What does 'functional' mean?
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last ten years you will be familiar with the term ‘functional’. It is commonplace within the fitness industry for fads and trends to come along which every trainer and his dog will buy in to, they then preach to anyone who will listen about how great this recent finding is...until the next one comes along. These fads and trends usually tend to disappear as quickly as they arrive, yet 'functional training' is one of the most widely used terms within the industry in the last decade - which is a strong clue to the fact that functional training is not a fad or a trend, and it is certainly not going away.
However, despite the fact that functional training is NOT going to disappear any time soon, there is a huge problem - Functional training is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted terms, so why all the confusion?
The cynic in me is suspicious of the fact that because the term itself is so popular that people will use it to relate to their own training methods/style, therefore making themselves look more appealing to prospective clients who may not know any better. 'Emotional contagion' - it's not the next blockbuster movie from Hollywood, instead it is one of the most powerful human instincts which is almost impossible to ignore - otherwise known as the 'bandwagon' effect. Every trainer wants to label themselves as functional, every gym wants to provide functional classes, and every manufacturer wants to produce functional products...which is brilliant, if only they were all delivering on their promises.
It seems that the issue lies in the confusion of what actually IS functional and what isn't. Common (mis)belief is that to be 'functional' you should perform all exercises standing on a BOSU or lying on a stability ball - training sessions are beginning to resemble circus tricks rather than more familiar strength training.
Before writing this piece I took a step back and asked myself what functional training meant to me. I have also spent a lot of time discussing this matter with other coaches who are all specialists in certain fields.
So here it is, the definitive answer. It turns out functional training is all about MOVEMENT. The true definition of functional training is simply to 'enhance your ability to execute the movements required during your day to day lifestyle'. Whether you are a professional athlete, a bodybuilder, an accountant or a housewife then you will have certain requirements of your body in order to deal with the specific rigours of your daily life.
The human body is an incredible machine, capable of the most unbelievable feats. However, it is limited to a small number of movement patterns. Every movement that we perform throughout every minute of every day falls into one of the following eight categories: push, pull, squat, lift, rotate, smash, carry/move a load and finally gait/locomotion. Whether it's kicking a ball, opening a door, picking up a piece of litter or doing the gardening your body will be working within at least one (often more) of the aforementioned movement patterns.
We are all limited to the same number of movement patterns, but the intensity and range of movement required can vary greatly. For example an Olympic sprinter attempting to break a world record and a retired pensioner walking to the shop to get a newspaper are both executing the gait/locomotion movement pattern (moving their body from A to B), but the intensity and range of movement required by each person are worlds apart.
Here lies the trick in performing a truly 'functional' training session. Firstly you need to analyse the movements and combinations of movements which you (or your client/athlete) require to perform their daily tasks, then you need to think about the intensity and range of movement. In my opinion the intensity and range of movement of the training should be equal to or greater than the daily requirements. The reason being you want to start to find daily living easy. No more groans and grunts when getting up off the sofa or tying your shoelaces. If your training is at an intensity lower than your daily requirements then the risk of injury will always exist, but it can be reduced by exceeding these levels (exceed them gradually and sensibly - doing too much too soon can also increase risk of injury).
If you want to be a really good functional trainer, then you need to analyse the demands of your clients/athletes needs, taking into consideration which movement patterns they use most, whilst also highlighting any imbalances. Never do anything just for the sake of it or because you saw it on the internet.
If you are wanting your personal sessions to be more functional then think about what you do for a living and what hobbies you have, and start to think about how you can replicate the movements your body requires. Don’t just listen to someone telling you to stand on one leg on a stability ball with your eyes shut because that’s their interpretation of ‘functional’.
I teach Functional Fitness Workshops on a weekly basis so if it’s something you are interested in learning more about then feel free to get in touch. Even if you have questions then I am more than happy to answer them – if you don’t ask you don’t get!