A few days ago I shared an image from Tudor Bompa’s fantastic book- Periodization Training For Sports.
It was a fairly innocuous picture, just a collection of triangular graphs really showing how strength, power and conditioning were best balanced for various sports. I followed it with a short paragraph about how ‘functional’ was really dependant on what you were trying to do.
But you guys really seemed interested in it!
So I thought I’d go into a bit more detail as to why the term ‘functional training’ might not be exactly what you think it is.
When most people think of ‘functional training’ they’ll think of flipping tyres, throwing med-balls and flailing battle-ropes.
It looks exciting.
It looks different.
It looks engaging.
This is why the ‘functional fitness’ movement really came to be. It was attractive to people looking for something more than a standard circuits class or running on the treadmills.
Many gyms adopted the ‘functional fitness’ style into their class schedules because it attracted more people to the gym.
But, in essence it was a pretty new frock for circuit classes to wear.
The equipment had changed and looked new and stirred peoples motivation up, but in reality, most of what is deemed to be ‘functional fitness’ is no more functional than anything else.
This isn’t because the classes are bad.
People certainly get fitter doing them.
The real issue is that the function in the ‘functional’ was never really identified.
(other than as a function for marketing departments to riff on)
This takes me back to our graphs from Dr Bompa.
You see, it’s hard to define function without knowing what you’re aiming to achieve. In order to have function, you must know what your goal is.
Do you need more strength? More power? More speed? More condition? How much?
The training you do to reach that goal is then purposefully designed to reach that goal based on the demands you need to meet to achieve it.
It might make more sense then not to use the term ‘functional’ to describe a broad range of training styles and methodologies as the function (or purpose) of the exercises and the way they’re incorporated can only be applied if you know what end you’re trying to meet.
Purposeful training does meet this criteria- it’s based around attained a certain skill or characteristic set to meet an end goal.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to see how the traditional definitions of ‘functional training’ really meet this. Very often they’re not thought out in terms of being a clearly defined route towards a predetermined end point.
It may sound like I’m trying to throw stones at ‘functional training’, but I’m not trying to decry the methods of training so much overall as the way it’s been named and therefore adopted as a catch-all method of fitness.
There’s nothing more inherently functional about flipping a tyre over doing deadlifts.
The function of the exercises come down to YOU. Your circumstance, your needs and your goals.
What’s functional for you, won’t be functional for me.
This is my fundamental problem with ‘functional training’- it makes people think that the equipment being used is more important than the way it’s applied.
It’s a bit like saying a hammer is the only functional tool in the tool-box. Enough people start saying it and more people think it’s true.
But what if you need to put in a screw? You can try and bash it with the hammer, it might even go into the wood, but it’s definitely not the best way of getting the job done!
You know what’s actually functional out in the real world?
Being healthy and strong.
I think what most people who are drawn towards ‘functional training’ are looking for really is to improve their health.
They want to feel that they’ve got that vitality that lets you take stairs two at a time! They want to carry the shopping in without struggling and to move the furniture without hiring in removal men!
Because of this, unless you’re an athlete with a determined goal in mind to dominate a certain sport, the best way you could look at (and name if you want!) your training is as ‘healthful’ training.
Aim to be healthier- that’s probably the most functional and purposeful thing you could do.
And the most important things you can do for your health are to lose some weight if you’re carrying some extra. Make sure that your mobility and flexibility are decent and build strength in key muscle groups and joints. Throw in some cardio around that and you’re set!
If you choose to do this with tyres and ropes because that’s what gets you excited to exercise then that’s awesome!
Everyone should be excited to exercise.
But don’t ever let the equipment get ahead of the purpose.
If it’s not helping you get healthier anymore or it's just not engaging to you then change it up. Do something else.
Functional fitness then isn’t a fitness class. It isn’t a tyre or a rope. It isn’t a barbell or a kettlebell.
It’s how you apply those tools with the purpose of enriching yourself.
So figure out what's going to be functional for you and get yourself a plan to achieve it!
You can follow me on social media too for daily updates and generally helpful fitness info- facebook @runjumplift1 and Instagram @run.jump.lift
You can also find all my previous articles here- www.runjumplift.co.uk/articles
If you’ve got any more questions you want answering you can send me an email- firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help.
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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