by Thomas Kurz
What makes training functional? For me, training is functional if it improves trainees’ functioning in their sport or whatever physical activity they train for (e.g., fire fighting, life guarding).
Training is not functional just because it includes exercises in multiple planes of motion or on unstable surfaces (stability balls, rollers, wobble boards); or because it targets mostly the joint stabilizing muscles; or because it teaches athletes to handle their body weight mainly with body-weight exercises. At times it may be all of that or some of that. Some of these exercises may be included in training that enhances athletes’ function, but most exercises have to be similar to actions in the sport (or other activity).
How about overstressing movements in transverse and frontal planes? In wrestling throws, specifically judo throws, the less twisted the thrower (Tori), the easier it is to complete the throw. At the same time, the more twisted the thrown person (Uke), the harder it is for him or her to defend or counter the throw. So the training needs to include both the exercises for increasing strength in the twisted positions and for resisting twisting forces (i.e., staying aligned with one’s sagittal plane).
How about unstable surfaces? Practicing from time to time on a different surface than the ring mat (more wobbly or springy or spongy) may be good for a boxer. It may improve feel of the movements and balance, but most of a boxer’s sport-specific training has to be done on a surface similar to that used in a match. What would happen to a boxer who did ALL shadow boxing and bag work standing on unstable surfaces? Very likely such a boxer would lose speed of punches, quickness of footwork, and a sense of driving the power from the ground.
How about targeting mostly the joint stabilizing muscles? Spending most of the strength training time on exercising the stabilizers to the detriment of prime movers does not make training functional. On the other hand, if our boxer did only sport-specific exercises (punching and resistance exercises that simulate punching), but not enough exercises for rotator cuff muscles, shoulder blade stabilizers, and trunk stabilizers, then such training would not be functional either.
How about using mostly body-weight exercises and teaching athletes to handle their body weight? There are many sports in which athletes handle someone else’s body (all varieties of wrestling) or some other object—in sports such as track and field throws, rowing, kayaking, weightlifting, and archery. Body-weight exercises are good, but not for every training task. For exceptional jumping ability and explosive power, short sets of weightlifting exercises with time limits (as described in Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports) cannot be replaced with single-leg squats or handstand push-ups because in those exercises one moves too slowly to develop explosiveness.
Even when the end goal is to be able to move one’s own body at a moderate speed, using external resistance speeds up one’s progress. For example, if a gymnast’s goal is to do push-ups in a handstand (to be able to repeatedly do a handstand from a headstand), then the right weight exercises, at the right time, bridge the gap in gradual strengthening of shoulders and arms between push-ups with feet on the floor or on a stack of mats to vertical push-ups by a wall.
Here is a good definition of functional training: Functional training emphasizes training of movements, not isolated muscles (coach Juan Carlos Santana)—but the movements have to make sense (i.e., to be applicable in one’s life and sport).
Another good definition, paraphrasing coach Mike Boyle: Functional training is about using knowledge of functional anatomy to select exercises that prevent injuries and improve performance.
Combine that knowledge of functional anatomy with attentive observation and you will run truly functional training sessions.
If in an exercise you see poor posture, grimacing, excessive tension, extra motions, or poor control, check the function (strength and activation) of stabilizers for this exercise. If weak, strengthen these muscles and lower resistance or pace of movements in the exercise to the point at which stabilizers can handle it.
Even a beginner with little practice can use his or her prime movers to move parts of the body into positions at which unprepared stabilizers are ineffective.
So, how do you strengthen the stabilizers?
First, by doing exercises that make them tense more than other muscles—that is, the exercises in which the usual stabilizers become primary movers.
Second, by not doing exercises that weaken them with form or resistance that is beyond their capacity to function effectively.
This is why rational sports training begins with systematic strengthening of all stabilizers through general strength exercises. At all stages of the multiyear training process, and in all periods of a yearly training program, correctly trained athletes keep their stabilizers in good shape with various general exercises.
But there is more to functional training than just preventing injuries. Another aspect is preparing for peak performance. This requires understanding the purpose as well as the mechanical and physiological principles of actions trained for.
With a good understanding of what really matters in the activity, you can select or design exercises that are relevant and arrange them in the most effective sequence and proportions.
Faced with stagnating development of discus throwers Tsveta Khristova and Svetla Mitkova, their coach, Peter Rakhmanliev, reexamined their training. He decided that speed matters more in discus than previously thought, so he put more emphasis on it. He rearranged periodization of their training and reduced the volume of weights lifted and throws made, as well as acceleration runs, hurdles, and jumps. Thanks to that reduction in volume, the quality and intensity of work was increased. Consequently, results of his discus throwers improved considerably. Tsveta Khristova went from 65-meter throws to over 70-meter throws, and Svetla Mitkova went from under 67-meter throws to over 69-meter throws. They also had fewer injuries than when on the old program.
Even though the coach did not introduce new exercises, his changes made their training more functional.
To learn more about functional training, read Stadion books Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports and Science of Sports Training. Get the books now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs! Order now!
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum