WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL TRAINING?
Over the past 10 years, there has been a shift toward making training more functional. The revolution began, as it often does, with physical therapists, and functional training was slowly adopted by coaches and personal trainers. One of the many signs that functional training would be the wave of the future was when the large manufacturers of strength-training machines began to introduce what they called “ground-based” machines and also to manufacture basic squat racks and weight benches. At this point the handwriting was on the wall. The public had spoken with their wallets, and the popularity of machines, particularly in the athletic training area, was on the decline.
However, over the past few years, a controversy has begun to develop around functional training. A kind of functional paradox has arisen. The gurus of functional training seem to deliver a clear message: Functional training should be done standing and should be multijoint. Surprisingly, however, some coaches who have embraced functional training espouse concepts that, in the initial analysis, appear nonfunctional. This use of apparently nonfunctional exercises by supposed proponents of functional training caused some confusion in the field. The reasoning behind this apparent contradiction is actually simple. Function varies from joint to joint. Exercises that promote the function of joints that require stabilization are different from exercises that promote the function of joints that strive for mobility. The primary function of certain muscles and muscle groups is stabilization. Functional training for those muscles involves training them to be better stabilizers, often by performing simple exercises through small ranges of motion. In many cases, in the effort to make everything functional, coaches and athletes ended up neglecting the important stabilizing functions of certain muscle groups.
THE THREE KEY GROUPS IN NEED OF STABILITY TRAINING ARE:
- the deep abdominals (transversus abdominis and internal oblique),
- the hip abductors and rotators, and
- the scapula stabilizers.
Many coaches began to label exercises for these areas as rehabilitative or “prehabilitative,” but in fact, these exercises are just another form of functional training. Function at the ankle, knee, and hip is maximized when the hip displays great stability. For some athletes the development of stability at the hip may initially require isolated hip abduction work to properly “turn on,” or activate, the muscle. Performance expert Mark Verstegen of Athletes’ Performance Institute in Tempe, Arizona, refers to this concept as “isolation for innervation.” At certain times, certain muscle groups–notably the deep abdominals, hip abductors, and scapula stabilizers–need to be isolated to improve their function. For this reason, some single-joint, apparently nonfunctional exercises may in fact improve function of the entire lower extremity. This is one of the paradoxes of functional training.
Function at the shoulder joint is enhanced by improving the function of the scapula stabilizers. Although many athletes perform exercises for the rotator cuff, few exercise the scapula stabilizers. But a strong rotator cuff without strong scapula stabilizers is like trying to shoot a cannon from a canoe. At our training facility, we have found that most athletes have adequate rotator cuff strength but insufficient strength or control of the scapula stabilizers. As a result, we frequently employ exercises to work on the scapula stabilizers that might appear nonfunctional, but the development of these areas is critical to long-term health of the shoulder joint.
Physical therapists are again leading the way in the area of developing the stabilizers of the lower back. Improving abdominal strength to aid in the stabilization of the lower back is far from a new concept, but the specific methods are changing rapidly. Researchers in Australia have clearly established that two deep spinal stabilizing muscles, the transversus abdominis and multifidus, experience rapid atrophy after an episode of low-back pain. Without retraining these muscles, the recurrence of back pain is almost guaranteed. To improve the function of the lumbar spine, a certain degree of isolation is necessary, and this isolation involves simple, short-range contractions of the deep abdominal muscles.
The key to developing a truly functional training program is not to go too far in any particular direction. The majority of exercises should be done standing and should be multijoint, but at the same time, attention should be paid to development of the key stabilizer groups in the hips, torso, and posterior shoulder.
A second functional paradox revolves around multiplanar activity done in a sport-specific position. Advocates of this style of functional training espouse the use of loaded exercises (for example, dumbbell, weight vest) with a flexed posture and foot positions that some strength and conditioning coaches would consider less than desirable. Although athletes find themselves in compromised positions in competitive situations, coaches need to evaluate how far they are willing to go in loading athletes in positions of spinal flexion. As an example, although a baseball player often squats down to field a ground ball with a flexed spine, weighted squatting movements with the spine in a flexed position may not be wise. At what point do you cross the line from safe training into unsafe training? Our position on this is simple. The argument that “this happens in sports all the time” is not sufficient to take risks in the weight room. If we are training for strength (six reps or less), we never compromise back safety to make the body position of the exercise more specific. If we are training for endurance (10 reps or more), we may at times employ exercises in flexed postures while loaded with a weight vest or dumbbell. Physical therapist Mike Clark of the National Academy of Sports Medicine has proposed a guideline of not more than 10 percent of body weight for exercises done with a flexed spine or for forward-reaching actions. This is an excellent guide for most athletes but may be too heavy for larger athletes.
