When is Training really Functional?

by Emilio Troiano

Today everyone believes they are practicing Functional Training...

In the “social media” era, even non-experts/enthusiasts of training will certainly have seen a video of experts/enthusiasts who practice functional training, but how many of them have understood the meaning of this word?

Functional to whom, functional to what? When can a Training really be defined as Functional?

I remember when in 2009 I started to disseminate this concept of training, during the various seminars I held around Italy, I always asked this question: “If you are here today, in a course of Functional Training, you will surely have come up with your own idea of Functional Training, well what is your definition of Functional Training?
Reporting all the answers given during ten years of training courses would be nice, but for the interpretative complexity it deserves at least a separate article…

The 10 worst definitions of Functional Training...

I will mention only 10 of the most common definitions given of Functional Training.

1) “Functional Training is the Training that Functions”.
It functions if you know how to make it function, with the executive technique of the exercises (in respect of the Biomechanics of the body) and with the correct programming of the training. It is not obvious that it functions just because you call it is Functional, or because it utilises Functional Training tools!

2) “Functional Training is training that is Functional to the sport and the work you do”.
So, you should only do exercises that can be traced back to similarities to the sports you practice and the work you do. Here’s to hoping to have some sports to practice and above all a job to do!

3) “Functional Training is a circuit training that trains all of the muscles at the same time”.
So, only if I create a circuit in stations (time or repetitions) can I train in a functional way, but if, instead, I want to make a program of strength, of power, of speed, of hypertrophy, or rehabilitation then I cannot do it…

4) “Functional Training is training that is Functional to recovery after a joint injury”.
True, but if it were only this, it would be used only in rehabilitation. Instead everyone now practices Functional Training (or at least they think they do…).

5) “Functional Training is the training of the function of the muscles and not the actions”.
So, with functional training it is enough to train the function of the muscles and we will have resolved everything… also in regard to all the other body components (joints, fascial system, neuro-muscular system, cardiovascular system, endocrine-hormonal system…).

6) “Functional Training is what you do with kettlebells and bodyweight”.
It is not the tool you use that determines the characteristics of a type of training, but the principles on which it is based. With solid principles, you can use any operative tool, from the free body to the various external loads, because you can rely on a clear and precise logic of reference. Otherwise you have to improvise based on the tool you use, without even appreciating the specific technical features, those that would lead you to use one tool rather than another!

7) “Functional Training is the training of the Core and the muscle chains”.
These are just two of the many components of Functional Training, but not enough to describe its extraordinary characteristics and potential!

8) “Functional Training is the training that tires you and makes you sweat, but at the same time it amuses you and therefore doesn’t make you feel fatigue”.
The fatigue, or rather the stress of training, that you create during the training session depends on three fundamental parameters, which are Intensity, Volume, and Density, and trust me, if you set them in order to achieve a profitable adaptation, you have fun, either during training or in the days to follow! And if your interest is in sweating, there are saunas for that!

9) “Functional Training is the training that makes you push beyond your limits”.
If you want to get yourself an injury then, ok, go for it… a good period of overtraining is the right way!

10) “Functional Training is a fun group workout with music”.
I would prefer to abstain from making any comment, but for the sake of a news flash, I will say only that those who hold this view have evidently confused Functional Training with other “aggregative practices” of Fitness rooms!

What really is Functional Training?

At this point you may be wondering, but then what is this famous Functional Training?

Let’s start by saying that Functional Training, as well as any type of physical training, is aimed at the individual who is training and what he is or would be able to do, Moving themselves consciously in the space surrounding them.
It seems trivial, but if we think about how much a person moves during their day, and especially about how they do it, we see that, in most cases, the motor patterns enacted during daily life are few and increasingly repetitive.
Although Movement is the manifest essence of the neuro-motor capacity of each of us, this wonderful concert of motor possibilities, if not stimulated daily in the most complete and versatile way, with time ends up being reduced to a mere daily ritual, with the result of dulling their capacities rather than enhancing them!
Training should do just this: carve out a space among the repetitive daily frenzy, where you dedicate yourself to the practice of Movement, allowing your mind and body to dance together to the same tune!
The human is equipped with an extraordinary biomechanical potential. From birth, the child shows a curiosity to discover the space surrounding them through movement, and day after day explore new motor possibilities, new movements. Play allows this extraordinary evolutionary amalgamation between brain and body structure, and play develops the movement. This journey to discover ones’ own motor capacities continues until someone or something interrupts it.
The greater the static constraints to which one is subjected, the less will be the effective growth in that direction. Finding biomechanically evolved people today is a rarity, and very often they are people who grew up without schematic constraints that slowed their evolutionary process. Therefore, Functional Training must target the Movement of the human body and build its capacity for dynamic management and control in space.

