By Ivana Chapman CSCS
One of the fundamental changes in the fitness world for over a decade is the trend towards functional training. The term recognizes that bodies should move in natural patterns rather than in isolated muscle groups. Although the origin of functional training appears to be from rehabilitation, functional exercises provide benefits for healthy athletes and the general population.
Defining Functional Training
Functional training involves exercising through natural movement patterns, rather than forcing the body through a fixed range of motion on machines or performing isolated movements that target single muscle groups. Exercises can be performed with bodyweight, or with equipment such as kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, cables, stability balls, sandbags, rocker boards, and resistance tubes.
Primal Movement Patterns When we look at the body’s ability to move, there are seven movement patterns that are involved, often referred to as primal movement patterns: squat, lunge, push, pull, bend, twist, and gait (walking/running). Any exercise that involves one of these movements could be considered functional (i.e., a barbell squat could be considered a functional exercise).
Benefits for Athletes Since athletes push their bodies in multiple planes of motion, they need to train themselves to be strong in all of these movements. While a few sports (Olympic lifting, power lifting, and some track and field events) only involve one or two of these patterns, most sports involve many of these movements to be used in competition. Through functional training, an athlete learns to simultaneously recruit all major muscle groups while moving in multiple planes.
Purpose for the General Population
Functional training has become a buzzword in gyms because the exercises are time-efficient and prepare people for the physical demands of their lifestyles. Bending over to pick up a child, moving furniture, and sprinting to catch the bus are typical examples of potential demands that might be faced over the course of a day. Being prepared to complete these tasks can come through a progressive program of functional training.
Prevention of Injury Sedentary lifestyles predispose people to weak and tight muscles that perform poorly when challenged by full range movement patterns. For athletes, the added intensity of competition can put muscles, ligaments, and tendons under abnormal strain in multiple planes of motion. Through functional training, the strength and mobility to deal with these stressors can be acquired in a balanced manner.
Training for Life Most people want to feel stronger and more able to perform their everyday tasks with vigor and enthusiasm. Preparing the body with functional training makes bending over to pick up objects, reaching up to put dishes on a high shelf, or carrying groceries home from the store less challenging. Training the body functionally prepares it to better perform from day to day.
The body is an amazing machine, and it is designed to function as a whole rather than in isolation. While functional training appeared to be a fad a few years ago, it now seems that using natural movement patterns can improve performance in both athletes and the general population.