The myth of functional training

I was inspired to write this post about functional training since this term has been misunderstood by many personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches as well as by physiotherapists. Almost everyday I witness, even on high-level sport training, what coaches and trainers do when it comes to “the functional training”!

What is the origin of the functional training idea? Who was the first to bring up this training modality to everyday life? Functional training has its origins in rehabilitation. Good physical therapists often use this approach to retrain patients with movement disorders. The whole idea is to work with patients after, for example, knee operation not only to regain full ROM at the knee joint but also to regain full movement pattern such as squat or lunge. After terminating with their physical therapy, patients-athletes are often released from medical institution just because they do not feel pain anymore. Without regaining the movement pattern they are doomed to a new injury sooner or later. FT can help people-athletes with no medical history to restore some basic movement patterns, which have been lost due to the lifestyle and/or wrong training approach. Movement patterns are often lost not because of the negative structural changes in muscles or joints, but because the nervous system is continually sending alarm messages to certain muscles and inhibitory messages to others. Therefore, functional training is actually every training approach used to address certain muscle imbalances.

Functional or?

And this is where the problem for me begins? Well, some trainers and physical therapists (who want to become trainers) are thinking too much and often come with great conclusions.
Example number 1:
If staying on Bosu ball can improve stability of the foot and overall balance than I can load that position and do 1 leg RDL (or whatever the name is for that exercises but you know what I mean) with barbell with as much weight as possible!! Oh boy, this is completely wrong! Why? If we follow the basic principles of human movement and strength training, we know that we should respect joint centration and how important is to do exercises to improve strength. Now try to do 1 leg RDL with barbell in your hands staying on the Bosu ball and try not to a) round your spine, b) have ankle-knee-hip aligned, c) put load on your hip properly keeping tibia relatively vertical! Impossible!!!
Example number 2:
I analyzed every tennis movement in detail and now I’m going to load those specific movements to improve power output. We are going to do forehand in open stance on cable apparatus with 10 kg with fast and explosive movement, like those that happen during the match or practice… Very stupid! Why? Because with this much weight (racket weights some 300 grams) the athlete will most certainly change its technique (tennis coach is not going to be happy about that), the speed will change as well – he will not be able to move 10 kg at the same speed as with the racket and from the specific power standpoint this is waste of time. Last but not least, the body will start to compensate – in order to move 10 kg quickly, some “wrong” muscles will start to do the job.
I could continue listing this kind of examples forever…heavy squats standing on fit ball, push ups with feet and hands in the TRX, split squat standing on 2 Bosu balls etc.

Real FT approach or whatever the name of that approach is

Generally we use unstable surfaces as type of training when we want to increase strength/reaction time of muscles responsible for proper stabilization. What Gray Cook was teaching us for so many years is that muscles that stabilize don’t need so much strength training, but good timing and reaction. Rotator cuff muscles could be showing high EMG during external rotation with elastic band, but during the pull up they are working even harder to keep humeral head into glenoid fossa and that is their primary task!
The basic idea of FT is to get to work our local and global muscle system in coordination. The LMS (local muscle system) is a group of small muscles located close or around the joint and responsible for adequate centration and stabilization, whilst the GMS (global muscle system) is a group of big and strong muscles, the so-called prime movers, because they are mainly responsible for producing powerful movement. These 2 systems can work efficiently only if a perfect joint centration during movement is present. If one of your femur bones has the so-called “anterior glide syndrome”, you have limited access to strength and power in that hip. In order to explain better how these two systems should work imagine a car where LMS is transmission and GMS is the powerful engine. If the transmission doesn’t work efficiently with proper timing to change the gear all that force that engine has cannot be expressed efficiently.
For example, if we have a client and we want him to do lunges or split squats but one knee is caving in during these movements, we need to introduce some functional training approach with some RNT techniques, using some unstable surface to engage more properly core firing and glutei activation. After we regain this fundamental pattern, the next step is to load that pattern and not to progress with unstable surface. We want to do as soon as possible the real “heavy duty” training and not certain circus training.
If someone shows me a perfect “eagle” squat with 2×24 kettlebells, I’m not going to put him on the balance board so he could show me if he can do it there. Instead, I’m going to give him 2×26…
And finally, for every client/athlete functional training should bring result in the everyday life/sport with regard to the improving ROM, stability, motor control of basic movement patterns – squat, hinge, push, pull and locomotion. If one exercise can improve some of these movements, I will call it functional.