Why “Functional Training” is a Meaningless Term

Posted February 16, 2015 by

Spark a conversation about training philosophy with a group of personal trainers these days and you’re bound to run into at least one that espouses the claim that “functional exercise” is a vastly-superior method of training for any trainee, regardless of their goal or circumstance.

Such proponents often argue that functional training methods provide “real world strength”–the idea that the skills learned in training will transfer directly to the skills needed in life–and that other forms of training (particularly, typical bodybuilding methods) will provide no similar carryover of benefits.

While these arguments can be convincing and might contain some good points, the underlying concept is flawed for one simple reason: “functionality” is a relative term.

Let’s take a look at the official definition of the term functional: “of or having a special activity, purpose, or task; relating to the way in which something works or operates.”

If we want to create a definition that relates more specifically to the field of fitness, we might say that functionality is, “building movement patterns, skill sets and strength in areas that directly correlate with one’s needs.”

Regardless of which definition we use, the bottom line is that what is considered “functional” for one individual may or may not be considered the same for another. Each of us has unique needs in life as well as unique limitations that are often overlooked by these wide-sweeping generalities.

Unique Individuals Have Unique Needs

To help visualize what I’m talking about here, let’s take 3 different individuals with vastly different needs and circumstances: a 30-year-old NFL running back, a 21-year-old amateur female fitness competitor in the bikini division, and a 45-year old mother of 3 who has never worked out in her life and suffers from herniation of the lumbar spine.

The professional football player’s required movement patterns, skill set and strength would obviously need to relate directly to his profession–football, and specifically, to his position. Thus, speed/agility/quickness (SAQ), power and maximal strength would be three major areas needing focus.

Optimal training for this individual (and the most “functional” given the definition above) would focus primarily on these three areas, with some potential secondary focuses like overall mass, flexibility and/or postural control, depending on what weak points are present in the athlete, if any.

In contrast, a female bikini competitor’s main focus would be on muscle shape, size and balance, as well as conditioning. Assuming she isn’t also a field athlete of some sort, she would have little need for improvements in SAQ, power, or maximal strength.

That’s not to say that each of these would not improve indirectly from her training. After all, someone in a beginning or intermediate stage of fitness would most definitely see increases in strength from the vigorous and consistent training required to prepare for a competition. It would not be the focus of her training however, nor would measuring these areas provide accurate insight into her chances of success or failure.

Optimal training for a bikini competitor would revolve around hypertrophy-focused exercise and probably some inclusion of high intensity intervals or steady-state cardio for helping speed along fat loss.

Finally, the mother’s main focus might be to lose some weight, gain energy and learn to perform every day tasks in a way that doesn’t cause her pain in her lower back. Maximal strength, separation between the deltoids/triceps, and speed off of the line are probably completely irrelevant to such an individual.

Movements in all three planes of motion that emphasize balance, core control, proper form and bodily awareness will relate much more closely to the results such a trainee is looking for.

Important Considerations: Effectiveness and Safety

Training techniques that benefit one of the above individuals may have no benefit for another. For instance, while the mother of 3 might receive great benefit by learning a kettlebell goblet squat or performing bodyweight reverse lunges while holding suspension straps, these moves might be too rudimentary for anything other than a warm-up for our running back.

Likewise, while banded squats might fit in perfectly to a running back’s training regimen, the carry-over to the physique athlete or the mother of 3 would likely be minimal at best.

It’s also important to understand that at different points in a person’s training program, there can be different needs. Going back to the kettlebell goblet squat and running back example, immediately post-season during a corrective exercise phase, the goblet squat could be an excellent choice to provide time for the athlete’s back to recover from the season, and to reinforce the proper squatting pattern in preparation for more advanced strength phases further into the offseason.

To take it a step further, if we look at the needs of the mother with a back injury, it becomes quite clear that universally-applied rules of training might not only be inefficient and wrong, but can potentially be dangerous as well and lead to injury.

While barbell back squats, deadlifts and power cleans would likely be excellent foundational movements for the running back, these moves could prove disastrous for the mother of 3. She may not even be able to get into a proper squatting or deadlifting position, much less be able to support the force against her spine without exacerbating her herniation issues.

The same can be true for athletes as well. One group that serves as a prime example are baseball pitchers. Certain movements that involve the shoulder that are of great benefit to some trainees can cause major issues or be difficult to perform for pitchers due to their unique muscle imbalances in the shoulder–particularly with regards to the range of internal/external rotation in the pitching arm vs. the other arm.

One might assume that the answer is to simply “fix” the pitcher’s shoulders so that the range of motion is symmetrical between the two and so they’re able to perform these “functional” movements, but it’s important to keep in mind that this imbalance is precisely what provides such an athlete with the ability to pitch a baseball at 95 mph with incredible accuracy.

“Fixing” the imbalance in this case would actually negatively affect the performance of the athlete. In some cases, mobility exercises that can prove to be highly beneficial to the general population can actually cause damage to the pitching athlete’s shoulder. Given our previous definition of the term, would that still be considered “functional” training? Seems more like dysfunctional training to me!

A Better Approach Than “One Size Fits All”

All this is to say that individual needs (which determine “functionality”) are incredibly unique and often dynamic in nature. Thus, it’s impossible to claim that specific exercises or training methods are universally “functional,” as what is functional to one may not be functional to the next.

Of course, and ironically, most of the exercises these days that are referred to as “functional” are actually anything but for just about anyone other than a Chinese acrobat. Barbell squats while balancing on a stability ball, single-arm-single-leg-rotating-kettlebell-clean-with-jump-press-into-handstand-push-ups, etc are little more than overly-complicated, dangerous circus acts that are not only impossible to master, but also prevents proper progression and intensity which limits any beneficial results you would get.

If you’re a coach, be sure you’re looking at each client’s needs individually and avoid falling into the “one size fits all” mentality–even in the name of functional training, and make sure any movement you have your clients doing serves a purpose that you can articulate. If you’re an athlete/trainee, just remember that what might be right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you, and figuring out what fits your unique situation most optimally is the best thing you can do for your training program and results.

As long as what you’re doing is helping you move towards your goals/the goals of your client, then rest-assured that the training is as “functional” as it needs to be.

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