Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fun, Facts, and Fallacies with "Functional Training"

                The New York Times recently ran an article in the Fashion & Style section on functional training, filled with all the usual clichés, buzzwords, and assumptions that accompany any discussion promoting functional training (   The article explains how the big box fitness clubs are moving out their “obsolete” weight training stations in favor of “fitness playgrounds”, and implies that the reason for this is that functional training is more “natural” and “logical”.
                The article misses the real story, though, which should have been in the Business section instead.  The health club industry is reactive.  When Curves and “exercise salons” came along, the health clubs were caught off-guard.  They had to change their programming to stop the perceived loss of members to the exercise salons.  When Retrofitness and other $20/month gyms came along, health club memberships fees followed.  Now, the industry is squeezed between the $20/month clubs and the Cross fit “boxes” and other functional training studios, which charge $120 per month and up.  While health club customers may have several gym memberships at $20/month, my guess is few do at $120/month.  The move towards functional fitness is less about the quality of the exercise and more about protecting market share.
                All of which is accompanied, however, by a good amount of misinformation in the hype.  If you want to do “functional training”, by all means, train that way.  Looks like fun. (Hah!) But as “exercise”, it’s just a preference, nothing more.  There’s nothing more inherently right about “functional training” than any other fitness fad, because, as you’ll notice, “functional training” is whatever the speaker says it is.
                But the article makes clear that the cool kids are doing functional training.  Some of the quotes in the article: “Rage against the machines”.   “what’s the real logic in sitting or laying down to work your legs”. “Arnold machines for Astro-Turf”, “…’looks like a prison guard tower’…he said with pride…”, “It’s the money shot”, “If it’s machine based or has a pin, it’s a thing of the past.  Adapt or die”.   “I can’t believe that’s what you’re doing.  That is so dumb”.   All, by the way, from vendors selling functional training product, consulting, and memberships, and the newly converted.   Not quite an objective sample.
                The writer also reveals her bias when she explains that machines still appeal to “two small but distinct constituencies:   traditional bodybuilders, and “people with set ideas of what constitutes a workout, and who like to hide in the gym”. 
                Ok, first of all, traditional bodybuilders like machines?  Since when?  “Free weights vs. machines” has been a constant debate in bodybuilding for over 40 years.
                And as far as the “people with set ideas…who like to hide in the gym”?  Well, that’s one way to describe them.  Another way might be “people who want specific benefits from a workout without getting hurt, and don’t need to be an exhibitionist about it”.  But that’s just me. 
                Personally, I question whether “functional training” is either logical or natural.  In chapter 3 of Congruent Exercise (links below), I tried to objectively look at the pros and cons of “functional training”.  Here it is.

From Congruent Exercise: How To Make Weight Training Easier On Your Joints

                It’s hard to argue with what appears to be the intent behind "Functional Training".  One of the benefits of any exercise program should be to help you deal with the physical demands of your everyday life, and the design of your program should reflect that. 
                Go back 30 years or so.  As the general public became interested in weight training, the only people familiar with weights were bodybuilders, and so everyone tried to train like a bodybuilder.  Obviously, unless your goal is bodybuilding, this is completely inappropriate for an athlete, an executive, a homemaker, a physical therapy patient, etc., and so the idea came about of looking at why the person was training, and tailoring the program to the person.  In other words, training became more functional, i.e. more related to the intended purpose.
                Skip ahead to now.  The phrase “Functional Training” has taken over the exercise media, used to justify an incredibly wide range of physical activities.  So wide, that the original intent seems lost, and the practice is full of inconsistencies.  Is it “working the body as a unit”?  Then wouldn’t kettlebells and weighted vests become, “a unit, plus”.  Is it free weight exercises only?  Then why do “functional training” catalogs feature pulley and vibration machines? Is it to “prepare you for the demands of daily life”?  Wouldn’t the things you do in daily life have done that already?  Between the serious people doing specific work with their athletes and clients, the personal trainers impressing their clients with their deep knowledge of human tricks, and the catalogs trying to sell affordable equipment rather than multi-thousand dollar machines, the legitimate information gets lost among all the hype and clutter.  Let’s try to put all these activities in context.

