In my last article, I have ultimately recommended Functional Training and described it in the following words: “Simply move in optimal movement patterns. Do squats, lunges, jumps, pull ups, the SFT movement circuit, etc,or,to put it in two words: Functional Training”. Does this sentence already explain what Functional Training is? Certainly not and, therefore, I would like to describe what Functional Training means for me in this article.
Functional Training has massively gained in popularity in recent years even though it is nothing completely new. Critics call it a trend, sympathizers (like me) call it a training philosophy, yet all probably have a different understanding of the same terminology. The most recent resurrection of Functional Training can be credited to people like Gray Cook, Mike Boyle or Mark Verstegen and there are many more that have contributed to the increased popularity of this ‘movement’.
To me personally the two books by Gray Cook (‘The Perfect Athlete’ & ‘Movement’) have had the most inspirational effect and, thus, I will mostly quote from these books when I try to define Functional Training.
I will cover three elemental characteristics that make up Functional Training in my understanding :
- In Functional Training, you train movement patterns, following the motto: form follows function.
- In Functional Training, movement quality comes first: quality before quantity.
- Functional Training identifies weak points of the trainee and places them in the center of programming: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Now let’s go a little deeper with these three topics.
Movement patterns are elemental – form follows function
“The focus on movement, not muscles, runs like a thread through this book.” (Cook, 2011, p.14)
This one sentence, in my opinion, describes very well what makes up the center not only of the book but of Functional Training in general, which is species-appropriate movement patterns. Gray Cook further elaborates on this in the following quotes:
“Aim of training is not to alter the look of the body but to improve its movements. Therefore, training should focus more on movement patterns than on single muscles. For muscles will develop naturally when different movement patterns are trained, thus, giving trainees almost ‘automatically’ a look as if they would be doing bodybuilding. The focus, however, lies on movement itself; the great outer form is just a byproduct.” (Cook, 2011, p. 32)
“An athlete is defined not by his or her looks but by their way of moving. Modern strength training with weights has often times more to do with bodybuilding than with athletic performance and improved movement patterns. An athlete has to develop reasonable movement patterns long before they should be concerned with improving performance.” (Cook, 2011, p. 24)
I think these quotes make it very clear what Functional Training is all about and why it stands in opposition to bodybuilding. While bodybuilding places an emphasis on individual muscle groups, Functional Training places its focus on movement patterns. My theory is that people who turn to Functional Training mostly come from one of two areas: competitive sports or health sports. I think these people have understood that the increasing influences of bodybuilding in the last years haven’t benefitted their respective sport. A quote by Pavel Tsatsouline regarding this development would be:
In the 1980s hardcore New York powerlifter Dr. Ken Leistner watched the explosion of bodybuilding and predicted the decline of effective strength training. He was right. Proliferation of the strength = size mentality lead to two unfortunate developments.
First, athletes started equating strength training with bodybuilding. The result was ‘Hollywood muscle’—all show and no go. Although the new breed of US weightlifters were unquestionably buff, they, unlike their predecessors, could not hold a candle to the Eastern Europeans when it came to hoisting iron.
“Second, women shy away from effective strength training in fear of getting bulky. They are content being weak because they do not know that they can get stronger without developing the body of a Jesse Ventura. Ladies resort to pathetic high rep programs that do nothing to improve their muscle tone or strength. Indeed, bodybuilding is the worst thing that ever happened to strength training” (Tsatsouline, 1999, S.11)
Gray Cook’s words regarding this topic are as following:
“The gym equipment industry offered us another solution. If a person couldn’t squat but still wanted to work leg muscle development, they were there to help with a leg press, a leg extension and a leg curl machine. With these machines, we can work the leg musculature without ever performing the functional patterns these muscles support.”
This is a big problem because the prime movers still get exercised while the stabilizers lag behind. The stabilizers do not have to work in a natural manner in a partial pattern, during isolation exercises and on most weight machines.
“Own the movement before you do the exercise” (Cook, 2010, S.200)
Nevertheless, here we are. Modern fitness equipment allows training while sitting and even slouching comfortably. This equipment accommodates pushing and pulling with the arms, and flexing and pressing with the legs. The equipment also furnishes torso flexion, extension and rotation without forcing users to balance on their feet or naturally engage the stabilizing musculature.
People move muscles without the burden of controlling bodyweight, maintaining balance or managing alignment, but that is not life.” (Cook, 2010, S.74).’
I personally don’t have anything against bodybuilding as long as these training philosophies are kept separate from competitive or health sports (bodybuilding as competitive sport, of course, is an exception here). That, unfortunately, is often not the case even though that is not the fault of individual bodybuilders. I think, however, that Functional Training is the method of choice in the fields of competitive and health sports and that is why I use it for myself. I find it hard to observe older people being ‘strapped’ into one of the machines that Gray Cook mentions in the quote (leg press, leg extension, leg curl) all the while I am convinced that squat exercises, lunges, turkish get ups or push-ups would be that much more beneficial for their goals (probably maintaining their independence).
Of course, it is absolutely positive that these persons gathered the drive to do strength training but, especially then, I would want to give them the most reasonable training and I don’t think that the aforementioned machines, which are certainly the most common in gyms all around the world, can offer such a training.
Training while sitting is very common with most machines but not very specific. Ok, we all sit for hours every day but do we have to sit during training as well? Additionally, this destroys every coordinative characteristic that is very useful for the harmonic interplay of ‘all systems of our body’. Machines lead us through the movements and allow us to lift weights that we probably couldn’t lift without this guidance. We simply haven’t earned to lift that much weight yet but the machine allows us to. And in movement patterns that we almost never use in everyday life. Why should we train movement patterns that we never need in our daily life/sport?
Functional Training starts right here and focuses on improving movement patterns relevant to everyday life and sports with training equipment that not only trains conditional but also coordinative abilities. In addition to bodyweight training you can use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sling trainers, sandbags, weight vests, med balls, skipping ropes, cable rows, and several more.
Even though there is such a variety of training equipment, the primary focus lies on reasonable movement patterns, training equipment is secondary. Functional Training is much more than a kettlebell, sling trainer, and sandbag in combination and has nothing to do with circus acts.
Find the other two articles of this series here: