It is not the intent of this site to provide medical advice. This blog chronicles my fitness and nutrition philosophy based on some combination of my experience, research, and biases. You read, and you decide.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Functional Definition of Functional Training

I get a lot of questions about workout programming and how to optimize a routine. These come in many different forms, but they all have one thing in common: The inquirer is not sure what they should be doing to meet their fitness goals.

"Which machines should I use?"

"How can I develop core strength?"

"What can I do to get rid of this?"

Any of these questions sound familiar? If you are a trainer or fitness enthusiast, I'd bet the house that you've heard these and many more. These are legitimate questions, of course, but they all really boil down to the same query: "How do I meet my fitness goals?"

So, on this particular blog, we are (somewhat unsuccessfully) providing a focus on the training aspect of health and performance. This is because there are some phenomenal diet resources already out there, such as those I have previously referenced. Even as a personal trainer I have come to the conclusion that diet is probably the more important factor of the two. However, the training aspect is still hugely important.

Okay, so how should we train?

When I consider designing a program for myself, a client, or a friend, I take many factors into consideration. After considering safety, the next big priority to consider is the person's goals.

A swimmer should not do the same workout as a biker. A wrestler is not a basketball player. And, though it sounds obvious, a sedentary soccer mom is not a college track star.

Functional training means very different things for these individuals.

This leads us to a startlingly basic question that is nonetheless confusing: What exactly do I mean when I refer to functional training? "Functional training" has become a buzzword, much like "core strength", "a healthy diet", "proper alignment", etc. We hear these used often, and they doubtless mean something to us. However, in many instances we would be hard-pressed to provide a meaningful definition for these oft-used paradigms.

Well, let's put everyone on the same page. Here is my personal functional definition for "functional training":

An exercise regimen that helps a person to more effectively interact with their environment.

That's it. This idea is very similar to the specificity principle of strength training.

Now, let's consider what this means from a practical standpoint for athletes:

-A jiu-jitsu artist who is competing in 5-minute rounds should not run long distance. They need to be explosive and have great anaerobic endurance. Their environment requires it.

-A swimmer should not worry about bench-pressing 400 lbs, because that takes a lot of time and energy, and their environment does NOT require it. S/he needs to build a high degree of aerobic endurance, breath control, and muscle coordination.

But wait. We're people first, athletes second. Our "environment" encompasses more than the pool or the gym. So we'd better train that way.

How do we apply this concept? How should we train to be healthy and functional? I'll lay out some fundamental concepts. Expect future posts to expand on these themes and cover/support them in more detail.

We need to include the following into our training regimen to earn the Functrain seal of approval:

1. We need to emphasize brief, intense exercise over slow-steady/long distance. This has huge implications for metabolism, hormone balance, muscle composition, etc. Circuit workouts, strength training, and sprinting are generally superior to long distance running, biking, swimming. An interesting article on the subject can be found here. More on this later.

2. We must be conscious of the alignment issues that most of us have developed during our stay in civilization. In general, our bodies should not experience chronic pain. If we do, you can bet there is a strength imbalance that has led to improper alignment and dysfunctional movement.

3. Our program should be comprehensive from a musculoskeletal standpoint. We should not overdevelop some muscles and neglect others. We also need to remember that our bones and connective tissue react differently to various stimuli. For example, swimming by itself does not apply any gravitational load on the joints, and thus, they do not need to become denser and stronger in response to this type of exercise.

4. Free weights are better than machines. Machines generally don't force us to use stabilizing muscles because the weight moves along a predetermined track.

5. Exercises should require that we move through a practical range of motion. Some of the newer products violate this principle, like the shake-weight and body-blade.

6. Exercises should force different muscle groups to work together. This will help you develop muscle coordination. In real life, you almost never isolate one single muscle. You don't curl a grocery bag to pick it up, right? Chest press > tricep pulldowns + butterfly.

Hopefully, these principles will be exemplified in the workouts I post. This is my general framework for designing functional workouts.

Cheers and thanks for reading this incredibly long post!