Functional Training Redefined


“Be real – Avoid artificial restraints and positions.” ~Vern Gambetta, in reference to functional training.

Could this activity and movement be considered functional? Photo by Ryan Crandall.

In the early 2000s, the term “functional training” was new and en vogue, and it still is today at a lesser degree. However, fitness and sports professionals have conflicting and varying definitions of what is considered to be functional training? Is it about moving in multi-planar directions? Moving multiple body parts together? Balancing on a stability ball and do a barbell squat?

Maybe the client is the one standing and the trainer is the one squatting.

In spring 2011, physical therapist Gray Cook, author of “Movement,” wrote an article of about being strong does not necessarily equate to being tough. This topic leads to the definition of functional training, which implies that “your ability to adapt and tolerate various forms of work and naturally become more efficient.” So the key ideas are adaptation and efficiency. Thus, it can be defined that any exercise that enhances your ability to perform work, sport, and/or survival rate in general can be considered functional training–regardless of what method is used.

How is that exercise above or any exercises you commonly see at a typical gym to be efficient? Can they be adaptive? Absolutely. Do they improve movement? Not really.

Take a look at these two trainees from Rocky IV. One has the training brought to him in a controlled, modifiable environment. The other has to go to the training environment and adapt to overcome his own limitations.What would be the psychological outcome of each trainee? Both turns out to be stronger, more durable, and adaptive, but who is tougher? Who is most likely to survive?

Paul Chek once wrote an article about abdominal strength and function from a primitive human’s perspective. Did the early cavemen do hundreds of situps a day to get their bodies stronger and adaptive to hunt and survive? Does this and other exercises and movement we see in late-night commercials enhance movement?

Courtesy of Paul Chek.

Too many fitness and rehab professionals, sports coaches, and therapists debate about methods rather than principles. They would argue whether deadlifting with a barbell is better than a kettlebell, jiu-jitsu vs. kung fu, Crossfit vs. Zumba, bodyweight training or machines. What they fail to discuss (even myself included when I first started in the industry) is the underlying cause of the problem that the methods are supposed to address. If we do not agree on principles, how can we figure out which method to use? What would be the best for any given, circumstantial situation?

For example, if my mom has back pain and seeks help, what would these professionals say about how to fix her pain? A general physician may suggest medications to ease the pain. An chiropractor may suggest adjustments two times a week for three months or for the rest of her life. An physical therapist may suggest corrective exercises that are protoccol-based. A typical gym trainer might put her on a back extension machine, hoping that it will strengthen her lower back to ease the pain. With so many different methods, no one has common grounds about why my mom has back pain. How would you feel if you were in this situation?

Does everyone who has back pain or weakness do the same exercises? Can professionals assume that following a protocol without understanding the nature of the problem will solve it?

Professionals who defend and stick with their own methods and principles because those methods and principles define who they are and what they do. It revolves around their own personal and professional perceptions on how to deal with the problem.

Neuroscientist and artist Beau Lotto stated in a TED Talk event, “The brain did not evolve to see the world the way it really is — we can’t. We can’t help but to see things according to history — our own history and that of our ancestors — because we are defined by ecology. Not by our biology, not by our DNA, but by our history of interactions.” Thus, it is easy to fall into our own system of beliefs in dealing with problems and believing that our method is the only method that works.

As Cook once stated in his workshops,

If you discuss principles first, the methods will take care of themselves.

Courtesy of Laree Draper.

Bottom line: If you clients or patients are happy and pleased with the results you have given them, and you have solved their problem, would the method really matter?

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