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Ten Nice-to-Know Facts About Functional Training

Peterson, James A. Ph.D., FACSM

ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: May/June 2017 - Volume 21 - Issue 3 - p 52
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000301
Departments: Take Ten

James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.

Editor’s note: This important Take Ten column originally published in the September/October 2013 issue of the journal, but bears repeating. Not only did functional fitness rank in this year’s top 20 list of fitness trends (#12), but its practical focus on training and developing muscles to make performing everyday activities easier and safer has mass appeal.

  1. EXERCISE FOR A PURPOSE. Functional training is designed to enhance the ability of exercisers to meet the demands of performing a wide range of activities of daily living (ADL) at home, work, or play without undue risk of injury or fatigue. As such, functional fitness is a by-product of the synergistic integration of the various components of fitness (physical and neuromuscular) and the muscle groups and joints involved in a movement activity or training effort.
  2. NO EXCEPTIONS. Functional training can have a positive impact on everyone. The ability to perform the tasks in their daily life more safely, efficiently, and with less effort is a payoff that would benefit all exercisers – particularly older adults and sedentary individuals who lack a baseline foundation of fitness. It should be noted that “age” is not just a matter of chronology, but also the ability to function effectively and independently.
  3. FUNCTIONAL TOOLBOX. A variety of tools exist that can be incorporated into a functional training workout. A list of these implements includes exercise bars, bands, and balls, as well as dumbbells and the individual’s body weight. The key is not so much the specific tool employed, but the way in which the instrument is used. Whenever possible, the primary focus of the exercise should be to train “movements,” not simply “muscles” in an effort to ensure that improvements transfer over to everyday life.
  4. RELATIVE REALITY. Assessing a person’s level of functional fitness is a much more difficult task than simply defining it. The primary dilemma in this regard is the fact that functional fitness is relative to each individual. A vast continuum exists for functional fitness (from basic activities of daily living to high-level performance activities).The challenges imposed by the daily tasks in one person’s life may be far different than the demands inherent in a different set of tasks facing a different individual.
  5. MYTHS, MISINFORMATION, MISUNDERSTANDING. A number of the quantitative measures traditionally used to assess an individual’s level of fitness, particularly strength, can have limited merit from a functional standpoint. How much a person is able to lift on the bench press exercise, for example, has little relevance and correlation to a person’s ability to perform a wide range of functional movements and physical tasks.
  6. ABSOLUTELY BENEFICIAL. One of the most useful results of functional training is the effect that it has on the exerciser’s level of core stabilization. All factors considered, stronger core muscles enhance the ability of individuals to control their bodies through different movement planes. A stronger core has been shown to enhance stability and mobility, thereby improving the movement capabilities of individuals, while simultaneously lowering their potential for injury.
  7. PLANE SENSE. Since the primary goal of functional training is to improve the ability of the targeted muscles and joints to work together more efficiently when the body is moving through different planes of motion (i.e., different angles), as well as to develop the muscles that concurrently help stabilize the body when this movement is occurring, it can be argued that working out on exercise machines that isolate muscular involvement and restrict range of motion has a limited impact on functional fitness.
  8. BODILY HARM. Too many individuals believe that training in an explosive, ballistic manner is an appropriate and productive form of functional training. Far too often, however, such an approach will result in an injury to the exerciser. In reality, nothing is functional about being injured when exercising – particularly when training improperly. Safety should trump everything. As a rule, trying to improve the force-producing capability of a muscle or a group of muscles by requiring them to overcome or withstand sudden high loads is generally an unsafe and ill-advised endeavor.
  9. ALL-OR-NOTHING AT ALL. Unlike electricity, functional training does not adhere to the all-or-nothing concept. With regard to exercising, a continuum of functionality exists. Some training efforts are more functional than others. The only 100% functional exercise is the actual activity for which a person is training.
  10. QUINTESSENTIAL PROTECTION. A sufficient amount of the right kind of exercise will help ensure the ability of individuals to lead a fulfilling and self-sufficient life. It also provides the best medical insurance to help preserve their physical function and level of independence. Functional training is not another in what often seems to be a long line of “exercise fads.” Rather, it is a viable platform for enriching a person’s quality of life.
© 2017 American College of Sports Medicine.