Is Functional Training Functional?

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.

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Yeah….this thing.

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?

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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.

Fitness Stuff You Should Be Reading!

Eric Cressey: 7 Ways To Get Strong Outside of the Sagittal Plane

excerpt from the article:

“We all know that folks don’t tend to do well in terms of health, movement quality, or performance when they spend their entire lives in the sagittal plane.  They aren’t as well prepared for life’s surprises (e.g., slipping on the ice) or life’s challenges (beer league softball fly balls to the gap).  They often lack adductor length and have poor hip rotation, and compensate with injurious movement compensation strategies at the knee and lower back.  This knowledge gave rise to a central tenet of the functional training era: multi-planar training.

Unfortunately, it’s just just as simple as telling folks to train in all three planes, as there is a progression one must go through to stay healthy while reaping the benefits of these new exercises.  I thought I’d outline my start-to-finish progression strategy.”

 

Dan John: 5 Key Principles via Tnation

This article is about goals, why you should set them, and how to adhere to them.

 

Eric Cressey: 8 Things I learned in 2012 via Tnation

Eric puts out one of these every year, and each year is better than the last.  Well worth taking a few minutes to read on even the smartest most successful coaches in this industry are still learning as they go on! 

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Innovation: The Inverted Plank

There are several exercises dedicated to working the posterior chain. However all of them are designed to work either the concentric or eccentric movement pattern. None of which offer an isometric contraction for an extended period of time.

The only hint at any sort of isometric work i have seen during a posterior chain exercise would be a pause at the bottom of a glute/ham raise, or a pause at the bottom of a slideboard leg curl. Both of these small tweaks to the exercise offer a challenge to really test your body’s ability to stabilize at the end range of motion.

The other problem with all of the posterior chain exercises is that they only work your dynamic stabilizers. Similarly to how a stability ball rollout works your dynamic stabilizers of your core. We need an exercise for your body that works your static stabilizers similar to what a plank does for your core.

I call it the inverted plank. The name should speak for itself as to what the exercise entails. It is an isometric hold thats main target is the posterior chain and it also targets static stabilization of the hips.

Think of the end range of a slideboard leg curl. The point where your legs are fully extended out and your butt is hovering about 2 inches above he floor. I don’t know about you but for me this is the most difficult part of the exercise. So in an attempt to make the exercise more of a static movement I decided to take the slideboard out of the equation and perform the isometric hold on the floor.

The exercise is very simple to set up and offers some amazing benefits that you will not get from any other exercise.

The Setup:

Simply lay supine on the floor with your feet about shoulder width apart, and your hands at your side palms facing up.

From here you will bend your knees ever so slightly as to allow your heels to dig into the floor.

Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can and drive your hips up off the floor as high as you can. Just make sure your upper body stays in a neutral position (i.e. don’t have any excess arch in your back and don’t push your chest up in whats known as rib flare).

Give it a shot and let me know what you guys think!

Is Your Programming Where It Should Be? Part 2

One of my first blog posts a while back (Here) talked about your weightlifting programming and how you could make it better. I want to continue on that train of thought and take it a few steps further.

Every day that you workout even before you enter the gym you should know a few details about the workout that you are going to perform:

  • What lifts you are performing

  • What weights you will be using

  • How many Sets/Reps you will be performing

  • Ways to get the hot girl on the Stairmaster to talk to you (the most important of them all)

Knowing all of these details before you even leave your house will not only make your workout more efficient, but it will also prevent you from doing it “on the fly”. Not pre-planning your workout will cause you to neglect any exercise that you really aren’t to particularly fond of but you know that you need to do anyway (for me that would be pull-ups, I really do not like them, but I know that I need to do them, and if I didn’t write them in my program I probably wouldn’t to do them).

So your homework for the day is to go to the dollar store and buy a composition notebook (yes the one that you used in 4th grade and still haunts you to this day). Start out with writing your program for the week ahead, and see what happens.