But if the key word is the Movement, how should it be trained?

First of all, globally, although it is possible to isolate a single movement to involve a single joint, it is not intelligent to do so when we want to train the Movement of the whole body. If we learn to sectorise the movements, isolating the muscles that are responsible for them, we will become good at contracting one muscle at a time but a bad performer of global motor patterns, in which the neuro-motor (intermuscular) coordination would be like the conductor of an orchestra who does not know the instruments that compose it. If you don’t want to end up with a cacophony of graceless sounds, each part of the body must be trained in synergy with the others, to learn how to refine the rhythm, intensity, fluidity, precision, and effectiveness of every single movement. Daily life demands global movements, and even more so, so does every sports discipline you can practice, in which each motor pattern must be executed in rapidity, and where being effective necessarily requires a great coordination and synchronisation between all the parts of the body called into action.
But Global Training doesn’t just mean training all the muscles together in every single exercise (a summation of movements), instead we need to be able to control all the Systems of the body responsible, starting from the Neuromuscular System that creates and manages the nervous impulses and enables the activations of the muscles, such as to generate the mechanical energy necessary to move. Energy that is supplied over time through the Cardio-Circulatory System, a vital source for the Energy Systems and the Endocrine-Hormonal System.
Moving in synergy means neuromuscular coordination but also activations of the entire myofascial chains that connect the muscles responsible for the same motor functions, creating real and proper Functional Groups, a sort of team highly specialised in the execution of specific movements in the most effective way possible (where more effective means without incurring damaging overloads, with more force, speed, and power, and with the dissipation of the least energy). Executing exercises outside the activation lines of the kinetic chains means disarming this extraordinary motor potential we have available, losing coordination, stability, and effectiveness during the movements.
How many times have you heard of athletes who suffered injuries during their sporting careers, while not suffering a direct trauma? And how many times has it happened to you that you have had stress/overload traumas and the medical figure to whom you turned diagnosed it as functional overload stress?
Do you know what that means? That for who knows how long, you have been executing incorrect movements, outside any biomechanical logic of muscle-joint health, which has not only brought you to have to interrupt the physical activity, but which has also made you lose precious time during training, where you were convinced you were doing something good, whereas you could actually get the results you were hoping for through the execution of movements appropriate to your body structure! If the correct postural attitude is lacking, the correct muscular activations are also lacking, and even those who want to obtain purely aesthetic results will fail to achieve their goal!
And here another fundamental system for the correct execution of global movements comes into play: the Musculoskeletal-articular System, which controls the fulcrums of the movements, the joints that allow us to move in space. Put it this way, the joints act as a link between the supporting structure of the body that allows us to support ourselves on our feet, the skeleton, and the motors of the movements, the muscles. If these “joints” present rigidity or instability, any movement in which they are called into action will be deficient in terms of limitations of range (rigid articulation), or in terms of dispersion of tension and force (unstable articulation).

There is no Functional Training without Joint Mobility!

A correct program of Functional Training cannot be separated from Joint Mobility, understood both as an initial evaluation of the person you must train in order to identify any possible motor deficiencies, and as a fundamental strategy to create the appropriate structural conditions to be able to administer physical loading exercises to the person.
This is not talking about Stretching. Joint Mobility is quite another thing. It is about the capacity to control ones’ own joints in terms of Mobility throughout the range of the joint, Stability in its physiological base, and Coordination with all the other joints involved in the particular movement being performed.
Joint Mobility, in order to be considered Functional, must also be trained in a global manner, coordinating all the joints and the fascial system of the body under the continuous control of the Proprioceptive System (which allows the control and adjustment of the movements through feedback that is sent in real time to the Central Nervous System), and be multiplanar (involving the three planes of movement in space).

Movement is the key word in Functional Training, and to be able to move we make be able to make the best use of the only motor fulcrums we have at our disposition, the joints, and Joint Mobility is the medicine of the joints!

