Magazines love to write about it. Gym goers love to talk about it. The ironic thing is that there is probably no other term that is so overused, misused and misunderstood than functional training. So, let’s talk about functional training and functional fitness, answer some of your questions and hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions about this useful training tool.
For our purposes, we will define functional training as multi-planar, multi-joint “free weight” exercises that are frequently ground based (standing, though not always) and will also incorporate speed and explosiveness where appropriate. Remember speed explosiveness is relative to the individual. In other words, what is fast for a college athlete is very different than what is fast for someone in their 60’s.
Another way to define functional training is to discuss what is isn’t. For example, just because an exercise looks cool doesn’t necessarily mean it’s functional. We’ve all seen those crazy YouTube exercise clips and 99% of them are not functional training.
To me, balancing on a Swiss ball with a barbell on your back, or worse yet, jumping from Swiss ball to Swiss ball isn’t functional. It’s not strength and conditioning. It’s just stupid! Those skills have little to no carryover to real world activity despite what some “experts” might claim. They could be good at Cirque de Soleil but that doesn’t make them functional.
In the real world, we usually move over the ground (or surface) not the surface moving under us. This is an important point that most people who design strength and conditioning programs overlook. Going hand in hand with this is the question “do the benefits of the activity outweigh the obvious risks?” If you get injured while training what good have you done yourself?
What do I mean by “free weight?” While definitely not all-inclusive, here is a list of some of the tools / modes of work that make up the world of “free weight” training:
- functional cable units
- Battling Ropes
- medicine balls
What do all of these things have in common? The user determines the path (or plane) of motion. As such, the path of motion is not fixed or predetermined as is the case with virtually every weight machine on the market.
Now I know I will hear a cry from the weight machine crowd about how machines are safer? Says who? The machine manufacturers that’s who! How about that for an unbiased source!
I challenge anyone to find any peer reviewed, scientific research to back up the inherent safety superiority of machines over free weights. Good luck!
Now I am not such an absolutist that I can’t think of a few scenarios where weight machines may be useful (though I’m hard pressed to think of any at the moment). I know this because in our Fitness Together facility we train people from 10 – 85 years old. Some of these people have Parkinson’s, spinal fusions, orthopedic issues etc. Guess what? We don’t use weight machines. We use all of the tools mentioned above because that is how the body is meant to move.
If you are paying a trainer and they use predominantly weight machines in your program, in my opinion, you are wasting your money. Why would you do that when virtually all of the information you need is printed on the machine itself? Unless you need someone to read those directions for you, don’t waste your money!
A free weight training program properly designed and implemented is the most effective functional training program for virtually everyone. I have even worked with a blind person and I have trained people in wheelchairs using these tools and methods.
To me, functional means real world which means you aren’t constricted by predetermined paths of motion because in the real world most of us aren’t sitting down with a stabilized back while doing our daily activities (ADLs). So why would you train that way? Just a thought.
Bruce Kelly MS CSCS is a personal trainer and the owner of Fitness Together in Media Pa.