What is Functional Training?
Today there are so many different opinions on how one should exercise. “What type of training should I be doing?” is the big question. “Do I perform slow or fast reps? Do I use a bench or a physio-ball? Do I do one body part at a time?” The answer is that everyone should be training in a manner that relates to their individual goals. There is no set routine that equally benefits everyone who does it. Performing a typical gym program of random exercises, three sets of ten, with one minute rests has benefits but will not be the most efficient way to attain your goals or address your specific needs. Training primarily with machines and not using free weights is inefficient because you are moving resistance along a fixed axis, and not freely in space as the body normally functions. Machines have limited functional strength transfer to real life situations in most cases, and can actually create poor motor patterns in some people. Machines have value when integrated properly but are often misused.
Functional training is defined as movements or exercises that improve a person’s ability to complete their daily activities or to achieve a specific goal. It is not a series of exercises deemed functional by some manual. Doing movements in the gym that strengthen the muscles involved in the movements you wish to improve outside the gym is a good start. This does not mean you can simply add weight to the exact movement you wish to enhance. There is research that has proven doing this can actually be detrimental to some athletic movements. When a baseball player adds weight to his bat that can actually slow his bat speed down because the added resistance changes the forces on the joint and disrupts mechanics. All exercises have some functional value when applied correctly, this value is determined by the exercises transferable benefit outside the gym. Every exercise has a functional limitation and it is up to the trainer to understand what it is. A good program focuses on weak areas and sets specific goals for the client. It is important to understand how to progress someone from simple smaller targeted movements to more complex multi joint movements. Training someone functionally can range from having a tennis player lunge to a chop or a body builder do a slow curl for bigger biceps; its all about the goal. Keep in mind doing complex movements before the client is ready will do more harm than good.
In order to build appropriate muscle strength, joint integrity, balance and flexibility in all planes of motion, it is essential that the body is exercised in a functional manner. It is crucial to include multi-joint and multi-planar exercises, as this recruits the body’s stabilizers to synergistically facilitate movement. Doing this ensures that the nervous system is working properly and that all parts of the body are used in the appropriate manner, with the correct muscles firing at the right time. This is not to say you shouldn’t include some so called non functional exercises, including a machine or old school exercise can be beneficial, safe and fun when applied correctly. To create a functional program, a trainer must set realistic goals and understand the client’s weaknesses, daily activities and limitations.
A trainer must be able to identify postural distortions and include exercises that correct them, but more importantly they have to educate the client on what movements or activities to avoid or modify during their day. It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. The ability to identify a postural distortion is dependent on the trainer’s understanding of anatomy, motor patterns and muscle function. A trainer must also be able to identify when muscles are over active and firing out of sequence, or not firing at all. Synergistic dominance is common in most postural dysfunctions. In general, if the agonist is tight then the antagonist is weak, thus creating increased stress on the joint. This can result in patterns of repetitive stress, ultimately leading to accelerated joint degeneration .
Core stability, flexibility and balance are key factors when designing a functional exercise routine. It is important to maintain posture while being able to move all joints in a full range of motion. Training with free weights, and challenging the surrounding environment promotes balance and stability, which is necessary if you expect to see benefits outside of the gym. Keep in mind, it is more important to be able to control your own body weight and concentrate on form, balance and core endurance, than to move heavy weights.
A functional core routine consists of dynamic movements, isometric exercises and challenges the center of gravity. To completely train the core, you must also include dynamic stabilization, isometric and proprioceptive movements, not just for the mid section, but for the entire trunk. Medicine balls, balance boards, foam rollers and physio-balls are great tools for core training, and should be integrated into every program. It is a fact that training on the physio-ball (challenged environment) is superior to traditional floor exercises. As a person ages, balance and stability become compromised. If balance and stability are not addressed, they will consistently degrade. A weak core contributes to poor stability, and inhibits proper limb movements, causing muscle imbalances in the kinetic chain. This is why falls are common in the geriatric population. Many back and hip injuries are related to weak core muscles. There are many small muscles in the core that the general population knows little about or addresses during exercise. In most spinal injuries, MRI images show atrophy in these small muscles. In order to maintain a healthy spine, these little muscles need to be trained. Without stability, even the strongest person can not effectively propel a force into the environment.
