How can functional training make you a better human?
As you get older there are several processes occurring that diminish your ability to move as you could 10, 15 and 20 years prior.
Muscles lose their elasticity, strength and flexibility. Joints become less mobile or less stable (depending on their function). All of this adds up to less physical wellbeing.
The symptoms are often made worse by your body’s “history”. Something I heard a few years ago from a 90 year old man really struck me. He said “every bump gets recorded”. His contention was that, while the body can heal from knocks, when one is older those aches and pains come back to haunt us.
Modern society doesn’t help either — sitting down in hunched positions hour-after-hour, day-after-day ultimately trains the body into bad postures and poor function. We sit down for hours, use escalators when we could use the stairs and we slump down on couches for a few more hours to end the day. In short, everyday life is training us to be in bad shape.
strength as a skill versus strength for “show”
Functional strength is more than just about strength in the traditional sense (“look how much I can lift”). Functional strength is primarily about training the nervous system. Renowned trainer and Kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove”. In other words, strength is created through repetitive training of a specific sequence of movements. Strength is a skill as much as any other physical skill with a specific set of adaptations.
This is why athletes train radically differently to the average gym goer. Professional athletes typically get functional movement screening to see where there are deficiencies in their joint mobility, strength and flexibility.
Because athletes repeat specific sequences of movements at great speed and with great force generation, the risk of injury is always lingering. Minimising that risk while maximising the efficiency of movement is what modern physical training has become for athletes. This is the lesson ordinary humans can take from the pros.
One thing that always raises my eyebrows is the tendency of trainers to take on clients and give them a vanilla programme to help the client reach their fitness goals. For instance, it is not always a good idea to put a person straight into a weight training program when they can’t even move their bodies properly.
The purest form of functional training is bodyweight training — probably the most underrated form of training there is. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of guys that are gym strong but not functionally strong. This because moving an external load (barbells/dumbbells) is vastly different from moving your own body. External loads can force the body to move through problematic lines.
Someone may well be able to squat a 300 pounds but they probably can’t do a one-legged squat for 1 rep let alone 6-10 reps. As a general rule, why not getting people to train their bodies to move themselves properly before overloading the body with weights?
Relics of a bygone era
In the move from aesthetic, bodybuilding paradigms to a more functional, athletic training ethos, there are inevitable casualties and cast offs. Some exercises — once thought to be staples in any gym goers trick bag — are now relics of the past. Others are borderline but tough to get rid of because they’re so ingrained in the collective psyche.
Leg extensions, leg presses, peck deck flyes, chest flyes, machine squats, leg curls and bicep curls (heresy!) are often ignored by athletes. Why? For the most part, these exercises take the target muscle out of a position of strength, compromising the ability of the muscle to perform as it functions normally. Leg extensions and leg curls are two prime examples of exercises largely useless to athletes.
Functional rules of thumb
Muscles are evolved to fire holistically — as part of a sequence. In the previous example, both leg extensions and leg curls take quadriceps and hamstrings out of their strength and put them into isolation. This is also a way to create functional imbalances, which is a surefire way to invite injuries.
So with all that in mind, here are a few guidelines:
- Forget isolation exercises (movements that involve one joint and isolates specific muscles).
- Discard the body part approach to programme design and take a movement-centric approach instead.
- Address structural and movement asymmetries.
- Use bodyweight training to condition muscles, joints and tendons to move through full ranges of motion (a full depth squat is difficult for many people). Train the body to move through natural body motions.
- Use progressive bodyweight exercise to increase functional strength (see Paul Wade’s excellent book: “Convict Conditioning” for more on progressing basic bodyweight movements. View some sample workouts).
I want to be clear about the last point — developing functional strength via bodyweight training. The main point is thus: If you can’t move your own weight properly then that’s where you need to start.
Bodyweight training will help you move properly, through full ranges of motion and stave off body degradation that happens as one gets older. Getting stronger in these movements will enable you to be the best human being you can be while avoiding the kind of self-induced “paralysis” that hits most people later in life. Move it or lose it is the name of the game.