Functional training is not superior to traditional strength training for developing usable strength and fitness.
For the last few years, functional training has gained recognition as the gold standard for developing strength and athleticism. Unfortunately, this assumption has more to do with preferences and less to do with results.
In order to be a true disciple of functional training you must:
- Exclude most single-joint exercise
- Avoid split routines
- Avoid the use of machines
- Have a strong dislike for bodybuilding
The “functional” coaches promote the delusion that single-joint exercise, exercise machines, and split routines are non-functional and only useful for aesthetic purposes. This stance is not supported by research or empirical evidence.
This article will explain why.
The word “functional” is misused and should be eliminated from strength training vocabulary. To understand my stance, let’s define the word.
The Oxford dictionary defines “functional” as:
- Of or serving a function
- Designed or intended to be practical rather than attractive
The “Resistance Training Specialist Manual” defines “functional” exercise as:
- Exercise that improves one’s tolerance or performance of work, daily life or sport.
- Exercise that increases work capacity, strength, muscle mass, sport performance, and improves joint function and integrity.
Depending on how you define the word, many exercises can be described as functional.
What baffles me is the blind belief that multi-joint exercise is somehow more functional than single-joint exercises. The campaign to eliminate single-joint exercise has gained ground due to the incorrect assumption that single-joint or machine exercise will ruin athletic performance. Many successful coaches, including myself, have improved athletes’ performance by using “old school’ (non-functional) methods. The programming and loading parameters behind the training is what really determines the benefit of an exercise.
The purpose of this article is to persuade a few of you to select exercises based on the goal, not on the genre of training you support.
Now, I will challenge some of the primary arguments created by the functional training establishment. Here we go.
Argument 1: Functional exercises are natural and single-joint (isolation) exercises are unnatural.
An exercise is natural if it obeys the laws of joint mechanics, neurophysiology, and the limits of soft tissue. All exercises have risks and benefits, it is imprecise to label any exercise as “good” or “bad”. The risk is determined by how far you stray from optimal joint mechanics, how much load is used, and how often. An exercise is valuable if it contributes to the overall improvement of a desired motor pattern. For example, let’s say you’ve recovered from a hamstrings injury and now you want to strengthen the weak leg. The most efficient way to recover the lost strength and muscle mass on the injured leg is to perform uni-lateral single joint exercises. You will achieve more motor unit activation by isolating the movement pattern. Once the hamstring is at a desired strength level, bilateral exercises (Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham-raises, etc) can be added. Simply, any exercise that meets the needs of the desired goal adds a link in the chain of improvement (Purvis, 2001).
There really is no such thing as isolation exercise because single joint exercise requires isometric stabilization of the support muscles. So, single joint exercise could be called isometric/isokinetic exercise. During a standing biceps curl, the shoulder girdle and core musculature must contract isometrically to maintain body position.
Argument 2: Functional exercises are better than single joint exercise for injury prevention.
Other than acute trauma caused by impact, muscle imbalances and faulty movement patterns are major causes for muscle and joint injury. When an individual has weak muscles within a movement pattern, the body will compensate by avoiding the weakness, especially during complex movements such as running, jumping, squats, Olympic lifts, chin-ups and shoulder presses. Repeated exposure to faulty movement patterns can result in pain and joint dysfunction. It has been said, and I agree that you are only as healthy as your joints. The best way to address faulty movement patterns (not caused by a medical condition) is to pinpoint the weak muscles, strengthen with single-joint exercises, and then reeducate the muscular chain with compound exercise. Greg Roskopf, founder of the soft-tissue therapy called Muscle Activation Technique, states, “Functional Training” (compound exercise) will only reinforce compensatory patterns if the weak links are not first identified and eliminated!”
Functional training can be especially problematic for athletes since most have experienced injury during their careers. With athletes, it is assumed that the function of their musculoskeletal system is normal and the only goal is to improve strength and power. If a strength coach believes his or her athletes’ -just need more strength on the basic lifts- they will limit strength gains and predispose the athlete to future injuries (Janda, 1986). Correcting muscular imbalances and weakness should be the first priorioty when training anyone.
Argument 3: Functional exercise is more sports-specific than single-joint exercise.
Unless you are a weightlifter, powerlifter, or strongman, there are no sports-specific exercises. The only sports-specific training is the actual sport movement, also known as practice. The sports-specific move for shot-putters is shot putting, for a pitcher its pitching; get my point. The real question is whether the strength acquired will transfer to the prime movement of the sport. Transfer of strength is a better indicator of an exercises value. For example, anyone who has completed a training cycle using the reverse hyper extension, which is a single-joint exercise, will agree that this exercise does transfer and will add pounds to your squat and deadlift.
All strength training performed in a gym is “artificial,” but even “artificial” exercise can contribute to improved performance. Wayne Westcott, Ph.D. performed several studies on the effects of machine based strength training on golf driving performance. All 77 participants improved their driving power (average 3.4 mph increase). This reinforces the fact that even machine-based strength can improve performance.
Take two athletes with equal skill, body structure, size, and experience; make one athlete 25% stronger in the prime movers of their sport. The stronger athlete is now the superior athlete.
My suggestion to anyone who trains people for a living is to utilize the best tools available to achieve the goal. Don’t eliminate an exercise because someone tells you it’s not functional. Evaluate every exercise, piece of equipment, and gadget for its efficacy at achieving the desired result. We all need to be more practical in our approach and recognize the complexity involved in manipulating the human body.
Erick Minor is a strength coach, sports massage therapist and owner of Dynamic Barbell Club, a sports performance and personal training studio located in Fort Worth, Texas. His clientele consists of Olympic, professional, and elite athletes as well as serious fitness enthusiasts. As an athlete, he has competed in powerlifting, bodybuilding, and recently (2007) competed in strongman. For more information go to dynamicbarbell.com
3649 North Beach Street
Ft Worth TX 76137