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Functional training involves the "core" musculature, improves stability, and helps you move better both for sport and general physical function. - Or it can make you worse at moving.

The term "functional training" is everywhere in the fitness world recently. It's apparently the method that all modern science based new age trainers use and what old school iron pumpers don't understand. Let's take a look.

Descriptions of functional training go back to 230 BC and beyond, so don't believe it when the local hotshot trainer claims this is something new. The truth is it would only be new to them. I had a track and field coach who was also a strength coach give me a functional training program in 1985. He said, "this is the way top athlete's have always trained." So if I had a coach showing me functional training in the '80's, anyone claiming that this is the new way train today is a little late joining the party, but at least they showed up.

When I took my first coaching courses in 1987 it was called "SAID" Specific Adaptation to Implied Demand - meaning that if you want to improve ankle stability you have to train the ankle in the specific way stability is required. Riding a bike trains the ankle, but only for how the ankle is used in riding a bike - to train the ankle for running, you would have to begin loading the ankle in the way it behaves during running. Now the SAID principal is incorporated into the "functional training" principal. Same game, different name.

What exercise will make you better at lifting boxes; Knee extensions and hamstring curl machines, or squats while holding weights in your hands?

The squats will because you are practicing recruiting muscles in the same pattern used when lifting a box - a functional movement pattern. Sitting in a knee extension machine does not resemble standing and lifting. Do knee extensions and you get good at knee extensions without much or any cross over to getting good at using your legs to lift a box - not very functional unless you are entering a knee extension race. (There aren't any knee extension races, in case you were wondering).

Single leg exercises like lunges, step ups, walking lunges, and bounding (an exaggerated leaping stride), all improve strength, power, and speed for most sports better than squats will.

So squats are better than knee extensions and single leg squats are better than standard two leg squats.. Right? Yes - if you don't have any muscle imbalances or biomechanical problems.

Trouble is, most people who have not done all the preparation work, even elite athletes, will have at least one or two biomechanical problems that will be exacerbated when attempting the more functional exercises. You must be able to stand before you walk, and walk before you can run. The same concept applies to participating in complex functional exercises. So how do you achieve good biomechanics? By practicing good movement patterns and eliminating poor movement patterns.

The brain doesn't differentiate between good or poor movement patterns. It simply automates whatever movements you repeat. Repeat a "functional" exercise with errors and you will adopt the error, not correct it.

Through repetition your brain creates a file (motor engram) for a given movement pattern. This allows you to multi task while performing physical tasks- like walking and talking, or running away from a predator and thinking about your best escape strategy while your body frantically does the leg work.

Nobody thinks the following while walking, "OK, ugh, lift my left foot- how do I do that? - Oh right, lift my left knee up, push off with my right leg, lower my left foot, careful.. Don't fall over! Stay balanced, contract muscles around my spine and opposite hip.."

We're not consciously aware of the sequence of muscle contractions required to walk, even though hundreds of muscles must fire in an eloquent symphony of coordination, with the odd stumble here and there. We don't think about it because long ago when we were laying down the foundation of learning to walk, our brain was busy taking notes making motor engrams for walking.

It's the same adaptive mechanism that makes race car drivers super sensitive and responsive to a cars handling, and has Tiger Woods develop that perfect swing; lot's of repetition stimulates the brain to adapt.

So what happens if you repeat something the wrong way? You guessed it, you get really good at doing something very poorly.

A couple examples:


Here is a study (1) demonstrating altered movement patterns interfering with normal movement. The study looked at subjects ability to perform a sit to stand motion 3 months and 1 year after complete knee replacement surgery. After surgery the quadriceps muscle was weak so subjects compensated by using their hip muscles more to stand up. Over one year their quad muscles became stronger, but the altered movement they used when their quad was weaker stayed with them. Even though the quad muscle was stronger, they still relied on the altered movement pattern they adopted when they were weaker. The study concluded that this movement pattern may not be resolved without retraining.

The same thing can happen as a person increases their strength exercising or training diligently for competition; They get stronger, but unless specific retraining of altered movement patterns is done, strengthening alone will not resolve poor mechanics. A person may believe they are making their ankle less prone to injury by doing single leg strengthening exercises, but really all they could be doing is increasing strength while retaining poor mechanics, which will increase their ability to injure their ankle because now they can place more stress on it - because they are stronger.

Personal observation:

I was in a gym when a personal trainer was giving a class direction on power cleans, jumping squats with barbell, medicine ball throwing, and other complex exercises. Each person executed the advanced movements with bad to severe biomechanical errors with knees bending inwards, spines bending and twisting when they should be neutral and stable, and shoulders completely out of place. These people were improving their ability to perform poorly.

