Digging deeper on functional training and why your training still sucks

A few days ago I made this post about what is missing from your training. The response was interesting. I’m a big boy and write for a living so I’m used to people taking exception to what I write. Usually I think a lot of this is down to two things – firstly while I’ve somehow convinced the world that I actually have some decent information to pass on, I’m still the guy who got told that he’d be lucky to pass high school English. In other words I’m not the best writer in the world and often look back later and think how poorly I’ve done conveying my message. Secondly, let’s face it – most people have even worse comprehension skills than I have writing skills and when you combine the two it leads to people misunderstand things or failing entirely to read the subtext of the main message.

So here it is so there’s no confusion:

Modern gym based training exists to give you the illusion of being fit. It’s all about shallow appearance built on minimum effort. True, functional, useable fitness is built from being involved in athletic activities that revolve around multi-planar movement and a wide base of movement skills and base strength and fitness. Even if your training revolves around this concept many are still stuck in “go hard or go home” mode and worry only about how many or how fast they can train, neglecting how well they perform the movements.

The conundrum for many stems, again, from their lack of reading comprehension skills. I remember, when I was in the Army , that whenever a senior NCO would say, “you’ll see this again” it meant that whatever they just said was either going to be on a test or would be needed to survive. So I’d underline that or be sure to remember it. And this skill has proved no less vital later in life as I seek out the truths of training and fitness. When experts say things, that are largely repeated from one to the next, you should sit up and take notice. You should check out the source, notice the context and then chisel that into your brain as being of utmost importance.

When Gray Cook, founder of the FMS system, says, “mobility before stability, movement before strength” you should listen up. But when Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s leading spine biomechanist, says, “mobility, stability, endurance, strength/ power” you should start paying a little more attention as he also is saying the exact same thing. Ironically enough you can read this article on a website called StrongFirst (//www.strongfirst.com/blog/my-journey-to-the-kettlebell/).

Both of these statements have recently been summarised by Cook again on his new DVD Exploring Functional Movement. He says, “First move well, then move more…We are made to move strong and age gracefully. Reclamation of authentic movement is the starting point”.

So just like my old drill sergeants repeating things that were important for us to know for later on, both of these experts are saying the same thing – it is up to us to take notice. We should be taking notice not of how many, how fast or how heavy we can push clients in training, but of how well. “Move well, then move more”. Not “move more then hope to God you move well so you don’t get hurt”.

The changes are beginning, although they’re occurring with the glacial speed of a melting ice age. NFL teams are taking onboard the theories and methods of the FMS and starting to drastically change the ways they train their players. The Marines have found that by instituting the same ideas their recruits are far less likely to suffer injuries that see people fail to graduate boot camp. Closer to home the Australian Army is looking to change their own recruit training so that less recruits get hurt and more march out having survived the courses. But changes to the rest of the fitness industry is slow. Sadly much of the rest of the industry is still mired in machine based training typically seen in big box gyms. Even those smaller PT studios, while having figured that you don’t need expensive equipment to get in shape, are still stuck in the qualitative mindset – how hard can we push our customers, how fast can they do this workout? They’ve been fooled into buying equipment that looks functional – kettlebells, sandbags, TRX, tires to hit with hammers or flip – but the reality is that your training equipment doesn’t make your training functional. rather it is how you use it and the benefits you derive from it.

If you can’t squat for whatever reason, yet a certain tool helps you squat better and more naturally then it is functional. Notice I said more naturally, so a tool like a Smith machine, which may help you squat with more ease is not fulfilling the natural part of that equation. However, if you’re using any of these so called functional training tools, and your movement isn’t improving then I’d have to say that your training is not functional. Likewise if your trainer is telling you how they follow the FMS principles, runs one screen on you and then proceeds to work the hell out of you regardless of what the screen shows then they’re hardly adhering to the system, are they?

Let’s change the term then from functional training to movement training. The goal of functional training should be to make you move better opening up the opportunity to move more (or do it with more load or faster). Sound movement patterns are constantly changing from a stabilising system to a mobilizing one at all times. Think about it – when you’re moving do you move with a spine that is locked in place as if about to perform a heavy squat at all times? Of course not. The brain is adapting to the environment all the time so that what we have is a reflexively stabilised spine, yet not one that is held rigidly unless necessary. And that’s the real goal of functional training – to create an innate sense of when to be mobile and when to be stable. That’s exactly what we’re training the body to do during functional training using tools like kettlebells, the FMS and Primal Move – to be in a reflexive, natural state that allows us to modify our movement based on the feedback we’re getting from our surroundings.

The best resource I’ve seen on the kind of work needed to achieve this ingrained functionality is Dynami, Kettlebells From the Centre, by Cook and Jones. It runs through the entire spectrum of training from patterning/ mobility to stability before shifting to developing slow grinding strength and finally explosive strength and then worrying about conditioning.

To go back to where I was in the original post I believe that the number one thing people can do to help themselves is to get out of the gym. Connect with nature again and get the body moving. Get your hands dirty – seek the feedback that touching the ground will give you. Use minimal shoes so that your feet can do the same. Force the body to stabilise on changing surfaces and force yourself to use different strides and gait patterns to accommodate moving on different terrains. If you are indoors and training strength – and it does make sense to train indoors for this – ditch the shoes and gloves and pick a training session that challenges many movement qualities instead of just standing still on both feet. Add in lunges, single leg stance and try loading only unilaterally. I’ll tell you now that if you’re in a rebuilding phase because you have poor movement (and when I say movement I mean function) those few tips will go a long way to fixing a lot of your issues.

So don’t be fooled by all the hype surrounding functional training. If it doesn’t have movement in it, it’s not functional at all no matter how hard someone tries to convince you it is.