In recent years, the term functional training has been one of the most widely used in the fitness sector. Most of the new training equipment and materials are self-classified within this new product category. Most of the companies that sell small training material have created a section in their catalogues to group all those “functional training” products.
Large manufacturers of heavy equipment have developed a device (usually a pulley system) for “functional training”. (e.g. the KEISER Functional Trainer) Some trainers describe themselves as offering “functional training” and even present themselves as “functional trainers” .
Interestingly, in the field of sport, this term has gone rather unnoticed. That’s because they are above fashions, marketing names, concepts and methods that hypnotize us fitness professionals. Maybe it’s because they’re not for nonsense. If it works, produces results and improves performance, that’s it. Functional training? No. Training! That’s it.
Leaving aside any conceptual, semantic or terminological reflection (it could be a future blog post), I am going to collect four basic ideas that we should consider if we want to train the human body respecting and taking into account its functioning “in function” (worth the redundancy).
The Force of Gravity and Soil Reactivity
When we think of any gesture, action or movement, the first thing we should consider is how the body relates to the environment. And on Earth there are two forces that are always there, that we always have to deal with and that play a fundamental role in producing movement: the force of gravity and the reactive forces of the ground.
The first draws us to the ground, pushes us down, constantly and continuously. The second, when we are in contact with the ground, pushes us upwards, with the same intensity as the first. They are opposing forces, but inseparable and complementary. We need them to live and to move. We live between these two forces. We move between these two forces.
The wonderful thing about the human body is its ability, through the use and integration of all its systems and structures, to not only withstand that continuous pressure, but how it uses those same forces to its advantage, to move with a lower energy cost.
It reminds us of the techniques of the judokas, where the smallest one can knock down the biggest and strongest one, with a minimum effort, if he is able to take advantage and use in his favor the biggest force of the opponent, to knock him down.
Think about the difficulties of astro-nuts to move in space and the physiological adaptations of the body to that absence of gravity (for example, loss of muscle mass and bone mass). This leads us to the second idea I want to share: how we take advantage of these forces to generate movement.
Load to unload
Descriptive anatomy teaches us that muscle contraction is mainly concentric, and that muscles generate force during contraction and bring origin and insertion closer together.
But that perspective, if it were real, would be very inefficient (both from the point of view of the magnitude of the force generated, and from the consideration of the energy cost it would represent). What do we do when we want to jump? Do we go up or down first? And when we throw an object?
The functional anatomy shows us how the nature of the muscle contraction is, first of all, of an eccentric type.
The body takes advantage of the forces of gravity and the reactive forces of the ground to accumulate elastic energy during the eccentric action (thanks to the stretching of the muscle-tendon and fascial components), energy that is added to the muscle contraction itself to generate higher levels of strength with a lower energy cost.
This is what we could call elasticity. When the basketball player runs towards the opposite basket, he stops bouncing, takes the ball in his hands and takes the two steps that the rules allow, he accumulates elastic energy by slowing down the run and flexing his ankle-knee-hip in the last step (loading) before propelling himself up (unloading) and shooting. This mechanism allows you to jump higher.
But this does not only happen in explosive sports actions.
When running or walking, the counter-lateral and opposite action of arms and legs cause a certain rotation that results in a stretching of the muscular, tendinous and fascial structures (arranged diagonally, both in the front and the back of the trunk) and that act as elastic bands, facilitating the next step. And so on.
That is to say, even in low intensity actions the body looks for how to take advantage of that elastic capacity to generate movement, stretching and then contracting. A functional training should include exercises and activities that use these ballistic mechanisms of the neuromuscular system.
Probably due to a strong influence and heritage of bodybuilding, what has been (and still is) performed in gyms has little to do with the movement needs of the human being, either for sports performance or for everyday life.
How many times do we perform a symmetrical, balanced, bilateral gesture or movement, with the load and support base distributed equally between both parts of the body? Almost never, right?
So why do we train like this? Many trainers perform the same exercises they’ve done all their lives, but on an unstable surface or with elastics and pulleys, and they think that’s functional training. As Gray Cook says, “The definition of functional exercise is in what it produces, not in what it looks like.
If you want to do “functional training”
(that covers the functional needs of the body) take into account these points: apply challenges on different planes, think about three-dimensional movements, beyond looking for a localized muscle stimulus (although you should significantly reduce the loads you use).
Include more unilateral work, rotations, diagonal actions, modify the position of your supports (not always symmetrical and balanced), play with the tempo of execution (always controlled, but not always slow!)… In short, “explore your bubble” (in another entry I will explain what I mean).
Use of the whole body for any movement
Stand facing forward. Raise your right arm, extended, to the side until it reaches shoulder height (90º abduction). From there, try to reach as far as possible behind you, turning your body to the right. What happens to your left foot? You may have noticed that it “falls” inward (pronation).
That is to say, paying attention and willingness to move your hand results in an unconscious movement at the opposite end of the body. This is how it works, in a coordinated and organized way so that all its structures and segments participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in any action. Some require stability, others mobility.
Sometimes they need to generate force, other times they need to control or absorb those forces. But they are always there, doing their bit in the movement. Therefore, it does not make much sense to think about analytical or isolation exercises, since the body does not work that way.