The notebook will help you keep on track with your exercises, as well as how much weight you used the previous week. Trust me you will see faster results and you will be amazed when you look back a few months at where you were to where you are now.

Image not the same type of programming, but you get the idea.

The next step to your programming is the order of exercises that you are performing. Sometimes the order of exercises are just as important as the exercises themselves. I’ve used Dan John’s quote “What you do in the first 15 minutes of your workout is the most important, treat it as such” in the past and my thoughts on it have not changed at all.

So after your 5 minutes (or so) of foam rolling and then your mobility/activation work your ready for your first lift. Depending on what your lifting that day or what type of workout your doing this lift could be an assortment of different exercises. One constant that remains in the equation is that the lift should be geared to the type of workout you are doing.

If you are doing a lower body day your main lift should be a Squat/Deadlift (or a variation of the two). If your day is upper body it should be some sort of Press (Bench, Military) or Pull (Pull-ups, T-Bar Rows). This exercise should be Bilateral, meaning it is done with both arms/legs working at the same time. Any Unilateral (Single Arm/Leg) work should be done secondary to your Bilateral Lift.

Another great exercise type that is often overlooked and can be used as a main lift on any type of day is some sort of explosive/plyometric exercises. Strength Coach Mike Boyle raves about the benefits of including an explosive lift as the first lift of each program. Nothing gets your muscles fired up better than a few quick short range movements that deliver power and explosiveness.

So here are a few options for you to consider adding in to your current programming just to give your body an extra boost.

On lower body days:

  • Squat Jumps

  • Box Jumps

  • Power Cleans (with or without the jerk)

  • Close Grip Snatches (I prefer close-grip because it is easier on the shoulders)

  • Jumping Lunges

  • Kettle Bell Swings

On Upper Body Days:

  • Plyo Pushups

  • Push Press (an explosive Military Press)

  • Power Cleans

  • Close Grip Snatches

  • Med Ball Slams (overhead, rotational, etc.

These Exercises are not meant to use heavy weight. They are merely a way to shock the nervous system to allow your body to handle the heavy lifting that will follow.

I hope this has given you some insight to your programming and will help you to make amazing gains in your lifting.   

Fitness Stuff You Should Be Reading!

Greg Robbins: Ten Things for Under $10 Ten Things for Under $10 (part 2)

Greg Robbins is the Newest Strength Coach At Cressey Performance, he has been featured in Men’s Health, EliteFTS, as well as a regular on Eric Cressey’s Blog.  These articles are for 10 cheap tools that everyone should have in their collection and you guessed it, they all cost under 10 dollars.

 

Mike Robertson: Investing In Yourself 

Mike Robertson talks about how in each career you need some sort of continuing education not only to meet certain job requirements, but to better yourself in your profession.n  He goes on to say that in order for you to get the best at what you do you should be spending at least 5-10% of your annual income on Continuing Education.

 

Eric Cressey: Strength Training Programs: Coaching the Dumbell Pullover 

I’m glad that somebody finally made a post about this topic, because time and time again I have seen this exercise done incorrectly.  Its not about how far you can reach the dumbell behind your head, its about how far you can reach it while remaining in full hip extension,  without arching your back.

 

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Exercises I love Doing and You Should Be Doing Too! -Stability Ball Rollouts-

While the plank (when done properly) offers a tremendous amount of benefits, it seems to be one of the most disliked exercises in the book.  I am here to offer a similar exercise, that offers similar benefits (as well as some others), and does not require to hold the “pose” for an extended period of time.  The Stability Ball Rollout offers a lot of the same benefits as the plank, and gives you a great alternative to the difficult plank.

 

The Stability Ball Rollout is considered an Anti-Extension Core Exercise.  Which means exactly what it says.  With this type of exercise you are actively trying to resist extension of the Lumbar Spine.  These exercises are great for developing Stability at the core, lumbar spine, and pelvis.

Since the exercise relies on you preventing extension of the lumbar spine, you need to assume a “plank” type position for the duration of the exercise.  The stability ball also adds a little bit of lateral stability as well, since the ball can roll in multiple directions.