Flexibility is a very important facet of any exercise program, but is often over looked. Lack of flexibility in the right places appears to be the root of many problems. The body’s movements are hampered when flexibility and posture are distorted. Active, dynamic, static and PNF stretching are key factors and should all be included in any training program. When a muscle is tight, it limits the muscle’s ability to contract properly, causing inefficient movements and risk of injury. Without flexibility, the body’s movement becomes limited, and good results are difficult to achieve.
This article has explained the key components of a functional program and its benefits. Traditional weight lifting is a thing of the past, and has been proven to produce limited results compared to a functional program. The only way to enhance movement is to mimic the movement in the gym until it becomes autonomous in every day life. Before initiating any exercise program, one should always consult a physician, as well as a qualified fitness professional. This insures that they are addressing their specific needs and goals
Q) Should I do slow repetitions or fast?
A) You base the speed of the repetition on the speed of the required activity. The body needs to be trained at the same or a higher velocity during exercise to benefit a particular activity. A sprinter doesn’t jog to increase their speed. In my opinion slow training is good for form training, rehabilitation and hypertrophy.
Q) My friend works out at the local gym and mostly uses machines. He has been doing the same routine forever and has gotten good results. Is this program good for me?
A) NO! Any exercise program will produce results whether it is done right or wrong if you stick to it. Unfortunately when exercise is done incorrectly the harmful affects may not be noticed until the damage is done. By exercising functionally you will systematically attain your goals and insure that your time in the gym is spent safely and efficiently. Just because someone looks good does not mean they are an expert.
Q) Can functional training benefit anyone?
A) Yes. Functional workouts are beneficial for any athletic level or age group. By training functionally your time in the gym is spent more efficiently. When you train in this fashion you will see drastic improvement in overall health and performance not just appearance.
Q) Shouldn’t I do cardio and lose weight before I start a functional program?
A) NO! You should have a functional training program that concentrates on raising and lowering your heart rate. The program should first use body weight exercises then advance to free weights. This promotes lean muscle mass, skeletal integrity and healthy cardiac function. Muscle mass accelerates fat loss.
Q) My friend tells me to do 3-5 sets 10-12 reps to failure with 1 minute rest intervals.
A) This is what everyone who thinks of the gym envisions. Unless you are a body builder this is not a good program. If you train in a functional fashion you burn more calories and get more benefit from your sessions outside of the gym.
Q) Aren’t aerobic classes and the treadmill enough?
A) NO! A weight training program that includes balance, core stability strength and cardiac conditioning builds lean muscle mass. When you build muscle you burn more calories at rest and during daily activities. Which would mean, by adding resistance to your program you actually will burn more calories doing the same aerobic class or distance on the treadmill?
Q) Should I stretch before or after exercise or an event?
A) Evidence demonstrates that static stretching before an activity is not beneficial to prevent injury. If you want to avoid injury you need to be flexible by stretching regularly and not just before activity. Active and dynamic stretches with a short warm up mimicking activity before, P.N.F and static stretching at the end help remove waste from the muscles.
Q) Why have none of my doctors told me to stretch and exercise to alleviate pain?
A) Unfortunately we live in a society of doctors that prescribe meds for everything imaginable. Everyone wants immediate gratification (pill) not a long term solution (exercise). The fact is most people would ignore the doctors’ request to stretch and exercise then seek a new doctor for a simpler solution. Most minor health problems can be eliminated by moderate exercising but people choose to take meds because they are lazy.
Q) I injured my knee and my doctor told me to rest it for a while. Do I?
A) This is the worst thing you can do. Pampering an injury for extended periods causes muscle atrophy and decreased blood flow. All injuries should be functionally rehabilitated under careful supervision.
Q) Should I cut carbs out of my diet?
A) NO! Cut high glycemic carbs out only. Carbohydrates are essential for cellular function. Eating carbs that do not spike insulin levels is healthy and effective for weight loss.
Q) My doctor told me to walk to get some exercise for my aches. Is walking enough?
A) NO WAY. If walking were enough basically everyone would be healthy we all walk. If you have pain chances are there is a biomechanical issue. My first suggestion would be to stretch. More walking will only aggravate the issue. You need to correct the imbalance first not just walk more.
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