Most fitness and training
facilities now have stability balls, foam rolls, balance boards and other
“fun” toys as part of their conditioning equipment. These are part of a new
trend in the strength and conditioning field called “functional training”.
Functional training is the
action of training “function”, a general term that means “role” or
“duty”. Functional training is the science of training the body to meet the
specific demands of life and sports. It is based on 1) the principle of
specificity and 2) muscle function. The principle of specificity also known as
SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) means that the body responds and
adapts specifically to the type and amount of physical demands under which it is
placed. In other words, you only improve what you’ve specifically trained.
Since muscle form dictates the role and function of each muscle, muscle needs to
be trained the way it is designed to function.
Functional training is nothing
new and comes primarily from the rehabilitation field. For many decades,
therapists have been experimenting with ways of helping their patients regain
function. Their goal is to retrain muscles to work properly using special
exercises. In their quest to help their patients to become more functional, they
have a developed functional training approach.
Traditional vs. Functional
Traditional strength training
usually consists of trying to develop strength and build muscle through
isolating specific muscle groups. This type of training could be called
“dysfunctional training” because it develops segmental strength. It is
adequate for building muscle but it does not train the body to meet the specific
demands of life and sports. It does not reproduce real life conditions and
therefore, can be considered to create “non-functional” strength.
Peter Twist, Vancouver Canucks
Strength and Conditioning Coach, explains: “Typical strength training attempts
to develop the body through a piecemeal approach, isolating specific muscle
groups. Worse yet, this is often done with the body unloaded, sitting stationary
on a machine while moving one isolated body part through a controlled range of
motion, usually in a strict linear, straight ahead motion”.
Traditional strength training
uses isolated muscle function while the functional approach trains the body to
work as a unit. The central nervous system is programmed to make the body
function as a unit, not to work in terms of isolated muscle function.
Benefits of Functional Training
This type of training has many
benefits but most importantly, it creates a healthy, well-conditioned body. Some
of the major benefits are:
- to develop kinesthetic awareness and body control
- to improve posture
- to improve muscle balance
- to decrease incidence of injury
- to improve athletic performance
- to have a positive effect on spinal health
- to enhance movement efficiency
- to improve both dynamic and static balance
Current opinions of some
strength and conditioning specialists indicate that functional training offers
more benefits overall than traditional strength training. A combination of both
is still possible if you are looking for the benefits of functional training
while looking to specifically develop muscles. As a rule of thumb, always
perform functional training first when your nervous system is still fresh.
“Highly functional exercises
need to facilitate as much multi-joint involvement as possible to create
muscular and joint interdependency. It also needs to challenge the body with
proprioceptively enriched exercises in an unstable environment that excite and
develop the nervous system” says Mark Cibrario, a specialist in functional
The body is designed to work as
a unit with muscles firing in specific sequences to produce the desired
movement. In each movement, various muscles are involved and they all play a
different role. The central nervous system, responsible for muscle activation,
is programmed for integrated kinetic chain movement which involves the agonist
(prime mover), antagonist (opposite to prime mover), synergists (assist prime
mover), stabilize joints while prime movers and synergists perform movement),
and neutralizers (which counteract unwanted action of others muscles). They all
work together to reproduce efficient movements as the body is not designed for
isolated muscle function.
It has been shown that the body
responds better to training in an unstable environment that challenges the
nervous system. This is the reason why functional training uses so many tools to
create instability. To train function, an exercise must engage the superficial
core muscles to help produce force, reduce force, or dynamically stabilize the
spine, along with the deep inner musculature to provide segmental stability and
stiffness to the spine. To be functional, an upper body exercise must also
activate shoulder joint stabilizers and neutralizers and a body exercise must
activate the hip, knee and ankle joint stabilizers. These exercises also need to
balance body segments over one’s base of support and challenge the body to
maintain ideal posture.
Mark Verstegen, a popular
strength coach from the International Performance Institute, says, “Your world
is 360 degrees: it’s chaos”. In other words, your body needs to train at
every angle and in every plane to mimic real life.
training is based on the principle of individualization. What is functional for
one person is not necessarily functional for another. Each person has different
functional needs and these needs have to be assessed before a functional
training program can be recommended and implemented. Thus, the exercises will
vary, based on a person’s needs and the specific demands they have to meet in
their daily life and in sports.
Functional training has many
benefits and should be part of any exercise program whether it is for
sport-specific conditioning, rehabilitation or general fitness. Traditional
strength training should serve as a complement to functional training. Not only
is functional training an excellent concept but it is also fun and challenging.
Become familiar with stability balls, balance boards and foam rolls and add a
whole new dimension to your workout.