The Thought Process of Training for Function
Functional training is a system of logic that thinks about how to exercise in a way that enhances things that we do in everyday life. So, for example. Walking.
A conventional approach (that I used to ascribe to) says that you would look at the muscles being worked when you walk and then do exercises that specifically target those muscles. So, under a very strict conventional viewpoint, they would try to isolate each muscle through specific exercises. For example, since walking works the whole lower body, the conventional thinker would probably think of exercises for the butt, front of the thigh, back of the thigh, and calves. So, they would pop out sets of glute presses (for the butt), leg extensions (for the front of the thigh/quads), leg curls (for the back of the thigh/hamstrings), and standing calf raises (for the calves). The movement is analyzed for which muscles work, and then they will prescribe exercises based on the individual muscles involved.
A functional approach (how I currently think) says that you will look at the movement involved. How does someone walk? One leg at a time. How many joints are involved? Three. The hip, the knee, and the ankle. Do all the joints work at the same time? Yes.
Then, based on the analysis of working one leg at a time while using the hip, knee, and ankle all at the same time, we will develop our exercises. So, with functional training, we're really focused on training the movement of walking rather than on training the individual muscles involved. The individual muscles involved are still certainly worked, but they aren't the focus. The focus is, “How do I get one leg to swing in front of the other to create this movement known as walking?” Under this system of thought, the trainer would prescribe movements that mimic the movement of walking. Like single-leg squats, split squats, and lunges.
The greatest short-coming of conventional thought is that you're performing exercises that you'll never do in real life. For example, a leg extension. You're sitting and taking your knee from a flexed position to a straight position while keeping the hip and ankle locked in place. How often do you do that in real life? In a lying leg curl, you're laying face-down on a bench taking your knees from a straight position to a flexed position while keeping the hip and ankle locked in place. Again, how often do you do that in real life? Probably never.
Now, how often do you stand up from a chair in real life? How often do you take steps in real life? Probably fairly often. Therefore, the functional trainer will assign squats, lunges, and their progressions. For example, let's say that you can't do a single-leg squat. Most people can't. You can start doing limited range of motion single-leg squats. Start by going down to where your butt touches your bed. If that's too hard, put a few books on your bed or something. Anything to add height so that you don't have to drop your butt as far from the starting position. Then, as you get stronger and stronger, take away some of the books one by one until you can do full range of motion single-leg squats.
Seated all day anyway....
Also, I don't feel that it makes sense to sit down during all of your exercises. We sit around for eight hours at the office, and then we sit down to work out. It just doesn't make sense. Add to that the fact that as most people age, their hip flexors (the muscles that allow them to lift their thigh up) are tight simply because when you're sitting your hip flexors are in a shortened position. So, because their hip flexors are used to being shortened as a result of sitting, they will physiologically shorten after a while. This is why older people in our society hunch forward as though their body wants to be in a sitting position. Their hip flexors are tight. So, we bring them into the gym and tell them to sit on the machines in order to get into better shape. In my mind, that is not rational.
What we need to be doing is giving them exercises and stretches that allow them to stand upright again. This means doing most exercises in a standing position and lengthening their hip flexors in order to train their body to stay upright.
Lower back pain
With so many people experiencing lower back pain, it seems rational to go ahead and try to do whatever we can to alleviate that pain. I had a long period over a few years where I would have on and off mild lower back pain. I used to have to massage my lower back before each workout in order to keep it from getting tight. Looking back on it, I'm seeing that my heavy squats and deadlifts were probably the culprit. So, how do we get around that? We look at the function of the body.
Squats and deadlifts are pretty much the same movement. In both of them, you bend at your knees and hips to get to a lower position. Then, you powerfully straighten your knees and hips to get back to the top of the position. The primary difference is simply that in a squat you have the weight on your back and in a deadlift you pick up the weight from the floor.
However, these both seem like pretty functional exercises, right? They both work three joints at once (hips, knees, and ankles), and they both seem to do so in a way that closely emulates walking. The major short-coming of these exercises is that they use both legs at once. This puts more strain on the lower back than it was designed to handle.
The body is designed for walking, running, jumping, etc. one leg at a time. Since we're using both legs in conventional lifting, we have to put twice the load on the lower back. For example, here's a comparison between a two-legged squat and a single-legged squat.
