"Functional training" - Is it a misnomer?
You’ve all heard the term before. It’s hard not to hear it these days as every new gym is constantly bombarding you with it. Heck, I’ve probably said it a few times too.
But what actually IS functional training (other than an incredibly vague term)?
Let’s break things down and talk about muscles.
Muscles are what allow us to move! They are the only tissues in the body that can ‘contract’ and in doing so, help us move around and keep our skeletal structure upright. There are over 600 of them in our body and they all have a function.
Let’s look at the biceps brachii (aka the biceps). The biceps have a function, so wouldn’t training them be functional? We use them. Quite often, actually. I would argue yes - much to the ire of many ‘functional training’ zealots! Hear me out. The biceps’ main function is to flex the forearm (bend it) and supinate the forearm (turn your thumb away from you). We use this function in our lives, admittedly probably more so on a saturday night unscrewing a cork (you know who you are) but it is useful nevertheless. Moreover, the biceps can actually act as a humeral head stabiliser as it attaches to the shoulder. It can also act as an elbow stabiliser as it attaches to the elbow - particularly with those who have hypermobility in that joint.
Let’s use another example... A calf raise - is it functional? Absolutely.
Almost all of us will use our calves (gastrocnemius and soleus) every single day for walking/running/jumping etc. and strength in the calves will go a long way to adding stability through the ankle and knee joints.
When people attempt to explain ‘functional training’ they say it’s all about movements you do in everyday life that we have done since the dawn of time - eg picking up something from the ground and putting it back down.
It kind of makes sense, but then these same people insist that barbell deadlifts and back squats are the only ‘functional movement patterns’ and natural movements in the whole world. Last time I checked, there are no barbells in the wild. If your body can do it, it’s natural and has a function.
STRENGTH IS FUNCTIONAL.
Now am I suggesting that you go out and do nothing but sets of isolated biceps and calf exercises if you want to move and feel better? Obviously not. I am definitely a proponent of compound/multi-joint movements that involve recruiting a large number of muscle groups (think squat/hinge/pull patterns). They offer a lot of bang for your buck. But that’s not to say some isolation work does not have its place. It certainly doesn’t deserve the recent demonization that it has received, in my opinion.
So what’s my takeaway from all of this? Am I just trying to justify my increase in bicep curls now that summer is fast approaching? Partly.
However, my MAIN takeaway is to not get too caught up in the buzzwords. Don’t join a gym just because they said the word functional (and didn’t even explain to you what it meant - because chances are most of them won’t).
Understand that strength and mobility WHOLISTICALLY is what I would deem truly functional and there is no one particular exercise that everybody HAS to do, given that we all have different anatomy, mobility, training history, injury history, etc…
Understand that not everything works in absolutes and there’s no such thing as a bad movement.