Functional Training : A Brief Overview

Though extremely essential and vital for longevity, functional training may be one of the most overlooked and misunderstood areas of fitness. It is a term that was coined by rehabilitation therapists who had a sole objective of getting chronically injured patients to perform basic day-to-day activities again much simpler. For this reason, it has garnered a lot of mainstream recognition through the years but remains a mystery to some. How do you know if you’re training functionally? What exercises are considered functional?

It is important to know that functional training is designed to meet one specific demand only : performing a wide range of daily activities more efficiently without any potential risk for injury. It’s basically simulating basic movements at home, work and sporting activities. For example, a squat is a functional exercise in the sense that it trains and teaches the lower body muscles to be able to pick up an object from the ground. By performing this exercise routinely, the body is well equipped to handle any life situation that involves bending and hinging of the hips. The overhead press is another excellent functional exercise which trains the upper body and torso in reaching for items in our overhead kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets.

Keep in mind that common exercises like biceps curl, leg extensions, lateral raises and even the bench press, while aesthetically great for the body, have no functional benefits. Nothing we do in life simulates the actions of the aforementioned exercises. Can you think of any day-to-day activity that requires you to lay on your back and push an object upwards? How about one that requires you to bend your elbows with your arms fully extended? My point exactly.

Here are 4 reasons you should be doing functional training:

1. Across The Board: Just about anybody can participate in functional training. Whole body movements make up the template making it easy for an individual to utilize several muscle groups when doing a particular exercise. Resistance for functional training comes in many forms, from dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands to body weight, kettle bells and medicine balls making it universally accessible. The ability to perform basic everyday tasks much simpler and efficiently is more than enough incentive to train the body functionally and benefit exercisers of all levels and backgrounds. Older adults and sedentary individuals historically reap the most benefits due to years of inactivity and lack of movement.

2. Emphasis On Movement: One of the perks of functional training is the ability to effectively perform tasks in different planes of motion (i.e, different angles). As a result, movement is promoted and thereby encouraged. Think of multidirectional challenge involved in mopping the floor, vacuuming and doing gardening work. This movement in different directions subsequently incorporates other muscle groups. As I mentioned earlier, it is for this reason a case can be made against exercise machines that only isolate muscles and restrict movement as having functional benefits. The step-up exercise will yield more perks from a functional standpoint than the seated leg press machine, even though both exercises train the muscles of the lower body.

3. Core Stability:  Another important perk of functional training is the ability to integrate the core musculature. Functional training exercises are designed in a way so there is great deal of core stabilization. The squat and overhead press train the lower body and shoulder girdle respectively but there is core is stabilized and engaged to a great degree, although you won’t necessarily feel a ‘burn’ in your abs during these movements. The result is stronger abs and increased ability to control our bodies through different planes of motion and in the most adverse life situations.

4. Proprioceptive Enhancement: Performance of multi-joint and multidirectional exercises requires a good amount of concentration and alertness. Think about how zoned in you are when you do lunges or squat-to-press. Slips and falls in our society, especially among senior citizens, has been linked to poor balance and underdeveloped motor skills. Functional training addresses these areas by sharpening motor skills, decreasing the difficulty of balance and improving coordination. This is why functional training emphasizes the training of ‘movements’ and not just simply ‘muscles’.

Some of the best functional training exercises include squat, overhead press, step-up, lunges, medicine ball throws, kettle bell swings, rotational movements and pulling exercises.

The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.