The Myth of Functional Training For Sport


A lot of fitness trainer’s today talk about a concept called functional strength or functional fitness. In fact as a trend you could place it up there with Zumba for group exercise and low carb dieting for nutrition. In a lot of centres you will find “functional” training for everything from sports performance to fat loss. Functional Training and a lot of the core themes are more related to rehabilitation and in effect were invented by physiotherapists as a transition from injury back to full fitness- most people though are not injured.

The definition of “what is actually functional” is misunderstood by the trainer and therefore gym participants are even further away from the benefits. The general explanation would sound something like this, “Functional training works your core to improve balance and has transfer to what you do every day.”

Firstly, is this type of training effective and secondly is it relevant to actually getting individuals the results that they want. You cannot just call an exercise functional because it mimics a certain action or challenges balance.

When you compare it to training for sport (and at Results FAST we have a number of high level junior swimmers and tennis players) the question I ask is does it make the individual better at their chosen ability? Now when you break it down and write a strength and conditioning programme for a swimmer then you don’t necessarily want to mimic their sport. Why is this though? Well a lot of the time the key is to balance against the overuse of certain muscles in their sport keeping them in balance avoiding overuse. Emphasizing flexibility, mobility or stability instead of strength in certain areas. Before I explain why the logic behind functional training is flawed, let me say that this is not a personal attack on any of the fitness instructors who currently teach this method, nor anyone who believes it to be a worthwhile form of training. It is rather an objective look at the approach, which hopefully will stimulate some thought provoking discussions.

If you are experienced enough to have tried to get results with a broad range of training styles then you will realise that squatting on a bosu board or functional Vipr circuits are not really transferring the ability to perform better and are a distraction away from enhancing performance, they may “feel” hard but what is the transfer to performance apart from the drill you are performing? This form of training does not emphasise muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or speed which are the fundamental facets of fitness. At best these methods are a vanilla form of training which will perhaps develop the abilities of inexperienced trainees but there is no transfer to enhanced performance.

When you do a needs analysis of any exercise ask if it is improving muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or speed in the right areas for the right person. Performing circus style balancing acts is a regression in training. Analyse the drill and then consider if the exercise is truly functional to your goals.

Why Posture is Important: Part 3- The Lower Back…

The lower back is commonly the focus of “core” training and posture. With around 80% of individual’s experiencing some form of back pain it has become a massive focus for trainers more orientated towards rehab. With national health service initiatives running programs for lower back care for back pain resolution it is an issue for a large proportion of individual’s on a national level. 

A lot of training and rehab protocols focus specifically on this area and in some cases rightly so. If we have weak musculature supporting the lower back then injury and pain can become chronic. In turn though research shows that most back pain will resolve itself within 6 weeks regardless of any type of exercise intervention. This is partly due to the way we adapt to pain- if in discomfort we will aim to get the body pain free, this may mean changing the way you stand or perhaps perform a task. Often this position may not be posturally desirable and the body begins adapting to this new posture or way of moving taking you further away from a more biomechanically desirable posture.

The lower back is an area that needs stability, the torso acts almost like a corset resisting the movement of the lumbar region keeping the area stable and actively promoting anti- rotation. While the spine is able to flex and extend as well as rotate performing this movements through a complete range of movement has been shown to be counterintuitive to spinal health, please note this highlights that end range of motion is the issue flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation are all performed daily and can be trained, the method of training though is the thing that needs to be questioned often. This has led to the prevalence of bracing style exercises such as the plank as an entry-level exercise which aim to provide stability in the core area… however, this may not necessarily be the good for everyone.

In the previous post I discussed that often hip position and pelvic tilt will play a role in lumbar spine position. If we take someone in to a plank based drill or indeed any exercise where there pelvic tilt is too extreme then we may be placing stress on the lower back. If we keep on addressing the lower back or core as the area of issue for training then we are missing the major player in why there is faulty alignment in the back in the first place. Effectively then we may be exaggerating the problem, creating poor movement quality as well as not necessarily resolving the back position issue.

This really highlights that exercise selection often needs to be relevant to the individual. Addressing an are of pain though does not mean “make that are stronger” or just “stretching it” sometimes it means taking a holistic approach to the body and especially with back pain considering the mobility and strength around the hip region and it’s influence on posture further up the chain of the body. This also highlights that while an exercise like a plank may help positive change in posture for someone else it may not, it also highlights that one exercise is rarely the answer and the whole training programme has to address these issues. This is also relevant for those looking to enhance their performance, strength or even speed. Simply said, just because someone does a certain exercise which gets them a positive result it doesn’t mean you will see the same benefits to performance uniformly. Or as sayings go “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” (N.B. I suppose you could replace meat with lunges or deadlifts or other exercises which some people love while other people resent).

Postural issue issues don’t necessarily refer up the body from faulty hip position the upper back and shoulders play a major role in posture which I will discuss in the next post.