Functional training is a training method that has created a lot of buzz over the last decade. Perhaps you have heard the term at the local gym or read about in a fitness magazine. While there is no universal definition, functional training is generally viewed as exercises that carry a high movement value. In other words, movement that uses the entire body opposed to training muscles in isolation. An example would be performing a lunge to develop leg strength instead of simply using a leg extension machine. So why does this benefit us…or why should we train for movement? The answer is more apparent when we examine what the human body is designed for.
“Muscles are responsible for producing movement, maintaining posture, stabilizing joints, and generating heat” (Marieb 2007). More specifically, the human body functions by pushing, pulling, lowering/raising the body’s center of mass, and rotating, all while maintaining balance and stability. It is even more critical to train for improved function when you consider posture. Most Americans work in a sedentary environment which involves sitting for prolonged periods, resulting in a slouched posture. Poor posture has been linked to physical ailments such as low back pain and frozen shoulder to name a few. Going to the gym after eight hours in front of computer to exercise for another hour primarily in a seated position only compounds the problem. Plus, most fitness machines create “artificial” stabilization. In other words, the machine is responsible for providing stability, not the body. The only way to improve balance and stability is to perform exercises that challenge both on some level.
Now that we know the benefits of functional training, let’s look at the components of what makes an exercise “functional.”
Train for movement: Muscles work in synergy. The term “synergy” comes from the latin word meaning to “work together.” The nervous system innervates the musculoskeletal system to work as a complete unit. A baseball player throwing a ball with maximum velocity or simply the act of running best illustrates this point. The muscles work in harmony. Performing more compound exercises that involve multiple joints and allow the body to work as a whole unit has a higher carry over into day to day life. Also, training for movement will yield greater strength gains, improve coordination, and increase stability.
Exercise Example: Squat Row
Train all planes: The human body works in three different planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse). Basically, the body is made to rotate, move forwards/backwards and side to side. Thus, it’s important to train for movement in all directions. This will help minimize muscle/movement imbalances, decrease risk of injury, and improve overall function.
Exercise Example: Rotational Cable Chest Press
Train Balance & Stability: Strength is transferable from an unstable environment to a stable environment but not the other way around” (Orr 2009). In other words, training muscles strictly in a machine based settling will yield little or no improvement for your balance or stability. In order to improve balance & stability, you must train for it! Try performing traditional exercises on a BOSU, stability ball or in a single leg position. Not only with it improve balance and stability, but strength as well.
Exercise Examples: Single Leg Squat
Train Standing: In can’t be emphasized enough! We sit enough throughout the day between work and our daily commute. Try to perform the majority of your exercises in a standing/upright position for better overall functional strength and improved posture.
Jason Wanlass, the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian, has more than 16 years experience in the fitness industry. Contact him at email@example.com or www.championfit.net.