I recently had a "Facebook discussion" with strength expert (and friend) Pat Flynn about the word “functional,” as it applies to strength training. Whether you strength train to simply get stronger, or you’re training strength to improve your swim/bike/run, I think this word is often misunderstood.
Here’s my take on what Functional Strength Training is:
1. Does the exercise have a sport or life application? “Functional” means an exercise trains patterns which look like, and feel like, an actual human (and sport) movement. An obvious example is a 1-leg squat, which mimics running. On the flip side, an example of an exercise which isn’t “functional” would be leg lifts from a pull up bar. Why? “Training” to flex at the waist (in this case, under significant low back load if not done perfectly) has very little application to anything you would do in sport or in life (unless you are a gymnast). What that exercise does do is lead to over development of the anterior core, which is often already over powered compared to the backside of the body. You want a six-pack? Start by doing "push aways" at the dinner table.
2. Does the exercise enhance holistic INTEGRATION and BALANCE? “Functional” means you’re training to improve your overall movement quality as a human being. In this instance, the “movement” training you do gets you stronger, enhances INTEGRATION (training all parts of your body working together), and ultimately leads to whole body balance (front/back, in/out). Balance means training to develop in a holistic way vs. training certain muscles in lieu of others leading to imbalances. Imbalances, as well as asymmetry, will often ultimately lead to a much higher risk of injury.
To summarize, exercises which don’t mimic life (or sport) patterns have little benefit when it comes to improving either our resistance to injury or our sport performance. Finally, if you’re doing more advanced exercises such as burpees, plyos, backsquatting with heavy weight--or KB swings/snatches (many of which ARE functional in my opinion, but more advanced)--you had better make sure you have the basics mastered first. What are some of the basics? Can you “stable” lying on your back lifting a leg, for example? If you don't have the basics mastered, you will get limited benefit from the exercises, AND you will, undoubtedly, be at a much higher risk of injury down the road.
Be great! ~Coach Al