Understanding and Defining Functional Training Pt. 3


Secondary fitness traits can be represented by the acronym CARBS = P. With a base of cardiovascular, strength and flexibility fitness established, an important training goal becomes one of transitioning this less functional health/ fitness/aesthetically oriented fitness foundation into integrated movement ability. It must be noted that some secondary fitness traits can be trained simultaneously with primary components, but regardless, it is important to “change­up” your program at some point using a planned and periodized approach that emphasizes this type of training on a regular basis. This planned variety should specifically include training that develops a host of desirable athletic traits that include the following secondary fitness components: Coordination, Agility, Reactivity, Balance, Speed andPower. 

CARBS = Power represents an expression of movement, when developed, that defines applied­power and is important to every individual. Power is simply a combination of strength and speed capability expressed over time. CARBS=P essentially represents a power­formula for developing athleticism, which leads to power­movement capability that is appropriate for any of life's physical requirements or challenges.

performance continuum 
Proper development of primary and secondary components of fitness ultimately results in improved physical activity skills and leads a trainee to a properly evolved top­tier of the triangle that is characterized by better performance. Performance, like functional training, should not be narrowly defined.


Improved performance can lead to an enhanced ability to handle the requirements of daily life, occupation, recreation/ leisure, athletics and sport, as well as prevent or minimize the potential for injury. Performance improvement in individuals is not limited to high­level athletes.

performance continuum and athleticism 

Athleticism and performance improvements are important to everyone! Having stated this fact, most would agree that professional or world class athletes should develop power and athleticism. But, does a seventy year old woman need power and athleticism or need to maintain or improve “performance?” The answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” If, for example, an older person was to stumble, then correct his or her loss of balance and remain standing, professionals in­the­know would rate that feat as a gold medal performance. Why? The consequence of a fall that results in a fractured hip in a seventy year or older adult can be lethal. The risk of dying because of related complications can run at eighty percent or greater. Avoiding a fall is quite a “performance.” 

It is important to broadly define performance and see “it” for what it means at a personal level. If an average individual was asked to associate a word or phrase with “performance,” most responses uttered would include “athlete” or “world class” or “professional level competition.” Few would connect “performance” with a seventy year old adult. This is a mistake. All humans have “performance goals” that range from sustaining normal day­to­day function, avoiding injury and living fully, to performing at a world class level. The ability to perform functionally on a broad “performance continuum” runs the gamut from being the best in the world, to performing life skills more efficiently and safely, to preserving physical independence and even life! Avoiding a fall is comprised of an ability to act “right now” and is an expression of applied­power and athleticism (CARBS=P), where applied­power equates to an ability to use the right amount of force, or strength, quickly. The same holds true for high­level athletic performance, though the activity being performed is different. 
“Performance goals” can be created for anyone so that they match current movement capacity, fitness/health needs and functional movement requirements. All individuals have important “performance” goals and “perform” on a daily basis, which makes functional training important and useful to everyone. 

identifying different types of functional training applications 

Even within the realm of professionals who support and believe in the concept of functional training, some confusion exists with regard to what constitutes functional exercise. 

To be able to see the different possibilities that exist, remember that functional training prepares people to move. It's that simple. But, it is a moving target depending on the goal, stage of training, physical imbalances and injury status. That's why a black and white definition doesn't suffice. Instead, an understanding is required if one is going to be able to wrap his/her brain around this concept. Seeming contradictions are everywhere with regard to functional exercise, which can add to the confusion surrounding this form of training. 

functional training paradoxes

Function varies from joint to joint for any given movement, and can change during movement! Though it holds true that functional movement is generally represented by upright, weight bearing and multi­joint movement that requires simultaneous motion and stabilization, the physical demands can change moment­to­moment and situation­to­situation. 

For example, the lumbar spine might be required to flex or extend one second, and stabilize the next. Or, one instant the ankle can be commanded to hold a static position, and in the next moment help propel the body from a surface with a strong plantar flexion movement. Motion and stabilizing actions are constant and ever­changing in dynamic movement environments. Some exercises require functional stabilization at certain joints, others movement, and still others mobility to improve performance. All could be classified as functional.