Training is Functional if it is Multiplanar!

But where should we move?
Anywhere in the space around us!
If you train by moving your legs and arms forward and backward, up and down, remember that you can do it also to the right and to the left!
Thanks to the extraordinary evolution of the articular physiology of our joints, not only is it possible to keep ourselves upright without problems (unlike other living mammals), but we can execute innumerable movements on all planes in space, and do it in an extremely coordinated and effective manner.

The question you should ask yourself is: “if I can move on the three planes of movement in space (sagittal, frontal, and transverse), why is it that in the training I do, I only execute movements on the sagittal and frontal planes? How come the most evolved plane of movement I have available, the transverse plan, is excluded from my training?
And here I refer to training torsions (right and left) and rotations (inwards, outwards, up, down). These, in addition to allowing infinite motor possibilities (combinations of synchronised movement), allow articular stabilisations and the activations of the spiral myofascial chains, the most evolved in terms of the movement of the human body!
If we can move three-dimensionally, Functional Training must be absolutely Multiplanar!

Now, hold on for a moment longer, we are almost at the finishing line! Tell the truth, did you think that Functional Training was something simple? How many of you had underestimated it? I don’t blame you if it has been proposed it to you in an approximate way…

To recap: Functional Training is the training for every person, because it is aimed at training that which each person must be able to do best, both in daily life and in the sports they practice, moving in the safest and most effective way possible based on their structure and their physical goal.
Movement, the focus of Functional Training, in order to be considered Functional, must be Global, always calling on all the muscles together (and to do this requires the myofascial chains) and all the Body Systems in synergy with each other. The Global Movement is developed across the three Planes of Movement (Multiplanar Movements), and doing so requires that the motor fulcrums of the body are free, stable, and coordinated with each other (through an excellent base and mastery of Joint Mobility).

How to move: the primary motor fulcrums assisted by the Core

But which are the fundamental motor fulcrums of the human body?

Let’s start by saying that all the joints are important and should be trained in terms of mobility, stability, and proprioception, but there are some that, due to their position and structure, are able to take charge of the movements of the human body in a safer and more effective way than others. I refer to the scapulo-humeral-thoracic girdle (commonly known as the Shoulder) and to the hips joint (commonly “unknown”) which, used as a primary motor fulcrum, guarantee the control of the lower limbs (the hips) and the upper limbs (the shoulder girdle) in complete safety (preventing joint injuries) and efficacy in terms of execution of precise, rapid, and incisive gestures.
The hips control the lower limbs and make use of the support of the other secondary joints, the knees and ankles, and the shoulder girdle executes the movements of the upper limbs thanks to the support of the elbows and wrists. The spine acts as a structural connection between the pelvis and the shoulder girdle, providing support and stability through the muscles of the Core (the central area of the body), as well as contributing to the execution of complex movements, especially on the transverse plane through the twists.
Bringing these concepts into practice, when I execute any exercise, to be considered biomechanically functional (and not dis-functional), if it develops with the lower limbs (such as the Squat, the Deadlift, the Lunges, the Swing, etc.), the main motor fulcrum to be used must be the hip, which must take charge of the movement during all the active phases of the movement itself (for example in flexion with internal rotation during the eccentric phase of the movement, and in extension with external rotation during the subsequent concentric phase). The spine and the shoulder girdle must assist the movement of the hips, offering distal support and stability (away from the primary fulcrum), while the knees assist the hips with proximal stabilisation (close to the primary fulcrum).
Conversely, if the exercise in question develops with the upper limbs (such as the Push Up, the Pull Up, the Row, the Overhead Press, etc.), the same is true, but with the protagonist being the shoulder girdle.
If, instead, we talk about combined exercises such as the Clean, the Snatch, the Push Press, the Jerk, the Side Clean, etc., the matter gets more complicated because the two Primary motor fulcrums must work in close succession with each other: the movement starts from the hips and reaches the shoulder girdle through the strong action of the spine. The Core is always present in all these motor dynamics as a central stabilisation structure of the body!

Functional Training is a serious thing!

As you can see, Functional Training, like everything that concerns the health and efficiency of the human body, is serious and complex, and cannot be reduced to trivial definitions and simplistic applications! It must be studied and put into practice with discipline, dedication, and knowledge of the facts!

Good Functional Life!

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