As you begin to explore the concept of functional training for sport, keep an open mind about how and why athletes move in your sport. Think of your training as a vehicle to improve performance, not just to improve strength. Many athletes have neglected strength training because they do not fully understand the performance-enhancing value of strength in sports such as baseball, tennis, or soccer. The key from the athlete’s standpoint is for the training to make sense. The key from the coach’s standpoint is to make the training make sense to the athlete. A training program built around actions that do not occur in sport simply does not make sense. The key is to design a training program that truly prepares athletes for their sports. This can be done only by using exercises that train the muscles the same way they are used in sport, in other words, functional training.
BENEFITS OF FUNCTIONAL TRAINING
Functional training has become the new buzzword in gyms – but it’s by no means just another ‘fad’ of fitness. Using workouts that shift the focus in fitness to a much more practical full body workout, functional training works by exercising your muscles in a similar way to how your body would be used in everyday life. It’s the type of training that prepares your body for various forms of daily activity and thus, maintains body strength and endurance that can be applied across all areas.
With an emphasis on strength, respiratory and flexibility the benefits of functional training differ from other workouts because of the way it targets your body. By incorporating the best of each field of fitness and taking into consideration the physical laws applied to daily body movements, functional training is aimed at boosting your health and general wellbeing. Want to try it for yourself? Here’s what functional fitness is all about and the benefits you’ll get.
1. Increases the Ease of Everyday Life
By improving the overall function of your body, boosting muscle strength and endurance, and developing muscle and body stability everyday activities can be completed with more ease. Compared to conventional training, the benefits of functional fitness tend to out-weigh everything else because it’s actually targeting the movements we are doing every day.
This specific approach to fitness helps your quality of life to be increased in a way that’s practical, effective and easy. “I’d recommend functional training to anyone because its easy, low impact, helps with joint pain and increases the ease of everyday life”, says Gavin. “Who wouldn’t want that?”
2. Greater Muscle Memory
According to Fitness Coach Gavin Smith, some of the best benefits of functional fitness include the greater muscle memory. “The more your body performs a particular movement or exercise, the faster and more responsive your body can repeat the movements in the future”, explains Gavin. “This can be especially good for sports specific exercises”.
By performing regular functional fitness exercises, you’re not just building muscle and core strength but actually exercising the brain too – effectively boosting your brain’s memory.
3. Low Impact
Because functional training implements exercises that are low impact, it’s a great starting point for anyone at any fitness level to try. For newbies starting out with a different workout or fitness style, it can be really hard knowing what is going to work best for your needs, but functional training will help to improve all your physical abilities without causing stress to your body and joints.
“It can be daunting at the start, not knowing what exercises to perform or what tools to use”, says Gavin. “With a small amount of research these days though, it’s easy to find a list of exercises to suit the individual. Practicing movements and technique is far more important that adding weight to start off with also”. Here are a few low impact functional training exercises you can start off with.
4. Increases Flexibility and Coordination
Despite the common misconceptions circulating that functional training only leads to bulking and can make you lose your flexibility, it’s actually quite the opposite. “As the range in motion of functional exercises are quite large, meaning you need to start and finish in position where your muscles are stretched, bulking is very hard to do”, says Gavin. Whilst functional training does indeed work the muscles, intrusive and unflattering bulk of your current physique isn’t part of its process. “In terms of flexibility, functional training would actually help to increase it significantly”, explains Gavin.
One of the primary goals of functional training is to offer resistance. Implementing its exercises and programs works in boosting your body’s functional strength by increasing overall flexibility and coordination. As your range of motion is enhanced, you’ll find day-to-day activities become easier.
5. Improves Balance and Posture
The exercises implemented through functional training use multiple muscles to enhance your strength and balance, effectively improving your overall posture. “Most functional training exercises are not stabilised and require you to recruit other small muscle groups to help support the larger ones, which will help prevent over training one muscle group and giving incorrect posture”, explains Gavin. “Being able to target specific muscles on a cable machine can also help prevent those imbalances in posture and prevent pain in some of the most common areas like the hips, lower back and shoulders”.
