Functional or Not?

What does the word “functional” mean to you?

If you’ve had any sampling of the modern fitness industry, “functional” will probably mean doing exercises that have a high carryover to the motions and actions found in most team sports.

It could just as easily mean standing on a wobble board doing one-handed dumbbell presses, in order to improve “core stability”.

Have you ever stopped to think what “functional” really means, though?

The word itself should give you a hint. A more appropriate definition of functionality would be “the way the body’s systems work in order to create motor output”, to paraphrase the late Mel Siff.

In other words, functional training is a formal way of saying “training to improve how the body works in order to perform in specific ways”.

When somebody says that something is “functional”, the response should be “functional for what?”. Functional training is not just a discrete thing you can point to. It’s not a style of training, as much as people like to quantify training in this way.

Rather, what seems to be happening is that people are conflating the concepts of sport-specific and instability training with functionality. Both of those approaches certainly have utility, but they are only “functional” for a limited set of activities.

The actually degree of functionality for any given exercise is highly dependent on many aspects of the sport motions in question. Too often people take the idea of specificity to the extreme; but specificity to a movement or action does not require simulation of that action.

Different exercises will have different degrees of carryover. What matters is not necessarily trying to simulate all aspects of the sport, but rather to pick and choose the exercises and methods that can best develop any of several abilities.

As an example, squats and leg presses could be considered relatively nonfunctional for a distance runner. Yet, we know that these exercises have a clear benefit. Why?

They prepare the legs for the absorption of forces. They help to develop and maintain muscle mass. They assist in force production. The list goes on; even though a squatting motion isn’t involved in running, squatting still has a degree of functionality for distance running.

Some would even argue the point of the squat being “more” functional than the leg press; but really, considering that both exercises are general development to the runner, how can this be the case?

Functionality is entirely contextual. An exercise or training method can be functional for one activity, and nonfunctional for another.

Bodybuilders and those of you only interested in looking better, you can get away with just about anything. For the purposes of muscle hypertrophy, resistance is resistance, and tension is tension.

The difference is between general and specific training methods. Ideally a training program will be some blend of general training, which develops the overall “fitness” of the athlete, and specific training, which directly improves the sport performance.

Just how this comes to pass is up to the strength coach and the programming s/he chooses to use; but that’s a whole separate article.

Exercises don’t have to be sport-specific in order to have value to anyone. Further, if you’re a recreational lifter or a gym rat only interested in improved health and fitness, your choice of exercises aren’t that critical.

Yes, you most certainly do need to take care of basic movement abilities, such as squatting, pressing, pulling, twisting/rotating, lunging, and so on. However, it’s a strawman argument to say that simply using these allegedly “nonfunctional” exercises will somehow interfere in that, or that the two can’t be used together in a program.

Functionality is entirely context-dependent.

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