There’s a lot of talk about functional training. In fact, this whole thing has been debated to death, and I’m about sick of hearing about it. However, I’ve never really put my own thoughts on paper so here goes.
In training, we go from the general to the specific. All trainees should have a firm base of general strength work before deciding which route to take in terms of the specific. General work is often thought of as basic barbell training (though some will disagree) extending all the way to sport-specific work such as plyometrics, chain and band work, etc. When the movements start resembling the actual sport, such as a keg carry, yoke walk, or stone throw, the movement is no longer an exercise, in direct terms, it is technique practice.
This is slightly ambiguous, and there’s clearly some gray area, but I feel there is a lot of room for general training; not only in exercise selection but also in programming. Technique, on the other hand, is what separates average trainees from the elite. A strong strength base is needed, but technique can often guarantee victory in sport.
Now if these specific exercises, such as keg carries or medicine ball throws, are a trainee’s way of staying fit, well I can’t argue there. My only qualm with these methods is that implements aren’t quite as readily available, as easily scalable, and aren’t as general, in terms of application, as barbell methods. The two most important aspects, in my estimation, are the factors of scalability and application. When we talk about functional training, we’re often discussing the development of core strength. While it’s true that core strength is important, it’s not often that these “functionally-fit trainees” ever touch anything truly heavy. How will this “core-strong” trainee fair when he has to lift something heavy and put it overhead? Is lifting something heavy not functional? The trainee has been so specific in developing core strength to the neglect of any pure maximal strength. Now enter barbell training. The trainee regularly lifts 400lbs off the floor and pushes 200lbs over his head. In order to do this he has developed quite the core strength, as he must with heavy training, with little neglect in other areas (perhaps endurance which can be easily attained).
This is the entire reason training should go from the general to the specific. General exercises, such as the squat and deadlift, improve the specific exercises. However, specific exercises, such as carries and throws, do not often improve the general exercises, though they can be synergistic. This is akin to learning how to walk before trying to run (and then running making it easier to walk). I’ve said before that strength is a top down approach, and this is just one more example.
When people talk about functional, or core, strength, the mention of stabilizer muscles is often brought up. Why?! Do these little muscles really contribute to everyday tasks as the “functional group” suggests? Why bring it up? It’s been my observation that the larger muscles do all the heavy lifting, and physiology clearly shows that a stronger muscle will take the lead when a weaker muscle can’t do the work. This is my beef with functional training. I’m guessing it’s these small stabilizer muscles that allow someone to do a human flag, but how in the world is that functional? We’re talking about the general population here. Grandma won’t be interested in doing a handstand push-up; she just wants the strength to take a stroll with her grandkids. If showing off in front of your friends is functional, more power to you, but I’d rather be able to toss bales of hay, help a friend move his furniture, hold my own in football, etc, etc. Perhaps I’m building a straw man here, but I don’t think I’m too far off base. So, back to why stabilizer muscles are mentioned, perhaps it’s a fear of injury. Maybe the functional group feels that if these muscles aren’t worked, then injuries might occur. Crossfit, who is known for their crazy antics of functional training, boasts several injuries, from herniated discs and ACL reconstructions to torn rotator cuffs and snapped patella tendons. They’ll even admit to five cases of rhabdomyolysis. On the flip side, weightlifting, as a sport, has one of the fewest cases of injury of any sport. No, I don’t know the numbers, but I can tell you from talking to ex-Crossfitters and observers that I’m, again, not too far off base. I’ve tweaked my back a couple times, and recovered faster from the second time (probably because I had a stronger back by then), and had some tendon pain that went away. Other than that, I’ve had no serious injuries. Powerlifters, on the other hand, often see injuries from bench pressing with poor form or tendon tears from steroid abuse. Fair enough. Really, I think way too much fuss is made over these little stabilizer muscles. These muscles, for the most part, don’t actually even do any lifting; they merely serve to keep joints in place and can be worked by simply walking.
Finally (hopefully), we come to actual strength athletes, Highland Gamers and Strongman competitors, whose job it is to be strong in these functional tasks. The great majority of these folks devote two days to barbell training and two days to event training. The closer they get to competition, the more time they devote to the events (which only provides more evidence of these exercises not being exercises at all, but technique work). I already said general training and specific technique work can be synergistic, but these guys and gals still see the importance of actual strength training in their program. I don’t believe this is dogma either, what with the real movement going on towards “functional training.” These competitors know there is a benefit to being strong, and how that strength increases their advantage for the events in which they compete. Form follows function, right? If we step back a moment and realize that the top competitors, those who compete in the events these functional guys think are the end-all-be-all of training, still perform basic barbell lifts, well that ought to tell us something, right? Or perhaps there are better ways. We’ll see how their training progresses, but it’s been that way for quite some time.
I’ll lighten up a little now and say that these functional lifts can be fun, at least a few such as odd carries, throws, and the like. I won’t ever think squatting on a bosu ball is in the best interest of any trainee or gym owner’s insurance company, but some lifts will have some benefit. For the general population, however, these exercises aren’t really necessary. People will do them because they’re fun, and that’s fine, but it’s my opinion that a strength program that is general, readily available, easily scalable, and easily monitored for progression will be of greater benefit to the average trainee for quite some time.