In recent years, the term “functional training” has been tossed around in the personal training industry like pizza dough. But what is it really? Is it to mimic movements in sport? Or show how well you can perform challenging stunts on a Swiss ball?
Let’s first define function: “To work or operate in a proper way” (Thank you, Google).
Functional training basically means to train so that we can operate properly, move better and be stronger, fitter, or faster. To get daily tasks done with ease – To help a man lift his wife’s potted plants, a mother chase after her son, a swimmer rotate more so that he can reduce drag by moving like a fin through water. The list is endless. Function is a very vague term when it comes to fitness.
But as vague as the term is, the process of improving function is always the same:
1. Minimise muscle imbalances.
2. Get stronger.
We don’t mean balancing on a Swiss ball. Balancing on a Swiss ball is a skill. It doesn’t mean that because you can balance on one, your balance is improved all round. Me and a former colleague used to balance on a Swiss ball and try to push each other off during our years working as a personal trainer for a globo gym. We did that for one reason and one reason only – we were bored and had time to kill between clients. Here’s a funny but useless fact: I may be able to balance on a Swiss ball, but I can’t skateboard to save my life. So is my “balance” good because of “swiss ball training”? You be the judge.
Balancing on swiss balls is what we call “entertrainment”. Swiss balls have their place. Just lifting weights while balancing on one is not one of them.
I’ve seen pictures of people doing side planks with one foot on top of a dumbbell and the other in the air. What does it serve? I can only think of one reason – it makes a really nice (silly…. but nice to some) picture on your smartphone.
Then there is the school of thought that you need to do balance training if your sport requires it. That’s as good as saying you need to teach a swimmer how to float. Or teach a cyclist how to balance on a bicycle.
When we say get balanced, we are actually referring to a balanced musculature. No hamstrings that are too tight. No shoulders rounded forward etc. Problems like these lead to lack of mobility, injuries and hinder movement. Hence, they work against improving function.
Let’s look at the example of a boxer. Most boxers suffer from upper cross syndrome – where the shoulders are rounded forward and the chest is very tight. While most personal trainers would prescribe push and rotational exercises in a circuit environment year round to “improve performance” and cardiovascular capacity, they might actually be doing more harm than good.
i) If you contribute to a muscle imbalance caused by the sport, mobility gets affected and as strong as the athlete may be, he/she would not be able to produce force efficiently. Function gets thrown out the window.
ii) Adding high intensity training to an athlete who is already training at high intensities during his boxing training (which is his priority) is not going to do much good.
When a boxer is not attending his fight camp to prepare for a big fight, steps should be taken to fix out all his imbalances. Those shorter tighter muscles during fight preparation (usually about 8-12 weeks) will help him be more explosive. But apart from that period, steps should be taken to minimize injury and improve muscle balance. How do we do that?
As mentioned in a previous article to improve mobility, we have to first fix flexibility issues by stretching and doing strength work. When one muscle is tight, it’s usually because it’s compensating for a weaker or longer opposing muscle.
Lets look at the example of the boxer again –
Upper cross syndrome or rounded shoulders are caused by tightness in the chest and lats. When these muscles are tight, we need to lengthen them by working on the muscles in the thoracic spine (The middle of your back), and the external rotators in the shoulder.
Doing compound exercises will also keep him grounded and hence, he will also be able to produce more force.
By working on your imbalances, and getting stronger, your tasks (whatever they are) become easier. For those of you who enjoy attending our METCON classes, the challenges we give you at each session also become easier, making the workouts more doable and enjoyable.
By working on these 2 things, your body becomes more functional. When you function better, you train better and you function EVEN better after that. This continuously improving cycle is the biggest reward you will get from your functional training.
See you at the PIT