The Good: Moving Limbs vs. Stabilizing Joints
                The best parts of “Functional Training” draw a distinction between the muscles that move limbs and the muscles that stabilize joints, and explore appropriate ways of training the stabilizers.
                Anyone who weight trains is familiar with the standard, head-to-toe, front-and-back, muscle chart.  This isn’t a complete inventory; these are the most superficial muscles, the prime movers, the ones that give your physique a shape.   Compared to the underlying muscles, these muscles are bigger, have fewer attachments, and are easier to distinguish from each other.   Since they’re on top, and bigger, they have more internal distance between their angle of pull and the axis of the joint, so they act through a greater internal moment arm.   These muscles are most suited for moving limbs and applying torque through the limbs.
                Not visible on the standard muscle chart are the deeper layers of muscles, the postural muscles.  These have complementary qualities to the superficial muscles.  These are smaller or flatter, have many attachments, and often blend with adjacent muscles in anatomy and in function.  They are closer to the joints, so they act through much smaller moment arms, and so wouldn’t be as suited to move the limbs.  The smaller size keeps them out of the way of joint motion, so they are unlikely to grow, or at least grow noticeably; but they still are able to hold the joints together, because muscles are stronger holding or releasing than lifting. 
                We’ve already looked at the muscles around the spine.  The rotator cuff is an example of separate muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis) blending with adjacent muscles.  The deep muscles around the hip blend in function, with each muscle having different roles in moving or holding the femur, depending on the degree of rotation, flexion, extension, adduction, and abduction.  Each joint is similar, in that multiple deeper muscles with different attachments work in different combinations.
                Practically, the differences between the postural and prime movers show up in injuries.  Rotator cuff problems are more common than deltoid problems; back spasms more common than glute strains.  Groin pulls happen, partially because most lower body work ( e.g. squat, deadlifts) stabilizes both legs at the same time, so the deep muscles of the hip are relatively untrained.
                The interaction between the two sets of muscles is summed up by “you don’t fire a cannon out of a canoe”.  The bigger superficial muscles need a stable platform, provided by the deep muscles holding the joints steady.  With that platform, your effort goes directly against the object you’re working against, whether it’s a barbell, machine, opponent, or the ground.  Without that platform, not only is your effort dispersed, the load you push against “pushes back”: the deep muscle trying to hold the joint together is now trying to move against that load. 
                In your workout, your choice between free weights and machines in this regard is almost irrelevant.  You should brace your midsection, hold your shoulders down and back, and set your hips and ankles whether you’re on a machine, using a barbell, or whatever your tool of choice. It’s what you do with your body that counts.  You can stabilize your joints on a machine, and you can have poor posture with a free weight; the tool doesn’t inherently dictate what happens with the deep muscles.

Training the Core            
                A more relevant issue is when and how it’s appropriate to specifically train the deep muscles.  If the rest of your training is done with stable postures, and you seem to get through your daily physical activities without problems, you may be fine without any specific work for the deep muscles.  If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  Conversely, if you’ve had problems in the past, and if you’re not actively injured, a modest amount might be preventive.  The key is to not use the same strategies for the deep, as you do for the show muscles.
                Remember, the deep muscles are used to holding statically.  Holding strength is greater than lifting strength; but another way to look at it is that holding requires less energy than lifting.  Simply moving a muscle that is used to holding is more work for that muscle; you don’t need to set personal records.  This is why, for instance, elastic and light dumbbells are perfectly adequate for rotator cuff work.  Concentrate on the movement, not the weight, which will also keep the larger superficial muscles from taking over.  For the muscles around the spine, which are used to holding in a vertical posture, simply shifting to horizontal, with planks, bird dogs, side planks, etc. is significantly more load for them to hold.
                These aren’t your only options; the catalogs are full of them, and some of them may work for you.  Before you buy the device, just know what you’re trying to accomplish; then disregard the chart of 30 exercises that comes with it and do what you need.
                One strategy to be particularly careful of is “Train Movements, Not Muscles”.  This makes sense when doing specific exercise for the deep muscles. It’s almost impossible to isolate the individual deep muscles of the spine, or the hips, or rotator cuff, so using a specific movement (planks, birddog; one leg balance; Bodyblade) for the general area works.  It makes less sense if you’re combining Big Muscle Movements: squats with curls, walking lunges with presses, wood choppers and squats.    The work for the bigger muscles is going to be limited by the smaller muscles, but more importantly, the weights are going to be constantly throwing your center of gravity off.  Are you concentrating on your leg movements, your arm movements, or managing your postures?  To me, the cost of mismanaging your spine posture is far too high for whatever benefits are touted.  If you really feel the need to train “movements” in this way, my suggestion is to use other ways of adding challenge than using weights: stricter form, slower movements, less rest between sets. 
                Of course, practicing the actual techniques in a sport, martial art, dance, etc. is real “training movements”.  If you really feel the need to “do something more athletic”, I suggest you do an actual real-world activity, not mash together weight training movements. 
                The combination movements are hard work, however.  Your breathing gets heavy, your muscles burn, you may get nauseous, all very compelling; but this leads to the real concern about “Functional Training”.

