More thoughts on functional training

Looking around the internet over the last few days since the most recent post I was again at a loss to understand how people can be missing the point by so much. Maybe it’s human nature to rush from one extreme to the other, never able to find balance as we race from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Not so long ago gyms were filled with people training, just like they are today. The only difference was that the equipment was very different – with rings, pommel horses, Indian Clubs, kettlebells, climbing ropes and stall bars. The focus then was on skill acquisition and on making the movements graceful and fluid. The goal wasn’t to be bigger or look better without a shirt. It was to be better. To move better, to be stronger, to be better able to survive what was still a hard life.

Gyms these days are filled with things that shouldn’t never have made it past a watchful eye. Bicycles that don’t go outside? What a ridiculous concept that would have been a hundred years ago. Bikes are made to be ridden outside. Or how about a machine that lets you use more weight than you safely can on your own? Don’t think that machine exists? It’s called a Smith Machine. It allows you to stack more weight onto it for exercises like squats and bench press because you don’t have to balance the load yourself. In the fitness world that seems like a good idea. Yet let’s look at what happens when someone travels further down that path. They enter the gym weak and unable to balance the bar themselves and get put onto a machine. They slowly develop strength there and after a while are told to go onto using a free weight. The only problem now is that they have a muscular system that is far in advance of their stabilizing system and now have a weight they have no idea how to balance. That’s the sort of thing that makes it onto YouTube.

The missing piece of the equation is self-limiting exercises. These are exercises where your body stops you before you can really hurt yourself. Think about how many cases of plantar fasciitis you hear of from runners. All those spongy shoes allow people to run well past the point they should have stopped. If you watch the joggers around your area what you will see will shock and terrify you if you have a good eye for movement. But on they trudge saved by their soft runners that act to protect them as much as possible. But what if we take away those runners and make them run barefoot? How far would they run then? Not very far would be my bet and at a greatly reduced pace. They’d be forced to stop or slow down quickly because of the body protecting itself. That’s self-limiting.

Modern fitness is scared of self-limiting. It’s scared of dropping volume below what we think we need to get a pump. The human body is made to adapt, to learn. But it is only right at the edge of our ability that we gain adaptation. So we should be searching for movements that test us, but that aren’t so challenging we’re overwhelmed by them. For instance, single leg deadlifts are a fantastic exercise. Long before your spinal stabilizers bow out your hips will give up and you’ll be forced to stop until the blow torch like feeling in your support leg goes away. But single leg deadlifts on a BOSU? Too much and the body will be overwhelmed.

Good movement is hard to come by. Good movement under load is even harder. The very best trainers, those who really understand functional training and how to make people move well and be strong, first understand that both are necessary. The raw movement skill is important before we add load, then we add load or speed to challenge the body and force adaptation. Some exercises are better than others when it comes to getting the body to its edge of ability.

  • Exercises that involve the squat such as the snatch or overhead squat are amazing.
  • Kettlebell and club exercises that allow the body to cross midline such as the get up, bent press and swipes do a lot for our neuro chemistry and skill learning. They involve many joints moving at once too and learning to coordinate parts of the body and when to move what is a vital tool for building functionality.
  • Outdoor running. The more primitive your environment can be here the better. Get out on the trails and force yourself to run up and down hills, avoid slipping on loose gravel and keep your balance. Your entire body will thank you for it.

Move, move well, then let it rip with load and speed. But challenge the body for skill before you challenge it’s end point for endurance. When skill degrades you’re done. If that’s one rep that’s ok – that’s your body telling you to stop now before you hurt yourself. Learn to pay attention to those warning signs and watch your movement skill grow.