13 Mar
What is functional training and how can it benefit you?
What is functional training and how can it benefit you?

Everyone is trying to sell something to you nowadays - you can’t go anywhere without being bombarded with sales pitches and marketing slogans! I never know how sofa companies make a profit, it seems every advert break between my favourite TV show is filled with sofa companies battling it out with the latest ‘double discount, better than half price sale’ that ends this weekend! It’s enough to make you exhausted and want to sit down….clever so-and-so’s.

The fitness industry is no exception. There is always a new training system that claims to have ‘the secret’ or some new revolutionary piece of training equipment that will ‘torch body fat’. It’s easy to see how someone can get lost amongst a sea of misinformation nowadays. I am going to avoid adding to this soup of confusion whilst I explain the principles behind a philosophy of training which has gained notoriety and popularity in recent years. I’m going to be talking about Functional Training.

On the surface functional training is quite a vague term and open for misinterpretation. I myself even found it quite hard to come up with a way of describing functional training in a clear and concise way. I understand the practice, but how do I explain the theory? Like any modern day man struggling with a problem, I trusted in Google! Thanks to those pesky ads, I also discovered I had completely forgotten about Valentine’s Day! A whirlwind trip into Cambridge was required and after 30 minutes spent realising I know nothing about flowers, I took the easy route of choosing chocolates… If you can’t win a woman over with chocolate, all hope is gone! I escaped the dog-house by the skin of my teeth, but I don't just have Google to thank for still being able to sleep in a nice warm bed, I also found some great stuff on functional training.

I discovered, that the birth of functional training came from physical therapists who were helping clients regain full use of their body in everyday life after an injury. The physical therapists developed exercises that mimic tasks performed in everyday life at home and/or at work. The results were very successful and as a result functional training became incorporated into more and more training programs.

So that explains where functional training came from but it doesn’t fully hone in on what we mean by functional training. The clearest interpretation of functional training I could find was ‘training the body for activities performed in everyday life’. Even this doesn’t fully explain what we mean by functional training, so I started to dig deeper. What is the true meaning of functional training?

I came to the conclusion that a functional training exercise has several features that make it unique from other exercises. In essence, Functional Training should challenge stability, mobility and co-ordination. Some good examples that challenge these attributes are the key barbell movements - squats, presses and deadlifts, Olympic lifting and kettlebells (amongst many others). On the surface you may not see a big difference between these lifts and some of the other options available at a modern day gym, until we put all of this into context.

Take a walk into any modern commercial gym or health club and find yourself a resistance machine (it won’t be hard). Now, take a seat. May be you can see where this going wrong already - by sitting down, we have immediately taken away almost all need for stability or balance. Now lean up against the back rest and start exercising. It’s probably quite easy as mobility isn't really taxed, and due to the machine being on a fixed track, stability and co-ordination are not challenged either. As long as the weight is set at a realistic setting, there is pretty much nowhere for you to go wrong.

To some, this may sound appealing. Surely if it’s easy to perform and hard to get wrong, injury is less likely to occur?

Here is something most people don't pay much thought to though - not many injuries happen at the gym. There is certainly the potential for injury if you are performing exercises incorrectly but in my 9 years of training in many different gyms, thankfully I can only recall one serious injury. However, I run out of fingers and toes quite quickly when I add up the amount of times I have heard, “I just bent down to pick up a book and my back went!” Sound familiar?

We might be minimising our risk of injury inside the gym whilst using machines, but we are doing nothing to help our chances of avoiding injury outside of the gym in the real world. By choosing to avoid challenging our stability, mobility and co-ordination under load in the gym we are choosing to avoid training for real life. Being able to lift the whole stack from the comfy pew of the leg press will be of little help to the trainee when he or she has to help a friend with moving out an old sofa and they are contorted and misshapen half way up a staircase, getting infuriated with their friend’s cries of “it went in fine 4 years ago!”….

Just before they tweak their back, they may think, “4 years!? Why does he even need a new sofa?!” Well, perhaps he found out about a deal which was simply too good to miss on TV!… May be all modern day back injuries are all the sofa companies’ fault for creating such damn good deals…or maybe not.

If our sofa-moving trainee had left the comfort of the leg press and been practising a full range of motion barbell deadlifts and squats with a dusting of Olympic lifting and kettlebell lifts for good measure, we can say with almost certainty that he or she would have been far less likely to experience that dreaded back tweak. Those full body barbell movements very closely mimic the way we should be lifting objects in everyday life. Getting the sofa off the floor is pretty much a deadlift and getting the sofa over the banister is very similar to an overhead press. But where is the part of this monumental sofa move when you sit down and push away 100kg through a foot plate that is conveniently on a fixed runner? Well perhaps you might sit down once the job is done, but that is where the similarities end.

Hopefully you are now starting to see that functional training is the best way to prepare yourself inside the gym for whatever life may throw at you outside of the gym.

Doing what is ‘optimal’ is often the message drilled home by the latest fitness fad. Every training method, approach or whatever you want to call it preaches that their method is the “most optimal”. Perhaps you’re already starting to see that functional training certainly has grounds for claiming the ‘optimal’ title, but let’s forget about that for a second. Doing what is optimal is very different from doing what is enjoyable.

Just think about the last time you used a resistance machine in the gym. Was it fun? Did you enjoy it? Probably not. No doubt you just did the work on the machine because that’s what you thought you should do. Now think about loading up a barbell with more weight than ever before and throwing that weighted barbell over your head for a personal record, how do you imagine that would feel? Pretty awesome, right? Making your training enjoyable sets you up for sustainability, and sustainability will give you the best long term results. Not to mention, I know I would much rather go into a gym to throw around some weights and enjoy my session, rather than just plop myself on a machine and go through the motions!

So, you might now be itching to completely revolutionise your training program and include all the weird and wonderful functional exercises and equipment. However, just before you go and completely change your training program, spare a thought for this point. The term functional is very much dependent on the individual, what is functional for one person may not be functional for another. The best way to approach functional training is to look at ways you can make your training more functional. If you usually do the seated shoulder press machine in the gym, try taking the dumbbells or a kettlebell and performing a standing overhead press; or switch out your 20mins on the treadmill for pushing a sled around for 20mins. In these simple small changes we have taken very non-functional movements and made them functional. As you can probably tell, you’re not going to have much use for machines.

My last point on the matter of functional training is the versatility of your gym equipment. Take a leg extension for example. With this one piece of equipment you are restricted to only ever performing leg extensions. Now, pick up a barbell, kettlebell or other functional piece of training equipment and the world of training is completely open for you to do what you want. Flexibility and enjoyment have to be two of the most important factors for the long term success of any training program, so take a look in your gym and find ways to be creative with equipment.

Take some time to think about your training. Look at ways to make your training more functional, start enjoying it and prepare yourself for whatever life has to throw at you - even if it is a sofa travelling at speed down a staircase!