 

Assume a position on your knees with your hips fully extended by squeezing your glutes together (called the tall kneeling position).  From here place your hands on the ball, keep your arms straight and start to roll forward on top of the ball.  It is very important to keep your hips extended during the exercise, not doing so will immediately deactivate your rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles), and will not give you the desired benefit.  The difficult part is keeping your hips fully extended during the return portion when you are rolling your body back in.

Notice in the video how my hips remain forward (extended) during the whole exercise.  The goal here is to roll your body out as far as possible and be able to return the same exact way.  A good indicator that I like to use for the exercise is to lead with your hips on the way out, and lead with your shoulders on the return.  That way it takes your mind off your hips on the return, and helps to mentally keep your hips forward.

I decided to make a second video of the exercise with improper form, because I have seen it many times and it needs to be addressed.  Notice how my hips are flexing during the start, and immediately when I attempt to return to normal.  Doing the exercise this way gives you no benefit because you aren’t really doing anything.

 

Once this becomes too easy, you can move down to a smaller stability ball, and then to the ab wheel.  Yes the ab wheel that was an “As seen on TV” product way back when.

This Thing:

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Start off with 3 sets of 6-8, and work up to 3-4 sets of 12.  

Enjoy!

Chocolate Peanut Protein Bars! -A great Healthy small meal or snack-

I will be the first to admit that sometimes eating healthy is difficult.  Especially during “snack time”.  It’s that time of day in the early afternoon, work is dragging on and it’s not quite time to go home yet.  All of a sudden your stomach rumbles even though you completely destroyed your pre-made meal of grass fed chicken breast, spinach, and a single serving of brown rice.

So naturally off to the vending machine you go, where the healthiest option available is a tough choice between a month old bag of pretzels and some salted peanuts.  Wow such great options.  

What If I told you that you can include a healthy option that you can bring with you everyday, that will satisfy that afternoon hunger, but will still give you the room to eat your healthy dinner.

I use this recipe all the time for a great mid-day snack because as a Strength Coach/Trainer my time to eat always changes and is usually non-existent.  So for me this is a great option for a quick snack or even a small meal.

Chocolate Peanut Protein Bars!

It is a very simple and easy recipe and the benefits far outweigh the time spent making them.

Your Ingredient list:

2 Cups Organic Oats (regular quick oats work fine as well)

6 Scoops Chocolate Protein Powder (or any flavor, just insert your powder’s flavor in the title instead of Chocolate)

8 Tablespoons All-Natural Peanut Butter (or Almond Butter if you are feeling fancy)

1 1/2 – 2 Cups of Water (depending on the mix)

Mixing Instructions:

Combine all of the ingredients (minus the water) into a large mixing bowl.  Start to mix everything together and slowly add in 1 cup of water.  As you continue mixing continue to add water at about 1/2 a cup at a time.  The mixture will be pretty dense so use a wooden spoon.  You don’t want to add too much water or the bars will end up being too sticky and gooey.  

When everything is all mixed together shovel the mix into a 9×9 pan.  Then press the mix into the pan to make it nice and even all around the pan.  

Cover the mix with either aluminum foil or wax paper and then place in the freezer for about an hour or so.  

When the bars are nice and rough (trying not to say hard here lol) you should be able to flip the pan upside down and hit the bottom of the pan to knock out the solidified bar.  If this doesn’t work use a knife or spatula to dig it out.

Cut the big block into 6 even pieces (once slice down the middle, then cut the halves into 3 even pieces).  

Wrap them individually in plastic wrap, then put them back into the freezer.

Take out one at a time and by the early afternoon if it’s been sitting in your lunchbox/company fridge it will be defrosted and ready to eat.

These Bars are delicious and an excellent healthy alternative to what you would normally have as a snack.

Here are the approximate nutritional values for each individual bar.  (Nutritional facts will vary slightly depending on the protein and peanut butter brands).

Calories: 350

Carbs: 28g

Protein: 30g