I’ve been involved in the health and fitness industry at various capacities for a bit over a decade – personal training for half of those years. It may be debated that this isn’t a long time and, while this may be true, it has certainly been long enough to witness the change and rejuvenation of the health and fitness industry. Those who get involved in health and fitness with the pure intention of achieving an exaggerated level of physique and aesthetics, i.e. 6-pack or big booty, now represent a small population. Today, the majority of individuals who pursue health and fitness do so with the aspiration of making their day-to-day lives easier.
Enter “functional training”. To see the functional movements in action, click on the images.
Ever since the late 90s, the concept of functional training really started gaining traction and, like any other industry buzz word, was being used with no regard. With the concept of functional training being married to such mechanisms as stability, agility, coordination, balance, and mobility, there was a time when it seemed more applicable to athletes and elite-performers. Even today, the concept is still subject to much interpretation and its application will vary from trainer to trainer.
What is Functional Training?
Perhaps I’m too simple – I don’t understand why there’s such confusion around a topic that seems straight-forward.
The root of the word functional is ‘function’ whose definition is “the purpose for which something is designed or exists”. Ok, now apply that to the human body. What is the purpose for which the human body exist? Is it fair to say that the human body moves and allows us to do things? Doing things (whatever it is that you do) would be hard without a body.
And, the purpose of training is to make something better. Yes?
So, surely it makes sense that functional training is training in a manner that promotes everyday movements and helps you do things (whatever it is that you do) better. Better in this context simply means easier, more efficient, with less effort, and with a lower risk of injury. And to achieve this, the foundation of the exercises included in functional training programs must mimic or replicate movements that we use daily – practice makes perfect! Simple. Right?
In Layman’s Terms Please…The Life of Denise
Besides being a director at a large oil firm, Denise is the mother of two young, active children. She loves preparing meals for her family and being an active participant in her children’s lives – she drives them to all of their activities. On top of all of this, she captains her volleyball team. Denise sounds like an everyday superhero. However, she’s not. We all live some iteration of this life – busy and full of movement.
Let’s go back to Denise: every single day of her life, she performs hundreds, if not thousands, of functional movements – with or without her knowledge.
Let’s walk through a typical day in the life of Denise: which of these movements can you relate to?
- Before leaving for work, she lunges down and picks up her children, presses them high overhead and then in a very controlled manner, puts them down for a huge hug.
- During work, she comes and goes from her desk, running from meeting to meeting. Every time she returns to her desk, she’s conscious not to plop down into her chair. Rather, she squats down into her chair – workplace safety!
- After work, she rapidly prepares dinner to ensure that her kids aren’t late for their activities. She twists to the right to turn on the stove. She twists to the left to fill her pot with water. She reaches straight overhead to grab a stack of plates. She squats down to grab the tomatoes on of the crisper.
- Later that evening, after her kids are tucked away, she races off to her volleyball game. During her game, she spends a large amount of time in a low isometric squat, ready to absorb that giant smash. At other times, she squats low and with power surging through her legs, transfers this power through her core as she launches high into the air, and reaches high overhead for a crushing block.
Denise’s day is full of functional movement and I assure you that she doesn’t go through her day thinking about which movement she’s going to perform next. She just does them. Again, Denise is no superhero. If she is, that means we’re all superheroes. Simply substitute your daily activities with hers and you live a variation of Denise’s life – full of core engaging, full body functional movements.
Whether or not we’re conscious about it, most of our daily movements require the engagement of our entire body – few movements involve muscles operating in isolation. This is why isolation exercises such as bicep curls aren’t considered functional exercises. I won’t overlook their importance – yes, they are great at building strength, size, and endurance. However they train muscles, not functional movements.
At the very core of these full body, functional movements is the core. The core of our bodies and our movements is called the core… coincidence? Therefore, it should go without saying that functional training includes the development of core strength – another concept that is often tossed around the industry. It’s a broad and deep subject on its own but it’s extremely difficult to talk functional training without discussing core strength – a natural Bonnie and Clyde.
What is Core Strength?
Like functional training, there is confusion when it comes to ‘core strength’. The immediate association that most will draw is: core means abs and strength means muscle. Therefore, core strength means 6-pack. This is an understandable misunderstanding and it’s not entirely off-base. Our core certainly includes the rectus abdominis (glamour abs) but also include the internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, erector spinae, hip flexors, and multifidus; in layman’s terms, almost every muscle in our torso (it can be debated that it extends even further). All you need to know is that, when performed correctly, our core is engaged in almost all our movements.
Needless to say, having a strong and healthy core is essential and its importance cannot be overlooked. When your core functions as it was designed, it protects, stabilizes, and regulates the movement of your spine. A strong core also operates to transfer power from your lower to upper body and vice versa. In this manner, your muscles aren’t required to operate in isolation and in fact leverage off one another to make your movements as effective as possible.
Understanding this, it shouldn’t be hard to see that developing core strength not only makes your day to day movements easier but also helps prevent injury. In fact, a very common injury that plagues us is the lower back injury which is typically due to a weak or underdeveloped core and caused by strain, overexertion, or unsafe execution of basic movements such as squatting, lunging, twisting, hinging, pushing, pressing, and pulling. Throughout the course of our lives over three quarters of us will have suffered, to various degrees, lower back pain that prevents us from performing daily movements.
“Useful and Practical for Everyday Life Training”?
If you’ve made it this far, you have probably drawn your own conclusion. Core strength is vital and thousands of sit-ups may not the most effective route there. Full body exercises, whether resisted by bodyweight or by external load, require complete engagement of core muscles as they fight to stabilize and maintain upright, straight, and neutral alignment of the spine. It is this engagement that is the foundation of building your core strength. And, it is this emphasis on full body, core engaging movements that is the foundation of functional training.
Perhaps it’s more intuitive if we call it “useful and practical for everyday life training”? It’s a little long but I’m sure there would be no confusion – I’ll work on it.
Regardless of what we decide, the fact remains that its application should extend far beyond athletes and superheroes – it should be practiced by each and every one of us.