With the use of strength and weight training in functional fitness, weight management can be easily maintained reducing the stress on your body and boosting mobility, balance and posture. Great posture is foundational to all things, so using functional training routines will help in boosting the state of balance in your body enabling you to reach your full potential in activities throughout the day.
6. Helps with Joint Pain
For those that suffer from regular back, muscle and joint pain functional training can be a super beneficial. Best known for bridging the gap between personal training and physical therapy, functional fitness is designed to restore your body back to the way it’s designed to move. Because of this, chronic back, knee, neck and joint pain can all be significantly reduced by getting your body back to basics.
It’s an ideal workout for everyday people wanting to move as comfortable as possible. Whether they stay away from exercise because of arthritis or chronic back and knee pain, the exercises used in functional training can make daily tasks that were once hard, much more possible. For example: A person suffering from chronic back pain may find bending over to pick something up very difficult, but with functional training the body will soon adapt to this daily task making it easier for them to do.
7. Reduces Your Risk of Injury
The same way as functional fitness works in improving chronic back pain, muscular pain and joint pain, it’s able to reduce the risk of injury too. Everyday movements can leave runners and sport enthusiasts withering in pain on a bad day, and this is why the exercises behind functional training are so important.
By mimicking everyday life movement patterns, your body is more likely able to cope with daily stresses. Functional training stands out from conventional training because of its way to reduce the risk of injury and stress to your body. When training in a functional manner, muscles aren’t just strengthened but the surrounding ligaments too, which is the area that can often become injured.
FUNCTIONAL EXERCISES FOR FULL-BODY FITNESS
The focus in fitness these days is functional exercises — exercises that simultaneously use multiple muscles and joints to improve muscular endurance, overall strength, coordination, balance, posture and agility — to get a challenging, effective and fun full-body workout as well as prepare the body for everyday, real-world activities. You’ll get a dynamite — and functional — workout with these 10 full-body exercises.
- 1. Medicine Ball Squat With Overhead Lift
Functionality: Even though you lift your kids and groceries with your arms, your legs and back are also key players. This exercise strengthens your legs, glutes, lower back, arms and shoulders.
Exercise: Stand with your feet wide, holding a light medicine ball in front of you in both hands. Squat down, moving your rear back and keeping your knees over your ankles, and lower the medicine ball to the floor, keeping your head up and back straight (don’t hunch). Return to a start position and lift the medicine ball over your head. Repeat the squat and lower ball to the ground. Perform three sets of 10 repetitions. Increase the weight of the ball as you get stronger.
- 2. Stair Climb With Bicep Curl
Functionality: Whether you have stairs at your house or have to climb them elsewhere, using stairs as part of your fitness program will keep your legs conditioned and toned. Partnering stair climbs with bicep curls will strengthen your arms and improve your ability to carry things up the stairs. This exercise will also boost your cardiovascular fitness.
Exercise: Stand at the bottom of a flight of stairs holding a 5- to 8-pound dumbbell in each hand. Climb the stairs while performing bicep curls. Walk or run down the stairs holding the weights but don’t do curls. Repeat five to 10 times. Increase the dumbbell weight as your arms get stronger and mix up your climbs by taking two steps at a time for a flight or two.
1 .3. Hip Extension With Reverse Fly
Functionality: This exercise improves your balance and coordination as well as strengthens your upper, mid and lower back, shoulders, glutes and legs.
Exercise: Stand tall, holding a 5-pound dumbbell in each hand. Extend your right leg back and place your toe on the floor, keeping your right leg straight. Lean forward slightly at the hips. Lift your right leg behind you as you bring your chest toward the floor and lift your arms straight out, forming a T at your shoulders, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your head in line with your neck. Return to start position. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. As you get stronger, increase dumbbell weight and strap 2- to 5-pound weights on your ankles.
- 4. Diagonal Reach With Medicine Ball
Functionality: When you reach for your boots on the top shelf of your closet, pay attention to how your body moves — one arm reaches up while the opposite leg slightly lifts to the side. This exercise works all the muscles — arms, shoulders, legs — involved in lifting something diagonally overhead as well as lowering it.
