What is Functional Training?

EXERCISE CONSCIOUSLY is not a tag line.
It is a life plan.

Trainer commanding middle aged female client to push weight bench across gym floor as part of her “functional training”

Functional training is an overused word like “core.” It is applied to virtually every unorthodox approach.

Case One

The picture to your right is real. It was taken in a gym by a member and forwarded to me. This female middle aged client was being told to push a weight bench around the gym like a sled.

Take a look at that picture and study it objectively. What do you see?

I see a woman…
a. …training for winter bobsledding.
b. …needing to push a 200lb baby in a carriage.
c. …playing tackle football this Fall.

I am certain that the client was probably tired at the end of this session but being tired is not a good indicator of whether your training is effective. You can tire yourself out from a number of things that are not good for you.  I never underestimate the imagination of a bored trainer.

Case Two

In a 7-story NYC gym, filled with thousands of dollars of weight equipment, lies a tractor tire that is being used for “functional training.”

Straddling said tire was a 6’2, 225lb+ middle aged business man performing squats while being tossed a medicine ball by his young trainer. On the sidelines were his buddies cheering. Other than promoting swagger, how does this promote fitness?

Think fast. What could he possibly be training for?

What the hell? What’s the cost/ benefit/ risk of this exercise?

Here’s what I want you to consider:

Pain is the one thing everyone understands. Most people’s assessment of a workout is whether or not, the trainer brought the pain. In a world that is getting fatter, I fear the fitness industry risks hurting the handful of people who are working out.

Our thrill seeking and immediate gratification culture has the fitness hungry segment of our population wanting to be real life action heroes. You can see it with the cult of Crossfit, MMA, and the continued growth of ultra endurance races.

The trend seems to be “When it comes to equipment, less is more. When it comes to exercise, more extreme is better.”

Here’s what I want you to consider:

Functional Training was originally conceived by physical therapists.

Functional training’s intent is to condition patients recovering from surgery or trauma to regain function in their every day activities. These exercises are specific to movements needed for every day living, such as lifting a small child, climbing out of a bath tub or lifting one’s arm overhead to reach an object. There is generally an element of balance involved, alongside weight-bearing movements that engage thecore and back. Before one begins…

  • A person should be assessed before participating in a functional training program. If you are lacking core strength, destabilizing you is easy and not practical. If you are unstable, balance-wise, there is no need to place you on a balance board or Bosu ball. Do your strength training and balance work on the floor than scale the challenge. Master the basics first.
  • A functional training session should be cued, introduced in phases and specific to an individual’s lifestyle or sport. Functional exercise is a great supplement to traditional strength training. It should not be a replacement. The trainer should be studied in how to progress this program. It is a continuum and you should have the blueprints in your hands.
  • Explosive exercises or high impact drills are simply not needed by most of us. We all need plyometric training but not every day, nor every workout session. Any functional training one does should be based on activity or lifestyle. I work with white collar professional adults. If they are playing sports, I look at what skills they need for their sport. I evaluate on a case by case basis. There are many ways of teaching explosion and power that can minimize risk of injury. You can arrive at muscle hypertrophy without joint impairment.

Take some time to think about the WHY you are doing anything.

  • Does the exercise make sense?
  • What is the result you are seeking?
  • Are you charting your exercises?

Enjoy the workout but not at the expense of your wellness.

  • All it takes is ONE injury to change your active lifestyle forever.
  • Having reconstructive or corrective surgery will never make you good as new.
  • How do you financially support yourself? Can you risk being laid up for a few days or weeks because of an athletic mishap?



Additional Reading:
*Functional Training pdf by Steven Plisk, MS, CSCS*D
**What is Functional Training? ACE

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