Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's Your Function?

There are a handful of buzzwords that have gained a lot of traction in recent years and most of them are being used or applied completely incorrectly by the people who are supposedly experts on the topic. Some of my biggest fitness industry pet peeve buzzwords are “core” “balance” and “coordination”. These are the pillars of the so-called “functional” fitness craze that has completely overtaken the fitness industry in the last decade. So today I want to take a little time to talk about functional training. It’s a broad topic and one that will, in some capacity, be the focus of more than one post. Today I want to take a look at where it came from and how it can be used properly depending on the population applying the concepts.  And as will become customary on this blog I will poke fun at a handful of people who are doing it totally wrong.

Let’s have a brief history lesson. In the 70’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Weider and the isolationist (ie. Bodybuilding) approach to training heavily influenced the fitness industry. Because of Arnold’s relationship with the Kennedy family he has long been on the board of the Presidential Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, even rising to the position of Chairman for several years in the early 90’s. With a competitive bodybuilder serving as the voice of the nation’s exercise recommendations of course machine based body part training became the exercise mode of choice. As is usually the case the pendulum eventually swung back the other way. However the pendulum appears to have swung to far in many instances

Not sure if I'm more impressed with his exercise selection or his sweet outfit
Functional training not only directly opposes the machine based body part style of training but also mirrors a lot of popular physical therapy modalities[1]. However, there are two key problems with this approach. One is that most physical therapists don’t know what they’re doing. And two is that even the good physical therapists are working towards eliminating pain and minimizing risk of injury. Outside of very specific situations your goal in training is probably not rehabilitation related so why mimic a training style based around that goal.

Some of the philosophy behind functional training is sound. Let’s make people exercise in a way that will translate to their daily functions while keeping them healthy and injury free. Improving balance and coordination is an admirable goal but if you think standing on a rubber ball while lifting very light weights is the best way to do that you are going to be sorely disappointed with the rest of this article.
Functional fitness should aim to improve your performance in your activities of daily living (ADL). Because everyone’s activities are different functional training can have a huge variance from person to person.

My stepdad lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere and has to spend a lot of his days lifting awkward heavy objects over his head and bending over to pick things up. So a functional training program for him will be designed around allowing him to do these things pain free. The program would be comprised of a lot of soft tissue work and mobility around the shoulders, a lot of hip mobility and bracing techniques and heavy loading for low volume. He is literally lifting things all day so there is no need to spend a lot of time working on weightlifting with him. Just enough to ingrain proper movement patterns and make the rest of the work he does easier.

This is Dan John, an incredible Track and Field and Strength coach. He is most known for his popularization of the goblet squat. The exercise is fantastic for teaching the squat pattern, strengthening and mobilizing the hips and strengthening trunk musculature

My dad is a similar age to my stepdad but would have a totally different program for restoring his function. He spends most of his day sitting, leading to fairy dormant posterior chain musculature (glutes, back extensors, scapular stabilizers etc.)  He wants to be able to do long distance bike rides on the weekend with his friends and be able to throw a football around on the beach with his family. Like almost everyone he has weight around his midsection he would like to lose. So his program will need to include a lot of hip and shoulder mobility but will include a lot more volume at moderate loads to allow strength building but also maintain some level of caloric expenditure. To improve his bike performance a lot of single leg strength will be emphasized (lunges, step ups etc.) Because he is older and still wants to do some agility related activities some ACL prehabilition exercises can be included in the warmup or as fillers between strength sets.[2]

True Function. No wobble board required
When people think of functional they often think of bands and rubber balls. I will address the use of various pieces of equipment in a later post but for now I just want everyone to understand that functional training is not a singular concept, rather it is a reflection of an individuals goals and needs. And almost everyone needs to get stronger and more mobile. Almost no one needs to get better at standing on a flimsy piece of rubber.

[1] My personal opinion is that the isolation based programs led to significant muscular imbalances by neglecting stabilizing groups and proper recruitment patterns, which led to a high incidence of shoulder, knee and low back injuries. In turn the industry as a whole responded by turning to rehabilitative exercise modalities as the main source of exercise instead of just lifting weights correctly. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You can lift heavy weights and build big muscles without herniating a disk or tearing your labrum
[2] The concept of fillers is one I learned from Eric Cressey. He’s a fantastic coach from Massachusetts. Heavy strength exercises require long rest periods to ensure optimal performance on subsequent sets but to be efficient with training time that rest interval can be filled with low intensity rehabilitation exercises or mobility drills

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