Trends in the fitness industry have an uncanny tendency to swing back and forth like a pendulum over time. One example of this is stretching. For a long time, stretching was thought to be the end-all-be-all for sports and exercise warm-up. “If you don’t stretch first,” the thought was, “you’re bound to sprain/strain/tear something!”
Then a handful of studies came out demonstrating that stretching prior to jump testing could potentially reduce power for athletes, and suddenly the pendulum swung completely in the opposite direction. “Nobody needs to stretch ever, you’re wasting your time and reducing your power!” And slowly, the pendulum has begun to swing back towards the middle on stretching, where we realize that not everyone is doing a maximum vertical leap test immediately after stretching, people generally feel better when they stretch, and maybe we just haven’t been stretching in the right ways all these years. This pattern can be seen in trends across the industry from stretching to strength training to nutrition.
At some point, the sensible middle ground is often where the best answer lies. A recent trend on the pendulum swing is what is being referred to as “Functional Fitness,” or “Functional Training.”
Do a google search of “Functional Fitness” and you’ll see articles linking to “functional fitness routines” and exercise catalogs with “functional fitness equipment” for sale. Click over to the Images tab in Google and you’re likely to see pictures of people jumping, flipping tires, waving long ropes, and standing on BOSU balls.
What Does “Functional Fitness” Mean, Anyway?
The term functional training originates from physical and occupational therapy, where treatment regimens were designed to retrain patients with movement disorders to create independence. When the world of fitness got ahold of the phrase “functional,” it became an alternative to more traditional modes of exercise. “When you exercise in a way that mimics an everyday activity, you are becoming more efficient/effective at that activity, and therefore more functional.”
For example, doing a body weight squat more closely resembles standing up from a chair than say, a leg press, even though they work similar muscle groups—so the squat must be more functional. As the pendulum continued to swing away from machine-based training and towards functional training, we started to see trainers and coaches take this to the extreme:
If a leg press is non-functional and squat is functional, then a squat while standing on a BOSU ball must be super-duper functional because sometimes we stand on uneven surfaces! And it works your stabilizing muscles too! Silly leg press, you do none of those things!
And with a growing market of people who look down upon those archaic “isolation machines,” a new market for functional training tools was born. Medicine balls, BOSU balls, suspension trainers, battling ropes and so on can all be found in your local sporting goods store under “functional training tools.”
The Two Extremes
But more recently, a strong push back has occurred where more conventional methods of training have become more and more popular, as questions regarding the true effectiveness of the functional approach have come up. This can be seen in athletic performance training, as well as in the general fitness realm. The belief is that people who only perform “functional” exercises are just not all that strong, and as such, they are prone to injury and have a hard time reaching their fitness goals.
Since standing on a BOSU ball on one leg with one eye closed is more of a circus act than an exercise, it’s close to impossible to provide enough stimulus to promote change within the body, whatever the desired change may be (increased strength, elevated heart rate, fat loss, etc.). So the pendulum has begun to swing back in the entirely opposite direction, back towards simple, basic strength training. I assume that this pendulum will continue to swing back and forth until we define a sensible middle ground, which is what I want to do today.
To me, the very essence of functional training is misunderstood. Most coaches and trainers, as well as many personal training clients and gym-goers would be able to answer these questions:
“Is a bicep curl a functional exercise?” or “Is a BOSU ball a functional tool?”
And I think that’s the problem. We have created this imaginary line where everything on one side is functional and everything on the other side is something else. Because of this, the word Functional in fitness has become completely bastardized—those in favor of functional training over-use the term to promote themselves as better than the “meatheads,” while those opposed to functional training shrug the functional crowd off as want-to-be-physical therapists.
Moving away from the extremes, Towards the Sensible Middle
In his book, Advances in Functional Training, the great strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle did a wonderful thing—he put exercises on a functional continuum. In his view, the question of function no longer has a yes or no answer. To coach Boyle, a leg extension would be classified as “very unfunctional,” and a leg press would be classified as “not very functional,” while a standing squat on two legs would be classified as “relatively functional,” and a squat on one leg would be classified as “very functional,” and therefore their order of effectiveness from least to greatest would go: leg extension, leg press, squat, single-leg squat. This is progress towards the sensible middle. The rationale behind Boyle’s rankings generally boils down to a few factors:
-How many joints are moving during the exercise? An exercise which involves many joints is very functional, because it makes several different muscle groups work together, which often leads to a more greatly elevated heart rate and, in theory, a greater translation to everyday functional activities and/or sports performance. A squat is considered very functional because it involves movement of the ankle, knee and hip, and requires stability throughout the entire upper-body, therefore most of the body’s major muscle groups are involved in the squat. If you’ve ever performed squats with a decent amount of resistance, you can attest to their heart-rate-elevating tendencies. A leg extension is very unfunctional because it involves only one joint (the knee), and therefore only one major muscle group (the quadriceps).
