Today there are so many different opinions on how one should exercise. “What type of training should I be doing?” is the big question. “Do I perform slow or fast reps? Do I use a bench or a physio-ball? Do I do one body part at a time?” The answer is that everyone should be training in a manner that relates to his or her individual goals.
There is no set routine that equally benefits everyone who does it. Performing a typical gym program of random exercises, three sets of ten, with one minute rests has benefits but will not be the most efficient way to attain your goals or address your specific needs. Training primarily with machines and not using free weights is inefficient because you are moving resistance along a fixed axis, and not freely in space as the body normally functions. Machines have limited functional strength transfer to real life situations in most cases, and can actually create poor motor patterns in some people. Machines have value when integrated properly, but they are often misused.
Functional training is defined as movements or exercises that improve a person’s ability to complete their daily activities or to achieve a specific goal. It is not a series of exercises deemed functional by some manual. Doing movements in the gym that strengthen the muscles involved in the movements you wish to improve outside the gym is a good start. This does not mean you can simply add weight to the exact movement you wish to enhance. There is research that has proven doing this can actually be detrimental to some athletic movements. When a baseball player adds weight to his bat that can actually slow his bat speed down because the added resistance changes the forces on the joint and disrupts mechanics.
All exercises have some functional value when applied correctly, this value is determined by the exercises transferable benefit outside the gym. Every exercise has a functional limitation and it is up to the trainer to understand what it is. A good program focuses on weak areas and sets specific goals for the client. It is important to understand how to progress someone from simple smaller targeted movements to more complex multi joint movements.
Training someone functionally can range from having a tennis player lunge to a chop or a body builder do a slow curl for bigger biceps; its all about the goal. Keep in mind doing complex movements before the client is ready will do more harm than good.
In order to build appropriate muscle strength, joint integrity, balance and flexibility in all planes of motion, it is essential that the body is exercised in a functional manner. It is crucial to include multi-joint and multi-planar exercises, as this recruits the body’s stabilizers to synergistically facilitate movement. Doing this ensures that the nervous system is working properly and that all parts of the body are used in the appropriate manner, with the correct muscles firing at the right time. This is not to say you shouldn’t include some so called non functional exercises, including a machine or old school exercise can be beneficial, safe and fun when applied correctly. To create a functional program, a trainer must set realistic goals and understand the client’s weaknesses, daily activities and limitations.
A trainer must be able to identify postural distortions and include exercises that correct them, but more importantly they have to educate the client on what movements or activities to avoid or modify during their day. It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. The ability to identify a postural distortion is dependent on the trainer’s understanding of anatomy, motor patterns and muscle function. A trainer must also be able to identify when muscles are over active and firing out of sequence, or not firing at all. Synergistic dominance is common in most postural dysfunctions. In general, if the agonist is tight then the antagonist is weak, thus creating increased stress on the joint. This can result in patterns of repetitive stress, ultimately leading to accelerated joint degeneration.
Core stability, flexibility and balance are key factors when designing a functional exercise routine. It is important to maintain posture while being able to move all joints in a full range of motion. Training with free weights, and challenging the surrounding environment promotes balance and stability, which is necessary if you expect to see benefits outside of the gym. Keep in mind, it is more important to be able to control your own body weight and concentrate on form, balance and core endurance, than to move heavy weights.
A functional core routine consists of dynamic movements, isometric exercises and challenges the center of gravity. To completely train the core, you must also include dynamic stabilization, isometric and proprioceptive movements, not just for the mid section, but for the entire trunk. Medicine balls, balance boards, foam rollers and physioballs are great tools for core training, and should be integrated into every program. It is a fact that training on the physio-ball (challenged environment) is superior to traditional floor exercises. As a person ages, balance and stability become compromised. If balance and stability are not addressed, they will consistently degrade. A weak core contributes to poor stability, and inhibits proper limb movements, causing muscle imbalances in the kinetic chain. This is why falls are common in the geriatric population. Many back and hip injuries are related to weak core muscles. There are many small muscles in the core that the general population knows little about or addresses during exercise. In most spinal injuries, MRI mages show atrophy in these small muscles. In order to maintain a healthy spine, these little muscles need to be trained.Without stability, even the strongest person can not effectively propel a force into the environment.
Flexibility is a very important facet of any exercise program, but is often overlooked. Lack of flexibility in the right places appears to be the root of many problems. The body’s movements are hampered when flexibility and posture are distorted. Active, dynamic, static and PNF stretching are key factors and should all be included in any training program. When a muscle is tight, it limits the muscle’s ability to contract properly, causing inefficient movements and risk of injury. Without flexibility, the body’s movement becomes limited, and good results are difficult to achieve.
This article has explained the key components of a functional program and its benefits. Traditional weight lifting is a thing of the past, and has been proven to produce limited results compared to a functional program. The only way to enhance movement is to mimic the movement in the gym until it becomes autonomous in every day life. Before initiating any exercise program, one should always consult a physician, as well as a qualified fitness professional. This insures that they are addressing their specific needs and goals.
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Did You Know?
NFPT has recently released its latest CE course, Functional Foundations: The Principles of Functional Exercise. Learn more!
About the Author
Charles DeFrancesco is the owner of the education program at Westchester Sports and Wellness (www.fitandfunctional.com). He is also a consultant for Pure Fitness Group, LLC and Fit and Functional, LLC. He is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and by the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT). He is also USAW Olympic lifting certified and Equinox Fitness Group Prenatal certified. Charles has completed specialty courses for Functional Exercise Specialist, Cardiac Conditions (AFPA), attended EFTI, and has over 5,000 hours of clinical experience. He is the NFPT workshop coordinator for the Northeast region, and currently sits on the NFPT Board of Education. He is also a board member of the Ethics and Safety Compliance Standard for personal trainers. Charles is the main author of the Principles of Functional Exercise manual and A Squash Player’s Training Handbook.