The two-legged squat. Let's look at a squatter who is barbell squatting 200lbs. Let's say that he also weighs 200lbs. So, that's a total of 400lbs.
The load on each of his legs is 400/2. 400 pounds total divided between two legs. 200Lbs per leg.
The load on his lower back is 400/1. 400 pounds divided between his only spine. 400Lbs on the spine.
Now, the single-legged squat. Let's look at the same 200lb squatter who wants to put 200lbs of load on each leg like he did with the two-legged squat. So, since he already weighs 200lbs, he'll be getting his 200lbs of load on each leg without using a barbell if he just uses one leg at a time.
The load on each of his legs is 200/1. 200lbs total divided by only one leg. 200Lbs per leg (the same as in a two-legged squat with a 200lb barbell).
The load on his lower back is 200/1. 200lbs divided by his only spine. 200Lbs on the spine.
So, the magic of single-legged squats is that in order to get the same workload on a leg as you would while doing a two-legged squat, you only have to use half the weight. This puts your lower back at a tremendous advantage! It no longer has to bear twice the load it was designed for!
This has been huge for me personally because when a buddy of mine from college and I were prepping for a powerlifting meet, we both had to bow out due to low-back pain. We were both lucky because we felt the pain coming on slowly, so we decided to call it quits before we received long-term injury. Some guys aren't that lucky. My longest-term workout partner continually has to fight lower-back problems because a disc in his back ruptured suddenly when he was re-racking his deadlift weight between sets. He messed up one time by slacking on his form, but he has been living with the consequences for years.
So, the question becomes, are the benefits of two-legged squats and deadlifts worth the extra risk? Unless you're a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, I don't think so. If you're simply lifting for bodybuilding/aesthetic purposes, save your lower back. Go single-legged.
Functional training will allow you to burn more calories during your time in the gym because it takes away all of the external supports that bodybuilders typically employ. For example, the bench press vs. the push-up. In both exercises, when you're at the bottom of the exercise, your upper arms are parallel to your body. That means that your humerus (upper arm) is in the same position relative to your body in both exercises. In addition to that, in both of the exercises your elbow goes from a flexed position at the bottom to a straight (extended) position at the top. The bench press and the push up both work the same way in the shoulders and arms.
The difference between the two is that during a push-up, you have to activate your core to keep you from collapsing. So, it's kind of like doing a plank and a bench press at the same time. Since you're activating more muscles during the push up, it will result in a greater calorie burn both while performing the exercise and during recovery. You have fatigued more muscles, so it takes more calories to refuel and repair those muscles.
The same principles hold true for a lat pulldown vs a pull up. In the lat pulldown, your body is stabilized as you're locked into the machine by your knees. In the pull-up, your core is firing like crazy.
Stability Limited Training
Lastly, I want to make a distinction between Stabilization Limited Training and Balance training. SLT simply means that your limiting factor is likely due to your lack of coordination. This will typically include any kind of exercise on a single arm or leg that is performed on a flat surface.
The bane of functional training has been people going off and calling their ridiculous balance exercises “functional”. Remember, the definition of functional training means that you're attempting to train how the body moves in real life. Unless your client has to stand on a BOSU ball in real life, it's not functional to put them on one. The BOSU and Swiss balls have their applications. However, those applications have been abused and have made functional training something of a laughingstock in many circles.
The proper applications for BOSU/Stability training are neurological stimulation and joint stability. When lifting, we have a few factors limiting our strength. While having a small muscle is an obvious culprit, what lifters typically don't know is that we're also limited by how many motor units we can fire at once and how quickly those motor units can fire per second. One way to train the muscle to fire more efficiently is through using stability exercises. Also, stability exercises also force smaller muscles that surround our joints to work in ways that they typically don't. The smaller muscles are strengthened because of this. So, when you're doing a push up on a stability ball, you're teaching small muscles in your shoulder joint to stabilize your shoulder more effectively and thereby reducing your risk of injury.
That said, I don't believe that balance/stability training can truly be called functional because it doesn't actually make an attempt to copy what we see in real life. Not many people are running on or pushing on unstable or wobbly surfaces. So, while stability training has its place, it is not functional.
Functional Training is simply a description of an alternative thought process to conventional training. While conventional training is good for simple hypertrophy, functional training has its own set of benefits that should be taken advantage of as well. These benefits include coordination, neurological adaptations, injury prevention, and calorie burn.
Thread: Intro to Function