Today the buzz word in the gym is functional training. It has many meanings to many practitioners in the health and fitness industry. My understanding and implementation of functional training has come from a variety of sources including my own training and teaching in martial arts and numerous sports, combined with studying many of the leading experts in the field including Gary Gray (known as the father of function), Paul Chek (who is also known as the man who brought those big Swiss/stability balls to our gyms) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine to name but a few.
Here is a definition of functional training from the National Academy of Sports Medicine:
"All functional movement patterns involve deceleration, stabilisation and acceleration, which occur at every joint in the kinetic chain and in all three planes of motion." (1)
Let's break this definition down, as I believe it is important to know what is at the heart of functional training - as it is not just a case of doing exercises on balls or on one leg, for the sake of it.
Since most of us drive I will use driving as an analogy for functional movement.
There are muscles that are the brakes, while others are the accelerators, and both are supported by the clutch that helps dictate how fast or slow we will go. The core muscles often take on the role of the clutch as they are where the movement begins. As you know when you are driving a "real" car: to get it moving you need to first push the clutch to put it in first or reverse. (That's why I don't enjoy driving automatics like using machine weights - boring and it requires no skill or control). The clutch often sits in the background as it supports the movement, but your effectiveness with it is a big factor in how good a driver you are.
The kinetic chain is merely the link between all the parts if one of the links is broken (e.g. the battery), then you are in trouble and not going anywhere fast.
Three planes of motion is the steering wheel. We can drive backwards and forwards (sagital plane), swerve side to side (frontal plane) and make those circles round the roundabout (transverse plane).
To help you differentiate better, below is a list of terms Gary Gray has designed that describes whether our efforts are functional or non-functional. (2)
Link action Chain reaction
Gravity confused Gravity user
1 dimensional Multi-dimensional
Here are two of these terms explained:
Isolated vs. Integrated
The body only knows movements as it relates to function.
Isolation training gets results in terms of increasing muscle mass and strength because it allows you to fatigue individual muscles, but this often comes at the expense of physical freedom. Have you seen how some body builders walk around stiff and rigid - this is often the result of a lot of isolated exercises based on training individual muscle groups like a bicep curl. Athletes on the other hand may use isolated training, but will then use integrated training to achieve more effective movement patterns.
Real vs. Fake
Let's look at that machine in the gym that you lie on and then bring your feet to your bum - the hamstring curl. Where in the real world do you see this movement? However everyday we use some form or a lunge or squat to pick things up.
A helpful way to see functional exercises in action is through what Paul Chek describes as "Primal Patterns". Chek calls them Primal as they were the functional movement patterns we used to survive as early man. (3)
Now to specific functional vs. non functional exercises:
Bench press Push up
Lat pull down Pull up
Seated triceps extension Dip
Leg extension Lunge
Leg press Squat
Non-functional exercises have characteristics including being performed seated, on machines, involving single muscles in isolation, and not requiring the core muscles to stabilise. You should notice that one of the characteristics of functional exercises is that they involve using your body weight as a resistance. This ability is called relative strength. For example how many chin ups, push ups, squats, lunges, dips you can perform is an indication of your relative strength.
Summary on the benefits of functional training:
- Everyday life gains - integrated training helps you develop your muscles to work together synergistically as a team, resulting in an overall increase in strength, balance, co-ordination, and power
- Stronger core muscles - e.g. a push up will require your chest, arms, shoulders, and those important stabilising core muscles to work. While a seated chest press will allow the core muscles to sleep. Weak core muscles are one of the big reasons for our bad back epidemic.
- More muscles used equals more calories/energy burned J
- Time saved by working several muscles at once - one of the biggest reasons I often hear for not exercising is lack of time
- Money saved - you do not need fancy expensive equipment (or even a gym membership), just some basics including your body and a small space
Your 3d Coach
(1) PES online manual, Optimum performance training for the performance enhancement specialist, National Academy of Sports Medicine, 2001
(2) Functional video Digest series, Gray, G., available at
(3) Chek, P., How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy, Chek Institute, 2004
By Craig Burton BSc (Sports Science) NASM PES
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