The fitness industry is great for gimmicks and buzzwords, and there is no bigger embodiment of this trend than the concept of “functional” training.
“Functional” training, as defined by most of its proponents, consists of performing exercises that mimic the activities of daily life (or at least they supposedly do — as you’ll see in a second that really isn’t the case). Theoretically, it is through the performance of these exercises that you will better prepare yourself for the activities you face during your day, thereby improving your efficiency and reducing risk of injury. Sounds great, right? Well, there are a few problems.
First, and probably most obviously, there are very few of us who are significantly challenged by the activities of daily life, and even fewer of us getting injured while doing them. When was the last time you lost your balance putting milk into the refrigerator, or found it taxing to mop the floor? Better yet, have you pulled your hamstring while you were pushing your shopping cart around the grocery store? I didn’t think so! The point of exercise is that it’s different than the activities of daily life, and that’s why it works. Exercise places stresses on your body greater than what it’s used to handling, and by way of that mechanism, it makes changes.
The second (and even bigger) problem is that even if training for the movements of daily life was important (and it is for some small segment of the population), functional training exercises don’t accomplish this goal. If you’ve ever observed a “functional” training session, it comes to resemble more of a circus act than an actual exercise session. Typically, “functional” training exercises involve some aspect of instability, such as standing on a half-ball (called a BOSU) or a wobble board, and then performing some type of weight lifting exercise. Proponents claim this improves stability and core strength (this is another buzzword, which I won’t get started on now, but it’s just as bad as “functional training”).
The problem with the supposition of unstable surface “functional” training is that it doesn’t even come close to working. In fact, numerous research studies have shown that training on an unstable surface results in less core activation than training on a stable surface. That same research also shows that training on an unstable surface can actually make you unstable when you get back on normal ground. And, the research indicates that you actually get less muscular fitness development (and core activation) from training on an unstable surface than training on the stable ground. All of a sudden, this isn’t sounding so functional anymore, is it?
By now, you probably get the idea that I think “functional” training is bad, right? Well, not entirely. I think the way the term is used, in the context defined above, is inappropriate. But, I don’t think any form of exercise is bad; and, in fact, I think all forms of exercise are functional to a certain degree. What dictates good or bad, right or wrong, functional or not, is what you’re looking to get out of exercise – what your goals are, not the actual exercise itself.
If you want to be entertained and do an unconventional workout, then I think unstable surface training is great, but don’t expect it to make you or your core stronger, or reduce your body fat, because it’s just not going to do that. I think Olympic Lifting and Kettlebell exercises are excellent movements for developing explosive whole-body power in athletes, but they’re inappropriate (and even dangerous) for the general population looking to improve body composition and enhance fitness. You can do “core” exercises (crunches, sit-ups, etc.) until you can’t move anymore, but that’s not going to help you see that 6-pack without also focusing on nutrition and creating a calorie deficit.
What makes exercise functional are your goals, which brings us to the concept of specificity. It is the most fundamental principle of exercise program design, and it states that specific types of stress (in the form of exercise) have to be placed on the body, in specific ways, in order to result in specific adaptations. So, bicep curls are great for a bodybuilder looking to get bigger biceps, but not for a runner looking to improve his 5K time. Circuit training is great for calorie burning and fat loss, but not for a competitive bench presser looking to lift more weight. The bottom-line is that exercise goals differ, so exercise stresses should differ relative to those goals.
When you’re considering what form of exercise is best for you, start with your goals and work backward from there, and you’ll be able to figure out the most functional form of exercise for you!