What is “Functional” Training? Part 1

The term “functional” training is one that I feel has been bastardized and overused over the past 5 years or so.  Everyone knows what I’m talking about.  You see a guy in a gym doing bicep curls on a Bosu Ball.  Or even the people who try to do squats on a Swiss Ball.  All for the sake of “functionality.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but my body has never once been forced into a situation where it needed to balance on a 65 cm diameter, inflatable rubber ball.  Is it a hard feat to accomplish?  Absolutely.  Is it a little bit ridiculous?  Even more so.

So why is it that we keep seeing people at gyms forcing the issue of “functional” training?  What exactly IS “functional” training for that matter?  I suppose a good definition for the idea may look something like: “Any exercise or workout that challenges the body in regards to strength and balance simultaneously, in hopes of mimicking the activities of daily life.”  Sounds close enough!  But once again, how often do we REALLY take our balancing abilities to such extreme measures?

So maybe we should look at another way to define or describe “functional” training.  Since we aren’t being forced to keep our balance on a Bosu Ball as we make our way to work or type at our desk, how can we truly train in a “functional” way?  What demands are we (or more importantly, AREN’T WE) placing on our body throughout the day that could be addressed in a workout routine?

A quick Google search yields a definition for function: an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing.  I think the key word here is NATURAL.  Squatting on a Swiss Ball?  Not exactly natural.  Squatting to pick something up off of the ground?  Completely natural.  Our paleolithic ancestors were most likely less concerned with circus tricks and more concerned with finding food, shelter, reproduction, etc.  So if the definition of function places an emphasis on our body’s NATURAL purpose, how can we address this issue?  Well, for one, we need to move.  And when I say move, I mean move well.  Really, really well!

Any person who has been around babies and very young children knows what it means (or at least what it looks like) to move well.  Babies are born neurologically immature, but pending disease or disability, they learn to move extraordinarily well.  Just type “Baby Squatting” into your search engine.  Go ahead.  Tell me they don’t have a perfect squat.  Did anyone teach them how to squat?  Absolutely not!!  That “Hardware” of how to move comes naturally to everyone at that age.  So why do we see so many grown men and women with such terrible movement patterns?  I thought “functional” training was the thing now?  Shouldn’t we all be scoring perfect 21’s on the Functional Movement Screen?  But if we can’t move like nature intended, it’s probably not, by definition, a functional training routine that we thought we were doing.

Obviously, we don’t live like our ancestors did.  We drive in cars.  We sit at desks.  We sit in chairs.  So it’s clear that we have a mighty task ahead of us if we haven’t been utilizing the natural range of motion with which we were born.  But there is hope.  We can regain the lost ranges of motion and start to train in a truly “functional” manner.  The way nature intended us to move.

So let’s first take a look at what would allow someone to move really, really well.  Some people might say flexibility is the key.  It makes sense, right?  If I’m flexible and do my yoga, I can move well.  I can sit in a squat, I can move tilt my pelvis in an anterior and posterior fashion, and my shoulders show good internal and external rotation.  Fair enough.  But the question I would then ask would look something like: “Can you control your range of motion?”  Yoga does a great job of helping people to move, but usually the range of motion comes passively, with gravity doing much of the work.  In other words, it’s a “useless range” of motion.  So for the 50-year-old housewife who leads a mostly sedentary life, I would absolutely recommend yoga, or any other form of exercise.  Moving a little and maybe not so well sure beats not moving at all.  But for the athletes I train, their livelihood depends on them being able to control their body at all times.

So if it isn’t flexibility I need, how about mobility?  We’re getting closer.  If flexibility is a passive range of motion, then mobility will be our active range of motion.  It’s our capability of being moved freely and easily.  In fact, the word mobility has a Latin origin from the word “movere” which means TO MOVE!

So let’s go ahead and somehow try to tie in the word “functional” with mobility.  We should be searching for a way to take the mobility we have and have complete control of it.  Our training should mimic this idea.  If mobility means to move, and function is to move the way nature intended, let’s figure out exactly that.  Let’s move the way that nature intended us to move.  Not on Swiss Balls, not doing bicep curls on the Bosu Ball, but let’s get down to primal movement patterns.  Squatting.  Picking things up from the ground.  Carrying things.  Placing things above our head.

The problem is, most of us DON’T move the way nature intended.  Our hips are stuck in external rotation.  Most of us have 0 degrees of hip extension.  Most of us can’t raise our arm overhead to the point where someone could see our ear from the side.  Does this mean your training program is failing you?  Of course not.  People train for different reasons.  But if you seek “functionality,” then maybe we should start moving the way nature intended us to move.  Hang tight and we’ll talk about some exercises and routines that will get us out of our crappy movement patterns and having us moving like babies!  Powerful, giant babies with car payments and mortgages…

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