Do you remember the show called the “American Gladiator”? In 1996 I went to the open try-outs to become a contestant on what was then a popular show. I thought after watching several episodes, “Heck, I could do that”. Upon arriving at Universal Studios I was in awe of all the different body types, ranging from the larger than life bodybuilder types to the distance runner types. We were asked to complete several test events to evaluate whether we would be appropriate candidates for the show.
As I remember, the events included, 15 pull-ups with bodyweight, a 40-yard dash, an obstacle course of sorts, and a head to head competition where two contestants would face off; One would try to place a volleyball in a cylinder while the other contestant did everything they could to prevent it. What fascinated me most was how poorly the larger than life types performed on the test events. Many, if not most, had trouble completing the pull-ups, more than a few, pulled hamstrings in the 40- yard dash, and those that made it past the first two events had significant trouble with the obstacle course. Though at the time I didn’t realize it, this was the most effective example I could have witnessed to the importance of having functional strength. We now seem to be in the age of “functional” training, our next evolution in the Health and Fitness process.
I have been in the health, fitness, and wellness industry for over 20 years. Drawing from my experiences in high school wrestling to National level Powerlifting to presently practicing Mixed Martial Arts, I have seen and experienced the benefits of functional training. And unless you are specifically a strength athlete, there is NO ONE who cannot benefit from this type of training, regardless of the goal. In fact even strength athletes are beginning to utilize functional movements more frequently in their training. I have taken my level of functioning as well of that of my clients to new heights by including functional movements in all training regimes. I have been through the mill so to speak and had acquired strength at the expense of function. So I know first hand the importance of a balanced body that not only looks good, but functions well.
Functional refers to the ability of an apparatus/ tool, or process that, when used, improves the efficiency and effectiveness, and perhaps the joy of the task at hand. Sequentially, functional training refers to exposing the body to a process, through the use of all forms of training (bands, pulleys, free weights, stretches, balance exercises, cardiovascular regimens, etc.) that improve a client’s ability to do what they enjoy effectively and efficiently. Whether you are an amateur athlete looking to improve your performance, a weekend warrior looking to breakthrough a plateau, or if you just want to improve the quality of your life so that you can better enjoy your hobbies such as gardening or playing with the children, functional training is your best bet.
Functional training, in many respects, is a philosophy that has grown out of the dysfunctional view that just lifting weights and getting bigger muscles was in fact improving the quality of one’s life. Real world events, physical therapy, and traditional weightlifting movements are combined in functional training; for the purpose of increasing a person’s ability to function more effectively and efficiently in whatever capacity they choose.
Functional training has come about from observing that which makes all of us more similar than different. Every knee joint is a hinge joint (no rotation), virtually every lower back originally had the ability to rotate without discomfort, and each hip socket typically has the ability to perform as a ball and socket. These consistencies across people have allowed for certain commonalities in movement to be seen as foundational, and hence functional, as they apply to all human movement regardless of lifestyle or profession.
Lunge (similar to the fencing motion)
Squat or Deadlifts (bending to pick something up)
Rotation (rotating in either direction with feet planted)
Pushing (something away from the self)
Pulling (something towards the self)
It is the combination of these basic movements that make up all movement in daily life.
Now let’s consider the application of this philosophy of training. First off, functional training encourages that you focus on training movements not body parts. The idea being that if you first train parts of a total movement and then progressively work towards mimicking that entire movement in the confines of training, it will carry over to an increase in effectiveness and efficiency in the target activity. Remember, this can be practically applied to everything from picking up the laundry basket and placing it on top of a counter, to improving one’s golf swing. It is the movements one picks, with the target activity in mind, that determines the functional(ness) of the program.
Traditionally, it has been thought that machines increased effectiveness and efficiency. But research shows that because the machine takes away the individual’s need to balance their bodyweight while performing a movement, machines in fact only increase strength as it relates to a specific body part and in fact do not, by themselves, increase the effectiveness and efficiency of movement. And real life requires balance to effectively and efficiently perform movement (balance/stability + movement = integrated movement). You can have all the strength in the world, but if you can’t direct it and control it, it is useless. The unique aspect of functional training is that it encourages that you use your total body in an integrated fashion in a variety of planes of motion.
What I have found with my clients is that whether its weekend hikes, playing tennis, or playing in a local basketball league, functional training allows my clients to do what they enjoy doing. . . . . only better. The twisted ankles, sore lower backs, shoulder stiffness or lack of cardiovascular strength have all been improved by including functional movements as a part of each of their training regimes.
Functional training then, asks the client to perform many of the same movements that traditional weight machines allow, yet with the added component of the 3-dimensional stability and balance. For example let’s look at how functional training would look to improve two different types of clients’ quality of life.
First let’s consider a person whose is looking to improve their performance in their hobby, the popular sport of tennis. Obviously tennis is a technical sport requiring a person to be aware of many different things going on all at the same time; from the stance, to the swing, to the follow-through; a sport where multiple things are happening at once. One of my previous clients was in fact a tennis player that presented with several aches and pains. One of the major complaints was that of lower back pain. After a thorough Lifestyle Assessment, range of motion evaluation, and injury history, I created a program to address this client’s aches and pains. A program would be developed that kept in mind the goal, improving this client’s ability in his hobby, tennis. Tennis requires a great deal of rotation to play it effectively. So any program design should consider movements that strengthen the individual’s ability to effectively and efficiently rotate. Perhaps one would first begin by strengthening the core, utilizing stable surfaces like a bench with which to perform certain abdominal work and then move to a less stable environment like a Swiss Ball. While working first on strengthening the core, I then would address the next component, rotation. Once assured of the client’s growing core stabilization I would begin mimicking the movement of a tennis swing by using a medicine ball, and having the client rotate back and forth while keeping the feet planted. Then, progressively, as the client demonstrates the ability to effectively and efficiently rotate for a certain number of repetitions and sets, a heavier medicine ball would be used and increased movement in the feet and hips would be allowed. Eventually, the speed of the movement (so that it closely approximates the tennis swing) and the weight of the ball would be adjusted, to improve the ease with which the client was able to perform the movement of rotation. Next, let’s consider another previous client. She didn’t necessarily have an athletic hobby, but on a weekly basis does many of the normal activities we all do. Let’s consider taking groceries out of the trunk of a car and handing them to another person. Isn’t this the same type of basic movement, rotation, that we considered for our tennis player looking to improve their game? With the same goal in mind, improving the person’s ability to rotate, a thorough Lifestyle Assessment, range of motion evaluation, and injury history would be taken and a program would be developed and that would address this client’s need of improved daily functioning. Many of the movements chosen would be the same. The difference would be in the progressions chosen. Since there is no need for this person to have the same level of strength or explosive ability, the speed of the movement chosen for their program would be much slower and a lighter medicine ball would be chosen to practice rotation. It would be possible to state that the programs of these two individuals, with regards to improving rotation, would look almost identical. The only difference being largely in the repetitions, sets, and load (weight) chosen.
Using these two examples as evidence of the importance of using functional training should make it clear that EVERYONE can benefit from this type of training philosophy. Be it sport or day to day activities, life happens in 3-planes of motion, at various speeds, requires balance, and is integrated. Take a moment and watch yourself day to day and see how many of these movements you do in any given day. Would a functional training perspective help you?
These are real-life examples that I encounter daily. If one these people sound like you, or you’re just interested in improving the way your body functions in life, contact me at email@example.com.
I can create a program for you to not only feel better, look better, but function better.
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