Why Older Isn’t Better: The Real Meaning of Functional Training

There’s a weird trend happening in the fitness world these days. I’m referring to the rise of “Functional Training”. Now, what began as an attempt to make exercise more meaningful and applicable to everyday situations became a bastardization of the concept. Like any well-meaning movement, there are always the objective and open-minded prophets who’s gospel gets twisted and abused to create some new, perverted version. The idea was to challenge movement patterns in multiple planes of movement, improve stability, and add an element of coordination to exercise, all inherently good things. However, what these people don’t understand is basic anatomy and physiology. They are misinterpreting what they see on the surface for being the truth. Like so many other situations in the world, humans aren’t very good at seeing the trees in the forest.

What is “Functional”?

One of the main problems with the debate is that there is no clear definition as to what functional is. You can ask 10 different coaches and each will give you a different answer. It has been thought to be any movement that mimics movements done in real life. The problem is, it really isn’t that simple. “Functional” trainers think that you can balance on a wobble board and that will give you better balance when walking on ice. This is just plain wrong and a complete misunderstanding of basic motor control theory. The human brain, in its infinite complexity, is also extremely specific, which means that there is very little transfer in movement skill from one activity to another. This is why champion swimmers are not champion runners, even though they are endurance athletes. The movement skill is very specific. Another example is trying to train basketball players with ankle-weights and weighted balls, the theory being that when you take these weights off, they will handle a normal ball much easier and jump higher without the ankle weights. The fact is, they will simply develop a motor pattern that improves their skill using heavy balls and ankle weights. It will NOT transfer.

Don't do this. Ever.

Don’t do this. Ever.

The only thing that transfers is GENERAL strength and conditioning. The ability of the muscles to produce force, or your lungs to turn over carbon dioxide. My definition of functional training is as such:

Any exercise intervention, whether it be mobility, strength, or endurance, that improves the ability of the individual to carry out their tasks of daily living

In truth, functional training may not actually look very functional when it is being performed in a formal environment. Something like a machine leg extension would, at the outset seem like the most un-functional piece of equipment possible. But if you took an 80-year-old woman with osteoporosis and progressively strengthened her quadriceps muscles to the point where she could walk unassisted, I would call that pretty damn functional! Yes you could make the poor woman stand on a wobble board or do single leg squats but the injury risk would go up exponentially and she would progress slower. Tell me, which is the better choice of exercise in this situation?

The argument from antiquity and the fear of modernity

This all comes back to the arguments so many quacks, pseudo-scientists, and fad-diet gurus use. Namely that because something is old means it must be better or that because something is new it is somehow “artificial”, “poisonous” or “corrosive” (Notice the extensive use of quotation marks). This is just nonsense. The fact is, humans are users of technology. Experts at wielding tools and molding our environments. It is what defines us. It is what has allowed us to survive, thrive, and dominate the planet. Saying we need to step back is a silly argument that isn’t well thought out.

“Paleo” diet advocates say we should eat like our paleolithic ancestors for maximum health. What they don’t realize is that for one, we really aren’t sure what they ate. Two, most of the foods that are today considered “paleo” look nothing like they did in paleolithic times. Likewise is the same for “paleo” exercise. We need to lift rocks, climb trees, and wrestle bears to stay fit? What they fail to realize is that these were activities we HAD to do to stay alive and likely shortened our lifespans.

Don’t do functional training. Train to be functional.

We need to move past the ignorance and myths so pervasive in health and fitness and actually look at things objectively. Most of the current so-called functional training protocols wind up causing more damage and injury than rational, anatomy and bio-mechanics based exercise. The fastest way to reduce function is to get injured. Remember, it doesn’t matter how functional your exercise is, if you aren’t. Pick exercises based on their ability to make you move and perform better in everyday life or your vocation. This will almost always consist of strength training and improving mobility, using simple, compound weight lifting.

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