Generally, for example, one would train scapular stabilization or fixation in isolation to teach the skill and develop this skill foundation to precede isolated rotator cuff training or diagonal pulls (wood chop motion). Outside observers would see the scapular retraction and isolated rotator cuff exercises as isolation exercises that are less functional, and would classify the trunk­rotating, high to low diagonal pulls using a functional load (elastic resistance) as integrated functional training. A straight arm plank (sustained push­up position) performed with a neutral or partial scapular retraction could be seen as functional with regard to the held scapular position, and the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder could be seen as being trained functionally because of the static stabilizing force produced in these muscles while this position is held. 

With regard to each situation above, it is easy to see the justification and importance of such a progression, and why someone who supports functional training would still use isolation exercises for some aspects of the training program to optimize the training result and minimize injury risk. At the same time, one can see why these types of scenarios can create confusion. Training choices do not have to revolve around an all­or­none philosophy. Ultimately, a professional will move from preparatory or necessary isolated movement to more integrated, coordinated and multi­joint movement as conditioning progression allows. This understanding gives professionals the choice to use both types of training. 

Range of motion might intentionally be limited in a particular area of the body if stability is being trained, or during rehabilitation when motion at a joint, or joints, causes pain. Some would call this rehab, but it's also another form of functional training where the goal and circumstance is matched appropriately with a type of training. Other times it is necessary to “isolate” stabilization or movement at a single joint, before progressing to more integrated, head­to­toe movement. Rather than being confused, choose to see functional training and its appropriateness as a moving target! 

functional training continuum 

Keep this continuum in mind. Useful training moves from isolated on the far left of the continuum, to functional or movement that has a high transfer to real­life and sport at the middle of the continuum, to playing the sport or participating in skill rehearsal or practice on the far right. 

Functional training prepares one to move well. It has been stated that moving well includes having the ability to express varying degrees of motion, stability and mobility.

The key is to understand and see the variety of functional training applications that adjust with individual need, goals and changing physical state. Ultimately the goal is to progress less useable, isolated fitness gains, into more useable fitness. Training functionally, or preparing the body to move and teaching muscle groups to work together from head to toe and in a coordinated fashion, is the ultimate goal. Now it is obvious why a black and white definition of functional training does not exist. Instead, exercise choice and progression relates more to a degree of appropriateness or properly matching the exercise to the current situation. 

That's why functional training can be characterized as a fluid­concept. It has many applications and functional or integrated training may not be the best choice for some training or rehabilitation settings! One has to keep a keen eye focused on how and why people move for a given training situation. The ultimate training outcome is not stand alone strength, cardiovascular or flexibility fitness. Instead, the goal is to improve movement ability and performance, and not, for example, create strength for the sake of strength. Development of secondary fitness traits moves beyond this level of training.

Asking two questions will help professionals discern functional training. First, “What does this activity have to do with muscles working together to improve performance?” Before you ask the second question to help differentiate this form of training, realize it is okay and necessary to use traditional forms of training. It is also encouraged that one prepares the ground work for integrated functional movement by using isolated movement, if necessary, to accomplish that foundation. Finally ask, “Are muscles being trained to prepare individuals for movement in a manner that reflects the way they are used in sport and daily life?”

understanding where and why functional training fits in a training program 

Controversy or at least confusion exists with regard to functional and traditional (i.e., strength training, weight lifting, sprints, plyometrics, training on stable surfaces, etc.) approaches to training. Often, extremists from both camps pit one versus the other. This is not necessary. More important, is to understand what each type of training can, and cannot, accomplish. Simply, they are different. Applied movement should focus on a “new” view of muscle function as it relates to the kinetic chain and muscles working together to perform movements (Boyle, 2004). 

Functional training should be integrated, or become part of a program or class design scheme, not take it over. Functional training only programs cannot stand alone as an exclusionary approach to training. Too much of a “good thing” is not always better, and conversely, absolute rejection of a well­founded concept by those who stand by the use of traditional training practices only, is equally off track. If a professional chooses one type of training over another to the exclusion of other science­based approaches, at the least, training is not being accomplished in a complete manner. For those who state there is not enough science to support functional training as a science­based approach, equally true is the fact that there is no science that unequivocally disproves this approach. Obviously, more research is needed to clarify its effectiveness and use in training. However, it is clear that functional training will always have a place in a periodized and progressive program that meets all of the needs of trainees because it works and makes sense! 

Material in this chapter adapted from Douglas S. Brooks' live workshop presentations and The Complete Book of Balance Training (in press), by Gregory Anderson, Douglas Brooks and Peter Twist.

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