Exercise: Stand tall, holding a medicine ball at your chest with both hands. Lift the medicine ball diagonally overhead to the right, straightening your arms, while extending your left leg to the side, making a diagonal line from the medicine ball to your toes. Lower to start position. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. Increase the weight of the medicine ball and strap 2- to 5-pound weights on your ankles as you get stronger.
- 5. Lunge With Back Row
Functionality: This exercise will improve your posture by strengthening the muscles in your upper and mid back, shoulders, and arms while also toning and strengthening your legs and improving your hip flexibility.
Exercise: Holding an 8-pound weight in each hand, step your right foot forward and your left foot back, keeping both heels on the floor and feet pointing straight ahead. Bend your right knee until it is over your right ankle. Lower your chest toward your thigh, bringing your arms perpendicular to the floor, keeping your back flat (don’t hunch) — this is your start position. Straighten your right leg, row your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your torso angled slightly forward. Return to start position. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. Increase the weight of the dumbbells as you get stronger. This exercise can also be done with a resistance band looped underneath the front foot.
- 6. Knee Lift With Lateral Raise
Functionality: This exercise improves your core strength and balance as well as strengthens and tones your shoulders.
Exercise: Stand tall with a 5-pound weight in each hand, arms to your sides. Lift your right knee until it reaches hip level while lifting your arms straight out to the side to form a T at your shoulders. Hold for two seconds, making sure your belly button is pulled back toward your spine, then lower to start position. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. Increase the weight of the dumbbells as you get stronger.
- 7. Push-Up With Hip Extension
Functionality: This exercise strengthens your chest, shoulder and arm muscles (primarily triceps) as well as your core muscles and glutes.
Exercise: On your hands and knees, place your hands wider than shoulder-distance apart. Extend your right leg straight back and pull your belly button up towards your spine, tightening your core muscles. Keeping your leg lifted, lower your chest to the ground until each of your elbows is at a 90-degree angle, then push up. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. As you get stronger, increase the angle of your hips, increasing the distance of your knees from your hands. Eventually perform the exercise with straight
legs: one leg lifted, the other positioned on your toes.
- 8. Torso Rotation With Medicine Ball
Functionality: Strong oblique muscles are key to avoiding lower back injuries. This exercise improves the strength and coordination of all of your core muscles and will improve your tone and tighten your waist.
Exercise: Sit on the ground with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, holding a medicine ball at your chest with both hands. Lean your torso away from your thighs, increasing the angle at your hips and pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Maintaining your hip angle, rotate your torso to the right, moving your right elbow toward the floor behind you. Return to center and rotate to the left. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each side. As you get stronger, perform the rotations with straighter arms and/or use a heavier medicine ball. Always keep your belly button pulled in.
- 9. Supine Bridge With Arm Extension
Functionality: This exercise tones and strengthens your arms, shoulders, back, glutes and legs, as well as targets your core muscles. It also opens up your chest and the front of your hips (muscles that get tight with long hours of sitting and using the computer).
Exercise: Sit on the floor with your hands underneath your shoulders, knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Keeping your arms straight, use your legs to push your hips up to the ceiling until your torso is flat like a table top. Lift your right arm straight up towards the ceiling, rotating your upper body so that it is supported by your left arm, keeping your hips lifted. Lower your right arm to start position and just slightly lower your hips but don’t let them return to the floor. Repeat with your left arm. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each side. As you get stronger, hold your arm and hips up for two seconds before slightly lowering. You can also lay a weighted ankle strap across your hips to increase the weight your legs must lift.
- 10. Dynamic Prone Plank
Functionality: This dynamic exercise tones, lengthens and strengthens just about every muscle in your body. Though it is challenging, it’s a perfect exercise to end with.
Exercise: Get on your hands and toes, facing the floor, keeping your head, back and legs in a straight line and your arms straight underneath your shoulders. Lift your rear to the ceiling, pulling your belly button into your spine, forming a pike or downward dog yoga position, lengthening your arms and legs. Return to plank position and bend your elbows against your sides, lowering your torso and legs to the floor. Keeping your lower body flat on the floor, use your arms to push your chest and head up towards the ceiling, similar to the cobra pose in yoga, stretching out the front of your body. Lower down and push your body back into plank position. Repeat five to 10 times. As you get stronger, increase the number of repetitions.