The new buzzword in the sporting domain seems to be “Functional”. Everything these days is has this F word attached to it. I have read and known of Functional Nutritionists, Functional Strength and Conditioning, Functional Medicine, Functional Biomechanics, Functional Psychology etc. etc. (If you don’t believe me, search all of the above terms on google and see how many hits you get for each discipline preceded by the F word).
I am a bit old school you know, when I see this word in front of a scientific discipline or I hear about functional training I get a sudden increase in blood pressure. This makes no sense. To all the young practitioners out there, please do not fall into this nonsensical trap. You don’t need to separate functional training from training. Training is training and is made to improve someone’s performance in the sport of choice.
Let’s first of all understand what the word “Functional” means. Functional is an adjective and it means “designed to have a practical use” or “working properly” according to the Merrian-Webster dictionary. The wiktionary link is here.
So, if you are a strength training coach working in any sport, you should design training which improves performance in that sport. By definition your training should have a practical use and should translate into improvements on the field. So there is no need to add the word functional to everything you do as if it isn’t you should not be there. Functional strength training is no different from strength training. The only difference is in the ability of the coach to design an appropriate training programme to improve performance in the specific activity performed by the athlete/client. However marketeers of course have an interest in making sure it is perceived to be “different”. There is a whole market to books, courses, DVDs, tools, T-shirts to sell. And perception in young coaches is now that if you use Olympic Lifts you are not “functional”. Nonsense.
Every training programme should be tailored to the need of individual athletes and their abilities/shortcomings. It does not need the functional adjective, because by proxy it should be functional. It’s the same with nutrition, isn’t it about getting people healthier/slimmer/bigger? So it is functional per se. What is the difference between a functional nutritionist and a nutritionist? Aren’t they all try to design diets which have a practical use? What about a functional biomechanist? How different is from a biomechanist? And a Psychologist or a Physician? Isn’t medicine supposed to be about having a practical outcome (health)? So why Functional Medicine? Do you know of anybody trying to do non-functional medicine (I might say I could write a thing or two about dysfunctional medicine…)?
The supporters of so called functional training claim that this is the ONLY way to improve sports specific movements. However when I see videos like the ones below, I lose it. Can this really be considered a training session? How many of the exercises/activities could be done in other ways? Is this intensity/activity really going to improve performance?
(Just to make it clear, I am not criticising the manufacturers of the equipment used, I am just trying to understand what the training prescription is supposed to do.)
Strength training is about improving strength. In order to do this, you do require to lift/push/pull relatively heavy loads (see generic recommendations by various organisations on different groups ACSM, NSCA) in a progressive manner. Performing few sets of 30 repetitions of pulling or shaking a rope will not improve your maximal strength unless you are completely untrained. Also, if I try to use the functionalist approach,can somebody explain me how shaking a rope is “functional”? functional to what exactly (tug of war has not been in the olympics since 1920)?
So let’s not get polarised between the so called “functional” and the so called “conventional”. There is nothing to be polarised about. Strength training should be designed using appropriate exercise modalities with appropriate loading with appropriate movement patterns to make sure that the athlete improves in the tasks he/she needs to perform and also reduces the chances of injuries. With that in mind, it is clear that in a well designed programme there is space for various things which might involve free weights, barbells, dumbbells, maybe some isoinertial devices etc etc. What the S&C coach needs to know is what loading each exercise is likely to apply to the body and by assessing progression of the athlete the coach needs to understand if the programme has been effective. Too many times I hear coaches and S&C coaches say “my programme works” but sometimes the evidence (data) is not there.
Anytime a so called “functional” exercise is proposed, it would be worthwhile discussing aspects like:
– What is the loading (force/power/speed of movement)?
– Which muscles are used?
– Can the activity cause injury?
– How does each exercise prescribed fit in the training plan and in trying to accomplish the right outcomes?
– After a period of training did the athlete improve? In what? And how does that affect his/her performance in the chosen sport?
Only after the last question has been answered we will be able to find out if the training prescription has been functional or dysfunctional.