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The “Functional Training” Trend

By: Eric McGinnis, CSCSSports Performance Specialist, Rollins College Strength CoachSpectrum Sports PerformanceThe term “Functional Training” gets tossed around so often and so loosely that, at this point, I’m not even sure what it means. It’s the hottest buzzword for commercial gym goers, athletes, and their parents alike. So what is it? My goal in this blog is to evaluate the idea of functional training and what it means for both sports performance and general fitness. To start, let’s take a look at the definition of the word functional. Dictionary.com gives us the following definitions:

1. of or pertaining to a function or functions: functional difficulties in the administration.
2. capable of operating or functioning: When will the ventilating system be functional again?
3. having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed: functional architecture; a chair that is functional as well as decorative.

Take a look at the third definition where it says, “capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.” If I were paying for training, I’d definitely want the program to accomplish the goal it was designed for. Shouldn’t this be common sense? In an ideal world, wouldn’t everyone be performing “functional” training? I wouldn’t want to pay money and waste time training if the program doesn’t help me accomplish its intended purpose. Yet people will continue to ask me, “Do you like to do functional training for your athletes?” I should reply, “No I prefer to waste their time and money by making them do things that won’t make them better on the athletic field,” but it’s not their fault for being confused by the fitness industry so I maintain my patience.

To delve further into the subject and investigate exactly what functional training is supposed to mean, I did some online research. It didn’t take long to discover these three things about functional training.

1. The training program should be specific to what you are training for.
2. Natural movements and exercises are preferred over machines’ aid because they are believed to have a more direct carryover to sport and life.
3. There is no standard definition for functional training.

These are problematic ideas. First, why would we ever NOT train specifically for the task intended? This concept seems too obvious to have maintained functional training’s popularity. Second, the idea of moving and lifting free weights being superior to using machines for most purposes is 100% correct. Good coaches have known this fact since resistance-training machines were first invented. Olympic weightlifters are at the top of the most explosive athlete chain and the sport is over a century old. We use our intelligence to build fancy machines and yet we keep coming back to some of the same things that have always worked.

When I worked as a personal trainer at a commercial gym, functional training was one of the most popular phrases for other trainers to throw at clients. Apparently, functional training consisted of standing on an upside down bosu ball on one foot while touching your finger to your nose with one hand and drawing your ABC’s backward with the other. That exercise might only be functional for a sobriety test. If a sobriety test is what you’re training for then by all means continue your balancing act. Barbell squatting, however, was not considered functional for a general fitness person. Maybe this sounds familiar to you. Let’s think about this. On the athletic field and in real life, it is the person that moves, not the surface (unless of course you find yourself in a very unlikely situation). So, is training on a bosu ball really that much more functional than training correct movements and balance on the ground? Now, take a look at the barbell squat. When properly training the squat not only will muscles grow, but other important tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and even skeletal structure will strengthen. Appropriate loading of the spine will build up bone density in the vertebrae that can lead to a healthier back and posture. These qualities are functional for athletes who want to reduce risk of injury and gain strength and power, as well as for the general population who wants to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and move better. Clearly those trainers had a skewed perception of what functional is.

I’m not trying to knock on Bosu by any means. I just want everyone to think a little bit more critically about training. Now that we are armed with an understanding of what functional training should really mean, how does it affect you as someone seeking training? My first advice is to not let some trainer sell you on the fact that they do “functional training.” Don’t be fooled by fancy fitness terms; ask them to explain their philosophy in detail. If you don’t understand their explanation either have them lay it out in simpler terms or move on. If a coach knows what he or she is doing, they should be able to back it up. If, for example, a parent asked me why I don’t have their child stand on a bosu ball for balance, I might explain to them how their child has a poor ability to decelerate into an athletic base on the field, so we need to work on their ability to move and stabilize in an athletic base in order to most effectively solve the problem.

Don’t allow a fitness car salesman to trick you with fancy buzzwords. In fact, my advice is to scrap the phrase functional training from your memory completely so we can bring back fitness programs that make sense and get results.

Edited by: Courtney VandeStreek

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