“Don’t do that, it’s not functional!”
Like many new trends, the rising popularity of functional training in the fitness industry has given rise to plenty of debates.
The term functional training is commonly used to refer to exercises that reflect natural movement patterns that humans perform (or should perform) on a regular basis, and help them to improve their performance in either everyday life or sports. This means that a lot of traditional, isolation-based resistance exercises such as bicep curls and abdominal crunches have been demonised as ‘non-functional’ and consequently to be avoided at all costs.
However, when we consider the ultimate aim of functional training as mentioned above – to help improve performance in either everyday life or sports – we can see that any exercise can be classed as functional if it contributes to this end goal. Let’s take the ab curl as an example. Whilst it certainly activates the rectus abdominus, remember the aim here is not to isolate a specific muscle to fatigue it and cause it to grow or “tone up”, but to improve it’s ability to do it’s actual job. The common argument against this exercise then, is that in everyday life we don’t consciously contract this muscle concentrically to flex the spine. Instead, it automatically contracts eccentrically to decelerate spinal extension (try it: stand up and lean back – notice how much your abs tighten). This in fact happens to some degree with every step you take while walking or running. Exercises that require the abs to control spinal extension could therefore be regarded as more ‘functional’.
However, what if you are a footballer who wants to be able to propel the ball further from throw ins? Does this require forceful spinal flexion? Even more specifically, imagine you are a mixed martial artist and want to improve your ability to push opponents off you whilst you are lying on the floor. Do you need to flex your spine against resistance whilst on your back?
In both these examples, abdominal curls, which condition this movement and increase strength and power depending on how they are performed, could therefore also be regarded as functional to some degree.
All of the above shows us there are further questions to ask. Is function related simply to how muscles are designed to work naturally, or is it how we need them to work for a specific task? What’s clear is that we need to define not only the term functional training, but what the specific function we are training for actually is. We can’t label an exercise as functional or non-functional until we know this information. We discuss these topics in depth on our Functional Equipment Training course, where we spend a whole day exploring creative, effective and fun exercises to take your programming to the next level.