The step the trainer skipped was ensuring that his students had the level of functional development to handle the complex movement. He put the cart before the horse. Just as a person requires enough preparation to enable them to execute complicated exercises, a trainer needs practice to become familiar with how to spot mechanical errors, and how to screen people to ensure they are ready for the next level of exercise challenge. In this case neither the trainer nor the trainees were ready for these advanced movements. As a consequence, although these people will get stronger, they will also continue to compensate with their poor patterns which either lead to injury or limit their long term improvement, or both.

What I see happening is trainers and coaches who are excited about the promise of what functional training can deliver are too quick to implement balance drills and single leg exercises etc., but don't really understand the biomechanics behind these movements. With good intentions a person is put through a complex exercise with the promise of reduced injuries and better delivery of power and skill. Unknowingly, the person has pre existing muscle imbalances and biomechanical errors. Ironically, the very problem the functional exercise is designed to resolve is made worse.

If you have an altered movement pattern the challenge of a complex exercise is too high and will cause you to compensate by relying on your learned poor pattern. You will not overcome the problem by trying to "straighten your knee" because you will simply employ another altered movement pattern to straighten the knee. You just created another biomechanical error for yourself, but you don't know it and you think you've corrected an old pattern.

Resolving these issues usually involves smaller isolated movements with a high degree of concentration on localized body movement. The movement is usually done slowly to facilitate learning. Usually you can't initiate practice on your own because you will not be able to sense what you need to do, you need a pro to walk you through it. Gradually the complexity of movement patterns is increased until you can maintain good mechanics with the "functional training" movement. Physiotherapy, massage therapy, and a return to more general preparation may also be required before returning to the more complex movements.

The functional training moves are NOT where you begin exercise, they are what you do when you've completed prepetory exercise phases. Which of course is why very few do it this way, it isn't a quick fix. Most jump right to the complex move, and most are urged to go there by their trainer.

Walking Lunges


Ironically it is dysfunctional to prescribe training that is beyond the current ability of someone, no matter how "functional" the actual movement may be when performed by those who are well trained.

Instead of recruiting synergistic muscles making for a more stable coordinated kinetic chain, these supportive muscles are pushed beyond current limit's and are overused. Instead of better biomechanics, mechanics are worsened by the pelvis tilting, spine bending, and femur's rotating. The fancy "functional training" is dysfunctional training when not applied correctly.

If you're an elite athlete don't assume you're past the prepetory phase. In fact, you may have developed poor mechanics over the years and require a return to basics to fix mechanical errors before taking it to the next level.

Functional training tips for beginners, same tips apply to elite athletes:

  • See a trainer who understands biomechanics and screens you for problems before moving you into complex exercises. No screening? See someone else.
  • Break movements down into small segments and learn how to properly recruit the right muscles at the right time while also learning what the wrong way feels like. Being taught these moves by a good trainer is important.
  • Keep both feet planted until you measure strength and stability improvements, then try one or two simple single leg exercises without weight.
  • Try common seated exercises while standing, but use a much lighter resistance than usual. If you do seated overhead press with dumbbells, try the exercise while standing. Decrease your usual weight by at least 50% when learning a new move. Contract core muscles to prevent your spine and pelvis from moving while lifting - keep them neutral. Have an experienced trainer look for mechanical problems - you might lift the weight easily enough, but not realize your shoulder blade wings out.

The traditional seated shoulder press is not considered very "functional" because we typically lift things over our head while standing, not while seated. If you're in a wheelchair or are always doing a task that involves lifting over your head while seated, then seated overhead press would be functional. Core muscle recruitment, and in fact recruitment of all the muscle of the body and sense of balance correction are different between seated and standing shoulder press/ overhead press, so performing this exercise is more functional while done standing. Keep in mind that this "functional" exercise could be dysfunctional if you can't stabilize your scapula, spine, and pelvis while doing so. If this is the case - don't do it. Get help correcting the imbalances before returning to the complex "functional" movement.

  • Be wary of misguided claim's regarding the application of some "functional training" exercises; Sitting on an exercise ball while mimicking a golf swing is not a functional exercise for golf, unless you sit on an exercise ball when you play golf. If you sit on a ball while practicing your golf swing, you may as well throw your swing mechanics out the window. None of the balance and counter balance mechanisms present while standing swinging a gold club are going to be accurately reproduced when seated.

(1) February 21, 2008 Physical Therapy DOI: 10.2522/ptj.20070045

Persistence of Altered Movement Patterns During a Sit-to-Stand Task 1 Year Following Unilateral Total Knee Arthroplasty. Sara J Farquhar, Darcy S Reisman and Lynn Snyder-Mackler.


2008 Rhino Fitness

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