-What position are you in when you perform the exercise? Are you sitting or standing? Lying down? Standing on one leg? Since our activities of daily living and/or athletic events are performed mostly on our feet (debatable, but not the point), exercises which place us on our feet will have a more direct carry-over to things outside the gym. When we walk, run, and play sports we tend to use one leg at a time more than the other, so any exercise which requires you to have only one foot on the ground is extra functional in this light.
In order from left to right-
Leg Extension (very unfunctional), Leg Press (somewhat unfunctional), Squat (very functional)
Coach Boyle has been in this industry a lot longer than I have, and I have learned as much from him as I have from anyone else in the business. However, even this improved view of functionality leaves out the two most pressing questions when it comes to working with people: the who and the when. My contention would be that the functional continuum proposed by coach Boyle and others could be completely different depending on the individual and the timing of the workout.
When choosing an exercise for an individual, you must consider factors such as training experience, body type, injury status, injury history, medical history, skeletal structure, movement ability and even traits such as confidence and body image.
As an example, let’s say we want to train the legs. Many coaches and gym-goers will look to an exercise such as the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS for short) as pictured below:
The RFESS is a fantastic exercise on the functional continuum:
- How many joints are involved? The ankle, knee and hip all must work together on the front leg of this exercise, while the muscles of the trunk work to keep you upright. If you end up holding a weight in your hands you’re using upper body joints as well, so this has the potential to utilize most joints in the body and therefore most major muscle groups as well.
- What position are you in? Check.
- How many feet on the floor? Just one. Check plus.
So by all accounts, this is a very effective functional exercise based on the continuum above. And make no mistake—I have programmed this exercise hundreds of times for my clients.
But what if you’re like most Americans who have a job where you sit at a desk for hours at a time, and as result have tight hips? What happens when you ask those hips to perform the exercise pictured above? Sometimes, everything is just fine. A lot of times though, since you lack the range of motion in the surrounding hip musculature, you force the hip bone and sacrum of the leg on the bench to rotate forward, while the hip bones of the leg on the floor remains “neutral,” which over multiple sets and reps can lead to pain in the sacroiliac (SI) joint.
So, are you sure that RFESS is more “functional” for that individual than a leg press? You really have no way of knowing the answer to this question without assessing them first.
Maybe it’s practicing the movement, maybe it’s stretching certain structures while strengthening others, maybe it’s going to see a physical therapist for a few visits to get some manual therapy. In the meantime, if the leg press doesn’t hurt, that’s your more functional choice. Pain-free with a challenging stimulus is always better than painful without, so let’s get stronger there while we work on your RFESS in some other ways.
It Depends. It always Depends.
Just as important, you must also take under great consideration the individual’s goals before you decide whether an exercise is functional for them or not. Many folks in the “functional” crowd view isolation exercises such as bicep curls as mortal sins. “You’re only using one joint and only one muscle group?! Blasphemy!” And indeed, if the individual in question has the goal of losing 40 pounds before summer and works out once per week, a bicep curl is probably not a very effective use of time. It’s not a big metabolism-booster, and you’re strengthening muscles that can be used on many other, more “bang for your buck” exercises such as rows or pull-ups. For this person, a bicep curl would be quite low on the functional continuum.
But what if the person in question is a Navy SEAL in training, who works out 6 days per week and is already a stud on the run, swim, push-up and sit-up test, but can’t seem to break that 10 pull-up minimum standard? This is their career on the line, and they must pass the test to be accepted. Is it inconceivable to think that throwing in some bicep curls a few days per week could help them reach their goal, considering the biceps play a huge role in each pull-up they do?
In the words of world famous biomechanics expert Dr. Stuart McGill: “It Depends.” It depends on the person, it depends on their goals, it depends on far too many variables to fit any exercise into neat categories.
When viewed in this manner, there is no such thing as a “functional training implement.” BOSU balls have their place, both in rehab and in training. As do bands, medicine balls, battle ropes, and many other tools that have somehow fallen under the “functional training” umbrella. But using a specific tool because it’s under the “functional” category in your magazine isn’t a reasonable approach.
With this approach, there’s also no such thing as an exercise that isn’t “functional.” Bicep curls and calf extensions may get laughed at by the functional crowd because they only target one joint and don’t jack your heart rate through the roof, but they may have their place.
This is where working with an educated, experienced and sensible personal trainer can be so valuable. Your trainer should be able to put you through a thorough a movement assessment, filter through the gimmicks and fads which clutter this industry, and make logical choices in regards to exercise selection and implement utilization. Taking this view of functional training, we not only create a much more individualized plan for each client, but since we remove the black and white nature of “functional vs. non-functional” exercises and tools, we allow ourselves much more creativity and variability in our training. This results in a client-centered program, specifically tailored to that individual at that time.