I hear the term “functional training” thrown around in the gym almost as much as I hear that women shouldn’t lift heavy weights or else they will end up looking like the hulk.
The real question is what is “functional training” really?
Websters dictionary defines functional as: “Of or pertaining to a function or functions” and “Having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed”.
So basically in a nutshell it means that functional training is designed to serve a particular function. Training yourself in the matter of which you will function.
Your body functions as a whole, not in isolation (meaning one thing at a time). So this means that you should train your body to move as a unit, not as an individual. When you do machine training (by which I mean machines created by Nautilus or any other company that puts your body into a state of isolated movements to do exercise) you are not training any particular movement patterns, just the muscle as a whole. So yes, the muscles that you are training will get stronger, but only in isolation, and since your body does not move in isolation the muscles that you just made stronger will have no “functional” effect.
There is a huge difference between Anatomy, and Functional Anatomy. Anatomy is how the body moves in isolation and Functional Anatomy is how it moves in real life. Different factors play into functional anatomy, gravity being the biggest. Our core is the main source of our body’s stabilization, we use our “core” for every single movement we do in real life, so wouldn’t it make some sense to do so when we train?
Here is a perfect example of training in isolation: The Leg Extension machine.
First it puts you into a seated position which completely eliminates any core/hip stability from the exercise. Then in order for you to “strengthen” your legs you need to extend your knees forward against the resistance of the machine. Like I’ve said before, yes this will strengthen your quadriceps because those are the muscles that anatomically extend the knee. But from a functional standpoint, how many times a day do you perform this movement. If it’s any more than 2 then I give you full permission to do this exercise and only this exercise for leg strength.
The same goes for the Hamstring Curl Machine. Anatomically the hamstring muscles flex the knee, but functionally they do not. The hamstrings work as a hip extender in the functional world. Every time you stand up from a seated position what happens? You start with flexed hips, and when you stand your hips extend (mind blown). Your hamstrings control concentric hip extension while they also eccentrically control flexion of the hips and knees.
So to sum it all up. “Single joint movements (leg extensions/curls and the like) that isolate a specific muscle are very non-functional. Multi-joint exercises that integrate muscle groups into movement patterns are very functional” (Gary Grey, 2002).
Gary said that in 2002, so why are we still doing these exercises?
So with all of the information I just gave you here is a new question. Is this functional?
If your job/life requires the need for you to squat on an extremely unstable surface while carrying a heavy load, then yes.
The point is we as an industry are over glorifying the term “functional training” because frankly no one seems to know what is functional anymore.
When did we all start walking around on unstable surfaces 24/7. Did the world suddenly turn into one giant waterbed, which will require us to do all of our training on a bosu ball? The last time I checked the ground that you walk on is still a solid surface, so therefore wouldn’t it be feasible that “functional training” would be to train on a stable surface?
Unstable surface training has its place in the world, but it should be for the people who truly require it. Eric Cressey did his Masters Thesis at UCONN on the art of unstable surface training. He looked at it from a strength training perspective and came to the conclusion that strength training on unstable surfaces actually will hinder your strength gains more than it will help them. Because of the fact that your body requires more stabilization on an unstable surface then it does on solid ground, your body sacrifices strength in order to meet the stabilization needs of the surface. Don’t just take my word for it, pick up a copy of his thesis for yourself, it is well worth the read (Here).
So the moral of the story is to really think about what you are doing in the gym and whether or not what you are doing is really “functional” or not.