The term 'Functional' is thrown around lightly in the fitness world these days. It seems every week there are new techniques, new exercises and new theories. The inclusion of the term 'function' into an exercise description hints that the movement should specifically replicate or aim to improve a function or skill of the individuals daily life or sport. If there is no direct correlation to a movement, skill or function of that individuals daily life, then there should be no 'function' attached to the description.
So what is functional training?
Many natural movements are full body motions, requiring transferral of force and muscle activation from head to toe. Think about a tennis serve or lifting a heavy box. There are numerous joints and muscles working together to perform these movements and transfer force from the lower limb to the upper limb to obtain maximal strength.
Functional training generally involves whole body exercises, with a focus on controlled movement. There is a greater reliance on internal stability, with less support from benches. Often multiple planes of movement are involved, not just the sagittal plane, requiring more coordination.
What are examples or functional exercises?
This is a very specific and individualised answer. What's functional to one, is completely non-functional to another. For an 85 year old struggling to get up from a chair without arm assistance, repeated sit to stand exercises are highly functional strength exercises. To you or I, this is still functional, but not functional strength. We wouldn't be working to fatigue. For an AFL footballer, a functional exercise shouldn't involve bosu balls, as football isn't played on unstable surfaces. The footballer should focus on decreasing the base of support to single leg, or reaching outside of the base of support to make it functional. In contrast, an unstable surface such as a bosu ball might be highly functional for a surfer, and including bosu ball static squats might be an excellent functional strength or rehab exercise.
How can functional strength training help?
Our personal thoughts on this are that functional strength training can help improve biomechanical efficiency, where coordination and new movement patterns can be developed. Stability and control, as well as force generation can be improved with more focus on the internal stabilising system and less focus on external supports.
Who should use it?
We think everyone. I think times are changing and the footballer who goes to the gym to perform bench press and seated bicep curls, followed by crunches, is starting to wake up. That same player could be utilising far more practical exercises, focussing on strength through movement, standing exercises, stability in tackling, marking and fending off positions. They should be focussing on hip extension based exercises for power and speed generation for jumping and sprinting.
Other examples could be:
- A netball player performing single leg exercises and jump/land exercises onto a single leg to replicate the way one lands in netball, as well as improving proprioceptive control of the ankle, decreasing injury risk.
- A tennis player improving thoracic rotation strength through cable resisted rotation to help improve strength and mobility through the thoracic spine.
- A golfer performing hip hinge movements, as well as hip rotation exercises to help generate power from the ever-powerful hips.
- A gardener improving static quadriceps strength through static squats to help unload the lower back whilst gardening.
The options are countless for functional strength exercises, but we have to continually be providing individualised programs and constantly asking ourselves; 'what are we looking to achieve or improve in this persons life with this exercise?'
Let's put the 'function' back into functional exercise and start asking ourselves why we're doing single leg weighted squats on a bosu ball with our eyes closed.