In the last decade, there is an explosion of the term ‘functional training’. If you Google the term ‘functional training’ you will find nearly 22 million hits, substantially more than, for example, for ‘resistance training’ (16 million hits). So, if Dr. Google says it’s important, it’s got to be, right? Well, to zillions of ‘experts’ that ‘graduated’ at the Google University or Youtube University, ‘functional training’ is the KING of all training types.
I must confess that I myself have been using this term and have contributed to the above-mentioned total number of Google hits. It took me a while to realize that we are using the term that has not been defined. And what is the result? We came to the point where any exercise training is ‘functional’. Furthermore, now we have functional nutrition, functional biomechanics, functional recovery, functional strength, functional balance…
Let us stop for a second and ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the true meaning of the word ‘functional’ (and functional training)? Second, how to decide which training is the most ‘functional’? According to the numerous dictionaries (Yes, I have used Google for that purpose), the adjective ‘functional’ means: 1. useful; 2. working normally; 3. serving a purpose. So, if you are strength & conditioning coach working in an individual or team sport, what is the purpose of your training? I would argue that the purpose of your training is threefold: (1) to improve (or maintain) athletes or team’s performance, and (2) to reduce the injury incidence, while (3) minimizing the long-term negative health effects of strenuous training and competition. So, if your training system is (on a long-term basis) fulfilling these purposes, it’s functional. In other words, the more transfer your training has on individual or team performance, AND the more injuries you prevent per season, the more functional your training is. Can we measure that? Well, we can, to a certain degree. For example, based on the transference of training effects, scientists and coaches from former Soviet Union classified exercises into general, special, and specific (see the classic book of Zatsiorsky – Science and Practice of Strength Training). Note that the latter group of exercise (i.e. specific) has the greatest transfer to sports performance. Of course, they did not do that for every sport, but mainly for Track & Field, Olympic weightlifting, combat sports, and some strength-endurance sports. Are you using these valuable information? Or you prefer overhead squats with 10 kg on a Physio ball and Mumbo-Jumbo corrective drills? Seriously, how many articles have you read on the topic of transference of training effect and on actual preventive effect of a particular training or particular exercise? After all, that is one way of expressing the ‘functionality’ of our training. Not many, I presume. Let me give a few examples of such articles.
Example 1: Seitz et al. (2014) have recently performed a meta-analysis to determine whether increases in lower-body strength (measured with the free-weight back squat exercise) transfer positively to sprint performance. Their results indicate that there is a transfer between increases in lower-body strength and sprint performance as indicated by a very large significant correlation (r = -0.77; p = 0.0001) between squat strength training effect and sprint performance training effect. So this study provided quantitative evidence of the transference of lower-body strength gains on sprint performance. But, we already know that, don’t we. Does this mean that we all need to improve our athlete’s lower body strength? Well, it depends – if the athlete has insufficient lower-body strength for the sport – then Yes! And we can do that with more or less success, depending on (among others) exercise choice.
Example 2: Arnason et al. (2008) prospectively evaluated the effectiveness of eccentric training on hamstring strain incidence in male football players. The authors reported that the overall incidence of hamstring strains was 65% lower among the teams that used the eccentric strength training program, compared with the teams that did not use the program. Again, this is an example of quantification of transference of use of certain training program on relevant outcome (in this case, injury rate).
Of course, we must not forget that the training is a long-term process. Thus, from the perspective of training young athletes, our choice of exercise cannot be driven solely by the criteria of short-term transfer of training effects. By contrast, despite often visible short-term benefits, too excessive use of specific exercises in youth athletes can have long-term detrimental effects. It is the goal of the coach to create the ‘functional path’ that will ensure long-term effects and career longevity.
What about personal fitness trainer who is working with non-athletic population? What is the purpose of such training? I would argue that the purpose of such training is twofold: (1) to improve individual’s physical fitness, particularly body physique (virtually every client wants some sort of morphological transformation), cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, and postural stabilization, and (2) to reduce the incidence of common musculoskeletal (e.g. low back and neck pain) and cardio-metabolic health problems. Can we measure the ‘functionality’ of our fitness training programs? Sure we can. All we have to do is to quantify the short- medium-, and long-term effects of our training on components of physical fitness (cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, body size and composition etc.), cardio-metabolic risk factors (e.g. blood lipids, heart rate recovery following strenuous exercise) and musculoskeletal health (e.g. incidence of low back and neck problems, assessed via special questionnaires).
What about the speed of realization of relevant training goals? Could this be a measure of training ‘functionality’? Let me respond to this question by giving you two examples from everyday practice.
Example 1: An important purpose of training was to improve client’s range of motion in the hip joint. The client first visited one personal trainer who spent 16 training sessions over 4 weeks trying to improve hip flexion, but with minor success. Thereafter, the same client visited another personal trainer who, with little help of skilled manual therapist, substantially increased client’s hip flexion in just 2 sessions, and taught the client how to successfully maintain the newly established hip range of motion. Which approach is more ‘functional’?
Example 2: The client’s goal was to lose weight (about 12 kg). He first started with the ‘revolutionary’ 4-week weight loss program that included severe calorie restriction and low intensity cardio training. He lost 8 kg in the first 4 weeks but regained those back 3 months later. After that, he went to a Health & Fitness center where they assessed his body composition and other relevant physical fitness components, evaluated his training habits, and developed a 4-month training and nutrition plan with 6-month follow up. After 4 months, the client lost 10 kg, while simultaneously gaining muscle mass. At follow up, 10 months after the initial consultation, he lost additional 3 kg, while maintaining muscle mass. Which approach is more ‘functional’? This example also illustrates the importance of other factors like nutrition and recovery on ‘functionality’ of our training.
To conclude, while we all should strive to make our training more functional, we should be cautious when using the term ‘functional training’. In current practice, this term is ‘overused’ and misleading. In my future articles, I will also deal with the classes of exercises and their specific characteristics from the point of view of their ‘functionality’. If you liked this article, please share it with your colleagues and friends in the field.
- Arnason et al. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2008;18: 40-48.
- Seitz et al. Sports Med. 2014;44: 1693-1702.