By Sam Abrams
One of the most prominent ideas to enter the fitness world in the last 15 years is the idea that training should be “functional.” The growth of this idea has corresponded with the growth of weight training beyond bodybuilders to include athletes training for other sports, and the general population. With only traditional bodybuilding techniques at hand that were based on isolating muscles, and making them bigger, regardless of the implications for performance, these new populations were primed for other approaches. At first glance, “functional” seems self-explanatory, and usually when people say “functional” they usually mean something like “train how the body was meant to work in order to perform better.” Nevertheless, the exact meaning of functional often goes unstated. It may be easiest to think about three models of functional training: those that center around training on unstable surfaces, those that are based on “primal movements,” and those that look to correct defective movement.
Unstable surfaces include things like wobble boards, BOSU balls, Airex pads (a thick foam rectangle), and stability balls. In this model, so long as an exercise is done on an unstable surface, it is “functional.” A trainee might do a set of squats on a wobble board, pushups on a BOSU ball, a lunge on an Airex pad, or a plank on a stability ball. Training on these implements, it is believed, recruits stabilizing muscles, which in turn buffers against low back injury, joint pain, and other injuries. When these techniques emerged 15 years ago, they exploded in popularity. By the middle of the last decade, entire training programs were developed using unstable implements. Perfectly good exercises that were not intended to promote stability could be seen done on an unstable surfaces: curls while standing on one leg on a wobble board, squats on stability balls, and medicine ball throws from a BOSU ball. Although there are a number of useful applications for this type of training, mostly in core and rehab settings, this type of training does not work very well. Leg training on unstable surfaces does not make athletes more athletic. The training itself can be dangerous as unstable surfaces make trainees prone to losing control of themselves. Furthermore, this type of training forces trainees to use less weight in any given exercise than they would on a stable surface. When training to get stronger and reduce body fat, it is important to do as much work as possible, which means lifting as much weight as possible (with, of course, good technique). Perhaps less intuitively, the amount of weight lifted is important for muscle recruitment as well, which means appropriate exercise selection and technique on stable surfaces can have the same benefits as unstable surface training.
The second category of functional training definitions centers around “primal movements.” In this model, humans are meant to do things like pick things up from the ground, squat down, pull, push, and carry things, and training should therefor consist of these types of fundamental movements. Just about everything else is superfluous. Isolation exercises intended to train a weak muscle would be inferior to a primal movement that includes that muscle. For example, a trainee with poor hip control on account of weak abdominals or limited ability to fire her or her glutes would be encouraged to squat or deadlift. Isolation exercises for abdominals or glutes would be considered to have limited transfer to squatting, deadlifting, and other activities—or at least less transfer than squatting, deadlifting, and those activities themselves. This primal movement concept is attractive, but, like unstable surface training, is prone to becoming a caricature of itself. It is indeed important for trainees to be able to lift, squat, push, and pull, but it may not be appropriate for all trainees to do only these types of movements all of the time. In the example above, the trainee might be best off focusing on isolation exercises for some time. Novice trainees may not have the ability to do these movements well and might be best off with other exercises, at least initially. Trainees with limited range of motion, or very weak trainees may also not benefit from trying to do these exercises. An unloaded, full range squat may simply be too much for them. Such populations would benefit from including isolated exercises, and perhaps even machines, into their training.
The third grouping of definitions centers around correcting defective movement patterns. A weak or inhibited muscle would be targeted before being integrated into large movements. To use an example from previous newsletters, if a trainee’s glutes are inhibited due to tight hip flexors and therefore weak, training might focus on stretching and lengthening the hip flexors while at the same time establishing neuromuscular control over the glutes with isolated exercises. As training progressed, increasingly complex exercises would be used to train the glutes and the entire posterior chain. This model of functional training risks overemphasizing corrective exercise. Trainers who subscribe to this model may find themselves chasing perfect neuromuscular control, stability, and flexibility at the expense of improving performance through primal movements with heavy weights.
The shortcomings of these models indicate the need for an individualized approach. Thankfully it is rare to see entire workouts composed of unstable surface training these days, but unstable surfaces have a role to play for many trainees. Primal movements are indeed very important, and just about everyone should be training to improve their performance in them—but not every person should be doing such movements all of the time. Deciding which movements to do and when to transition to new movements is not easy for many people to do for themselves, and is why personal training can be the difference between simply getting exercise and getting results.