And, the Not So Good
                The worst parts of “Functional Training” blur the distinctions between the muscles that move limbs and the muscles that stabilize joints, and risk long-term joint health for the sake of today’s “hard workout”. 
                The barbell squat, for instance, is generally considered a more functional exercise than the leg press.  You’ll get no argument from me that a hard set of barbell squats is, overall, more physically draining than a hard set of leg presses.  And the barbell squat certainly requires more balance and knowing where your body is in space (proprioception) than the leg press.   Yet, when you look at the bones and muscles above the pelvis compared to below, the leg press does appear to load the body more appropriately (as detailed previously).  And when you look at the body’s mechanisms for balance and proprioception, a barbell is a curious choice to address those.  Regarding the barbell squat as “Functional” emphasizes today’s hard workout over concerns for the long term health of the spine.
                Rotating and bending are also considered “Functional”, in that they’re usually categorized as part of people’s daily activities.  Up and down “woodchops” using pulleys or elastic, medicine balls, kettlebells are all used to train rotation.  The problem is that in practice, there is a slight difference between a “turn” and a “twist”, but there’s a huge difference in effect on the spine.  With a turn, the hips and shoulders stay in the same plane, held there by the muscles around the spine and midsection.  This movement is worth practicing, under control, so that when you actually do it in real life (lifting a load out of a car trunk, swinging a baseball bat, golf club, etc.) your body has done it before and knows how to do it.  Sports coaches teach it all the time:  “Get your hips into it”. 
                Same thing with bending:  “Bend from the hips” or “Lift with your legs, not your back” refers to hip hinging.  You hold your spine steady, with the normal curves, and bend at the hips and knees.  The muscles around your spine maintain the spine posture, while the bigger muscles of the hips and thighs provide the force and motion. 
                The potential problems start when, from either fatigue or losing focus, the turns and hip hinges turn into twisting and bending the spine.  The first risk is to the deep muscles, which may strain and go into spasm, but the more important and long term risk is to the disc.  The normal curves in the back keep the load on the discs even.  While the spinal column curves, the discs stay flat.  Flatten a curve in the spine, or bend it more, and one side of the disc gets pinched while the other pushes out.  Twist the spine, and the top half of the disc moves with the top vertebrae, while the bottom stays in place or goes opposite; like wringing out a wet towel.  You can do this one time, a handful of times, maybe even years of times, and get away with it; but repeated over time, and neither situation is good for the long term health of the disc.

A Safer Approach
                If you are using rotation and bending movements in your workout, check yourself.  Are you concentrating on turning and hip hinging, or is muscle burn and heavy breathing distracting you?  If you are using combination movements, (dumbbell row while lunging, curls while squatting, etc.), are you paying attention to your trunk, or are you just getting through the set and hoping for the best?  Group workouts, kettlebell classes, boot camps, infomercial circuit-style training all use these movements, and they’re all hard work, but you may be focused on the effort and not paying attention to your spine.  Even if you avoid an immediate injury, even if you do lose bodyfat and get stronger, joint wear-and-tear from the exercise itself doesn’t get erased.  It accumulates.  People who don’t exercise, and bend and twist any number of times in daily life, end up with herniated discs and other back problems.  Do this deliberately, or inadvertently, in your workouts, and not only are your reps and sets adding to your count of daily life bends and twists, you may be adding speed and resistance to it.   “I’ve done this for years and haven’t had any problems”… yet.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
                If your daily life requires you to use bad body mechanics, fix the bad body mechanics in the first place, don’t practice them in your workout.  Adding reps, speed, and weight to bad body mechanics will just accelerate the wear-and-tear, not make you invulnerable. 
                Carry loads close to your body.  Put the heavy weight plates on trees at chest level.  Turn, don’t twist.  Lift with your legs, not your back. Learn technical instruction in sports, and ergonomics at work.
                Then in your workout:  Train the superficial muscles with your tool of choice.  Consciously stabilize your posture while doing so.  If you need to train deeper muscles separately, use light weights, elastics, the appropriate devices (vibration plates, Bodyblades, etc.), or reposition your bodyweight.  Save the heavy metabolic challenge for exercises and activities that don’t put the spine in a vulnerable position.
                Consider avoiding exercises that draw a fine line between “safe” and “dangerous” and don’t allow room for fatigue or distraction.  But if you simply must do them, do them when you’re fresh and can focus on perfect form.  It doesn’t help if your training is “functional”, and you’re not.  
Please feel free to comment from a forum or message board, where someone who’s gotten hurt doing Cross-fit, P90X, and the like may see it and find it useful.
Discussion and questions for me answered at
Congruent Exercise: How To Make Weight Training Easier on Your Joints, is available on Amazon (
Thanks for reading!

Congruent Exercise: How To Make Weight Training Easier On Your Joints, Copyright William DeSimone