For reasons I have yet to fully understand, it has come to pass that certain types of exercise or pieces of equipment are now classed as “functional” while others are not.
According to a leaflet that was thrust into my hot little hands the other day, a new gym that’s just opened in my area contains a “functional strength training zone” with Kettlebells, Power Plates and TRX Suspension Trainers.
Precisely why an exercise done with a barbell or a dumbbell is less functional than one performed with a kettlebell, a suspension trainer or on a platform that vibrates is still something of a mystery to me.
“Functional strength training” ranks alongside “the core” as one of the most loathsome terms in all of fitness.
It leads people to believe that all other forms of exercise are “non-functional” and therefore less effective than something with “functional” written in front of it.
Read a few articles on the subject, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that anything tagged with the “functional strength training” label delivers a host of unique benefits that are beyond the reach of those employing any other training method.
Your friends will barely be able to conceal their amazement at the dramatic transformation in your sporting performance.
Top Hollywood producers will immediately offer you a multi-million pound deal to do all the stunts in the next “Bourne Identity” film.
Hugh Jackman will be on the phone demanding to know why he’s been kicked off the cover of Men’s Health magazine and replaced by a shirtless picture of you.
What Is Functional Strength Training?
Everyone has a different definition of what functional strength training actually is.
Although large numbers of people have spent many highly productive hours on the Internet arguing about this very subject, they have yet to come up with a definitive answer.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) defines functional strength training as “performing work against resistance in such a manner that the improvements in strength directly enhance the performance of movements so that an individual’s activities of daily living are easier to perform.”
Some will tell you that it’s all about training with sandbags, waterballs or other “odd shaped” objects. For others, the term “functional” is synonymous with the use of an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball or a wobble board.
Certain exercises are often dismissed on the basis they’re “non-functional” and therefore irrelevant to daily life or sporting activity.
The bench press is one such example.
“The bench press is a useless measure of strength and has no real-world application,” say the critics. “Other than powerlifting, there is no sport or daily activity that requires you to lie on your back and push a bar off your chest.”
To the critics, I say this.
Done correctly, the bench press is one of the best ways to build upper body strength and power. Both are physical qualities that are important for competitive athletes in a number of different sports.
The “positive transfer” of strength from one activity to another doesn’t require them to be exactly the same. Yes, the extent to which strength can be carried over from one activity to another will depend on how closely they resemble one another. But they certainly don’t need to be identical.
The leg press is another example of an exercise that the functional strength training brigade would rather you didn’t do.
Here’s an extract from an article on the subject:
“Train your muscles the way you actually use them—and build what’s called functional strength. For example, in real life you use your quads in coordination with your hamstrings, butt and core to pick up kids, climb stairs, and load Ikea furniture in the car. So skip the leg press and do squats and lunges instead.”
Labeling an exercise “functional” or “non-functional” ignores the fact that functionality is not determined by a small number of inputs, such as the use of a specific exercise or piece of equipment, but by output.
And by output, I’m talking about a positive change in whatever physical quality – strength in this case – that you’re trying to improve.
This will come, not from the exclusion or inclusion of a single exercise or training modality, but from a strength and conditioning program that incorporates many different exercises.
The term “functional strength training” is a redundant one. That’s because strength training in and of itself is functional.
If you can’t climb the stairs, pick up your kids or load Ikea furniture into your car, then you have a problem.
It’s a problem that’s quite easily solved by getting stronger.
And there’s no good reason why the leg press can’t form part of a program designed to make you stronger.
What if you want an exercise that more closely mimics a sporting action?
Jason Ferruggia has been thinking deeply about this subject for some time, and may have stumbled upon the answer:
“Take for example, a football lineman. He never presses while lying on his back, he only presses forward to block his opponent while on his feet.”
“What he needs is an exercise that starts with him coming out of a three point stance, exploding upward and then explosively pushing forward while contracting his abs, lower back and just about every other muscle in his body.”
“Hmm… how can we come up with an exercise that does all of that?”
“Oh I got it! It’s called football practice!”
Ultimately, functional training is nothing more than making sure there is a match between your goals and the training you’re doing.
If your training program moves you closer to those goals, then it’s functional.
If it doesn’t then it isn’t.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.