 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.” The epitome of a non-functional workout is being “gym strong” and yet be completely useless outside of the gym; not having usable strength.
The Sport of Being Human: An Evolutionary Perspective
The “sport” of being human requires activities such as getting out of bed, sitting on a toilet, rotating, procreating (yes, I said it), walking, and occasional explosive movements like sprinting, jumping or reacting to avoid danger. Much in the same way that our evolutionary past should inform the way that we look at the optimal way to eat, we need to also look at our common past to see how we were meant to move.
Our ancestors didn’t have chairs that kept their hips, knees and ankles in a perpetual state of 90 degrees of flexion. They also didn’t have a 12-hour a day job requiring them to sit in these chairs. No cars, no markets, no “Mad Men” marathons to watch. They didn’t need to do a series of hip and ankle mobilization exercises before going on the hunt. When they ate or “sat” around, they sat on their haunches in a deep squat, feet flat on the floor and butt to the ground. They were mobile. They stood up, creeped and crawled, walked, sprinted, climbed rocks and trees, lifted heavy things and threw objects. They got plenty of rest too.
Mark Sisson’s Book, The Primal Blueprint, does an incredible job of weaving a tale of fitness gone mad. He creatively contrasts the way early man, “Grok,” was designed to move, with the way that modern man (and woman!) has taken it too far. Mark was a nationally competitive endurance athlete himself, and he goes on to highlight the dangers of the typical “Chronic cardio” scenarios so many of us fall into. Stress hormones and inflammation begin to make, what should be, a positive stress and adaptation into a negative stress with ominous consequences.
Move it Like a Baby: A Developmental Perspective
It’s also helpful to examine how we developed from infancy to adulthood. Look at how a baby or child is able to drop into a deep squat, touch their toes, crawl, roll, and get up, all while holding up that enormous head. We literally adapt our way out of this optimal degree of mobility, and perfect stability that every one of us once had. Gray Cook’s success as a physical therapist and developer of the Functional Movement Screen is, in large part, due to his intelligent observations of this developmental process. He brings patients back to their primal, reflexive movement patterns to help re-set the joints, muscles and nervous system and achieve optimal symmetry.
Reflexive Core Activation
For the body to function well it is imperative that it is subconsciously or reflexively firing the right muscles in the right order. The inner unit, or stabilizing muscles, such as the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis and diaphragm, for example, need to fire before larger prime movers take over. Traditional training often bypasses the inner unit by externally stabilizing these muscles so there is less limitation on how much weight can be lifted, so maximum size and strength can be achieved. For example, on a leg press machine, lying supine with my back and hips fully supported I was able to press 400 – 500 pounds with my legs. If I tried to load a bar onto my shoulders with that much weight for a squat my discs would explode.
My Two Favorite Exercises in the World!
Bear crawls and farmer walks (walking with a heavy weight in each hand) will also act to reflexively create forces that will result in improved core stability and shoulder joint integrity. The bonus of this more functional approach is that the body recognizes these reciprocal movement patterns neurologically and the whole body benefits. Besides shoulder joint integrity and core stability, you are also gaining upper and lower body strength and mobility as well.
In part 2 I look at flexibility through a functional lens. You’ve heard of functional strength training, but is there such a thing as functional flexibility training? The answer is: YES! I will also take a new look at biomechanics, or the study of human movement, which is the basis for how trainers design workouts and how therapists treat our injuries. Unfortunately, what we’ve been taught has been wrong. I will give one example that will open your mind to a whole new way to look at the way our body moves.
Craig Valency, CSCS, is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). He earned a bachelors degree from UCLA and has completed coursework in Kinesiology & Exercise Physiology at UCLA, UCSD & Miramar College. Presently he is pursuing his Masters degree in Kinesiology at San Diego State University.
Craig specializes in developing holistic training programs promoting lifestyle change for long-term results in weight loss, athletic performance, & whole body functional strength & power. He also specializes in designing and implementing youth training programs, and has trained some of the top ranked junior tennis players in the world.
For more information and related articles, you can visit Training For Life at CraigValency.com.