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How is Functional Training Different From Other Training?


What is Functional Training?

Over the past ten or so years, the term “functional training” has become a popular catchphrase in the fitness industry. Other terms such as “integrated training” and “optimum training” are almost used interchangeably. These terms are heard uttered by personal fitness trainers, athletic trainers, yoga instructors, Pilates instructors and even group exercise instructors.

However widely used, “functional” is often misunderstood, and even more misused. Our goal today is to determine what functional training is, why it is important, and provide some examples. The term function seems a little confusing.  We are going to term “functional” movements as those movements the body is biomechanically engineered to do in everyday life. Notice that this definition has two elements we need to understand: how the body is engineered and what is the body designed to do in everyday life.

Most individuals in our society don’t live their lives using their bodies the way it is engineered to be used. Our bodies are designed to move, to go hunt and gather food, and to avoid predators. We’re meant to walk, run, climb, lift, etc. Unfortunately, the same prosperity that makes us such a wealthy society is what’s slowly corroding our bodies.

Furthermore, our bodies were not made to sit in chairs. They certainly weren’t designed to sit behind a computer screen all day. When we finally get up out of our chairs and attempt to use our bodies in a “functional” manner, injury often results. Why? Obviously, somewhere along the line, the machine broke down. So basically, we’re engineered for a lifestyle we no longer maintain.

Human movement, while often looking simple, is the result of a complex series of events utilizing several of the bodies’ systems. The three main body systems that produce movement are the nervous system, the muscular system, and the skeletal system. The brain sends signals for a muscle to contract which in turn moves a bone about a joint axis. These three systems are often referred to as the “Kinetic Chain.”

Kinetics is the study of forces, so the “Kinetic Chain” is the chain reaction of these three systems that cause the creation of force from within the body. So if there is an injury, it is often because somewhere in the chain, something has failed in its natural responsibilities.

Is that Exercise “Functional”?

Now that we have determined that functional training is training that stimulates our bodies to move the way it is naturally engineered (not necessarily how we treat our bodies in every- day life), how do we determine if an exercise is functional?

Most trainers who study functional training would say that sitting on a leg extension machine and extending your knees would not be considered functional. Hopefully, you would agree. However, it may be a stretch to say that we can picture any of our ancestors kneeling on a stability ball and doing curls, and this is considered functional by some. Why?

How is Functional Training Different From Other Training?

To answer the question of how functional training differs from other forms of training, we must first ask another question. If functional training is meant to mimic what our bodies are meant to do, we must ask ourselves – how are our bodies affected when we do these movements?

Consider the following:

Functional Training is multiplanar: i.e. the movement is not isolated or guided by an outside force. In life, it isn’t often that you would sit down, with your back supported, and kick a weight off your shin in a guided path (un- less you are in the gym).

Functional Training typically requires more neuromuscular control than non-functional: Quite simply, the more you stimulate your nervous system, the better your brain is able to communicate with your musculoskeletal system and the better the physiological adaptation will be.

Functional Training incorporates many full-body movements: Our muscles are not designed to work in an isolated fashion – even though this is the most popular way to train them.

Functional Training is dynamic movement under control: When we move in everyday life, we must be able to decelerate, stabilize and accelerate the movements in the body. This is done by eccentric, isometric, and concentric contractions respectively.

Functional Training stays within the biomechanical limitations of the body: In other words, a trainer must have a good understanding of both joint and muscle structure as well as function, to prevent injuries from occurring.

Remember!! Progression, Progression, Progression!!! Be certain to create workouts for clients that their kinetic chain can handle. If they can’t control the movement, make the exercise easier (by changing one or more variables) until proper control is maintained. Once mastered, increase intensity appropriately.

Starting Your Training Career

Now it’s your turn to take action. Did you know that most fitness careers don’t require formal education or a degree?

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There is always something exciting about earning a new training or coaching certification and applying that new knowledge of how you train your clients. This also helps you hit the reset button.

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Thanks for reading!

The NESTA/Spencer Institute Team

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