How Functional is your ‘Functional’ Training?

Having been in the fitness industry for nearly two decades, I have seen my fair share of exercise trends emerging into the market, usually accompanied by a fanfare of claims that catapult them to huge popularity. This constant re-invention, although sometimes short-lived, is what keeps our industry moving forward and retaining interest amongst an ever more demanding audience. Some trends endure, and others, such as the many products featured on lengthy infomercials, fade away into obscurity: products like the 'Shaker Weight', for example, which also became the subject of much parody...

But some trends have a more positive impact, and have often revolutionised the business of fitness. Look at the success of studio cycling, or Spinning as it has come to be known: started by Johnny 'G' Goldberg in the late 80's, it has remained a steadfast feature of studio timetables worldwide, and has even managed to boost its popularity by headlining in the new breed of uber-cool fitness boutiques over the last few years - that's a 20 year run with no sign of it dying anytime soon.

And another trend that has stood its ground, and the subject of this post, is that of so called 'Functional' training, a term that most contemporary fitness professionals and exercisers will be familiar with. Functional training first started to appear in mainstream fitness in the late 90's, although it's methodology had been used long before this in sport by functional pioneers like Vernon Gambetta. Popularised amongst fitness professionals by educators like Paul Chek, functional training brought an exciting alternative to the hum drum, often machine based gym routines that were prescribed by trainers of the time. Its rise to fame was helped by the emergence of personal training, and the demand from a growing number of well-qualified professionals for more technical and personalised programming. Chek was a big hit with PTs, partly because he brought something very fresh and new, but also because he practised what he preached, and taught with an almost renegade style that appealed to trainers that were bored with just counting reps and pinning weight stacks. I remember watching Chek at a lecture in the UK, where he demonstrated 'functional' strength by inviting a heavyweight, serial bench-presser from the audience to try and push him over on stage - first with his back against a wall (as if he were on a bench), and then free standing. Despite the weight difference, Chek stood like a rock - it was a very powerful demonstration.

The functional training mediums of choice back then were the Swiss Ball and the Adjustable Cable, so it soon became commonplace to see trainers and their clients performing a multitude of movements on both. The Cable Woodchop (below video) became the de-rigueur 'core' exercise, and it was thought as sacrilegious to perform any abdominal exercises on the floor. But the ultimate test was probably the Swiss Ball Squat - and I don't mean the one with the ball against your back; I mean squatting ON the swiss ball, unassisted. But although a great test of stability and nerve, this didn't always end well, so please don't try it at home.

Like all trends however, functional training was open to individual interpretation, and its association with the Swiss Ball made it too readily connected to anything that involved training on an unstable platform. This led to equipment like wobble boards, Bosu balls and a whole host of circus-like paraphernalia appearing on our gym floors, in the belief that it was more 'functional' to perform traditional lifts on an unstable surface. The foundation of this belief was the concept of 'Core Stability', a key component of functional training, but one that ended up being over emphasised and misunderstood. The main focus of functional training back then was actually movement, and in particular, the strengthening of multi-planar movement patterns, as opposed to the fixed plane movements of traditional lifts and machines. It wasn't about performing lateral raises stood on one leg on a high beam...

The Functional Training revolution was a refreshing change to fitness programming in the late 90's, but was sometimes incorrectly associated with any type of training on an unstable surface. As a result, it wasn't unusual to see traditional lifts programmed on equipment like Bosu and wobble boards - usually the preserve of physiotherapists.

The Functional Training revolution was a refreshing change to fitness programming in the late 90's, but was sometimes incorrectly associated with any type of training on an unstable surface. As a result, it wasn't unusual to see traditional lifts programmed on equipment like Bosu and wobble boards - usually the preserve of physiotherapists.

So just what is 'Functional' training, and how does it fit in with modern programming. Well I think the answer really lies with the individual doing the training, and how it relates to the functions they perform in their daily life. A good example of how classical functional training fits in very well with this idea is in the game of golf: A golf swing involves the application of strength and power in a relatively predictable fashion through rotational movement patterns, something that can be well replicated on adjustable cable machines, and with items such as medicine balls. Paul Chek produced a whole series of manuals and videos on golf performance, and such equipment featured strongly.

But what if you don't play golf? What if your sport is Tennis, Soccer, or Rugby? And what if you don't play any sport, and your main function outside the gym in sitting at at desk for 8 hours a day? Well this is where the whole 'functional' debate becomes more clouded. Trying to replicate the infinite combination of stroke, position and velocity in more dynamic sports by using cables or unstable surfaces is nigh on impossible, so functional training for these activities may well involve a blend of traditional compound and Olympic lifts, plyometrics (explosive exercises), speed work, and of course, plenty of time on the field and court. And for the office worker, functional programming may simply mean exercise that boosts strength, increases muscle growth, improves posture, and reduces the risk of back pain. Something which could be achieved with a good routine of regular strength training using compound movements such as squats, horizontal & vertical pushing and pulling, combined with core strengthening exercises like the plank, hip bridge and Pallof press. And all without the need for wobbly platforms, where the functional focus quickly shifts from real-life, to circus-life.

I often use the term 'functional'  with my own clients and in my blogs to distinguish multi-joint exercises from isolation exercises. Although not strictly correct, it is more easily related to and understood in the context of everyday activities. For example, it is easy to see how there is far more functional carry-over in a squat, when compared to a seated leg extension. This also helps to get buy-in from those that are conditioned to more radical forms of functional training, as it is still believed by many to be the be-all-and end-all of exercise.

So if you're not recovering from ankle surgery, and you find yourself directed to perform some kind of balancing act in the gym because it's deemed 'functional', don't be afraid to question what you'll actually get out of it. If your goal is strength, muscle growth or weight-loss, the answer is probably "not a lot", so move on to something more straightforward, and save your pride in the process.