Let me start out by saying that my take on exercise is this: If you are up and moving, ultimately it is a much better choice than the alternative of sitting down and getting fatter. I think as fitness professionals, we get caught up in trying to prove that what we are doing is the BEST system out there. Truth is, it’s just another system.
This is most apparent between the two warring factions of “Functional” and “CrossFit”. I am a very open minded person, and the thought of not growing or becoming set in my ways scares me to death. With that in mind, I decided that I would take the past couple of months to brush up on my “Functional” knowledge. I’ve read 4 different books about “Functional” training, and have mixed feelings about the whole concept. Just to clarify, the gist of “Functional” training occurs pretty much universally among most Personal Training certifications: that being ACE, NCSF, NASM, and even NCSA. Their train of thought is usually the typical examples of training in most commercial gyms and in a lot of performance centers. This community is usually the first to bash CrossFit as being unsafe and ineffective.
I will never say that CrossFit is the perfect system, nor will I say that “Functional” training does not work. However, after reading up on some of the top experts in the field of “Functional” training, I have some interesting conclusions.
1. I have found the amount of single leg and rotational work to be very frustrating and counter-productive. In life we are very rarely going to work in one plane or on both feet… I GET IT. But, dont tell me that consisting your program around single leg curl to presses, chop and lifts, and lateral bounds is going to make your athletes a cut above the rest. These exercises are not stupid, useless, or anything along those lines. However they should make up a very small portion of an athlete’s program. In Mark Verstegen’s “Core Performance” (Mark Verstegen owns one of the nation’s top performance centers called Athlete’s Performance) his workout for an advanced athlete consists of supersets including: Alternating DB Bench presses/PhysioBall leg curls, 1 arm-1 leg DB rows/Split Squat… Then a circuit of Physioball Push Ups/ Split DB Curl to Press/ DB Pullover Extensions/ Physioball Reach, roll and lift. Out of these 10 exercises, I consider only 3 of them to be much more of a warm up. Some of them have their place for corrective strategies for those with assymetrical movement patterns and strengths, but these exercises are the bread and butter of his program. Can I get some triple extension on 2 feet? Can I get a HOT TUB (anecdote from a commercial)?
2. They err towards the side of caution and injury prevention. One thing I am grateful for in my “functional” education is that I have picked up a lot of ideals about keeping my clients healthy and well preserved. Sometimes in CrossFit, powerlifting, and olympic lifting there tends to be more of a focus on numbers than on safety. One thing I love about “Functional” training is that they definitely aim to prevent injury in the client. This may be the main reason for my gripe in the above paragraph. Unilateral movements help raise body awareness, which will in turn help the client in injury prevention. These will also sometimes be the best ways to correct muscle imbalances. For this reason, I am a big fan of the FMS (Functional Movement Screen). I think unilateral movement and corrective exercise is good and should be supplemental to a training program.
3. This Shit is not Rocket Science. Probably my biggest gripe with the “Functional” community. Guess what… Get more proficient at squatting, deadlifting and pressing on two feet. Once you are good at those things, work on generating explosive power and coordination in olympic lifting and kettlebell work. Sprinkle in some assistance work, some complimentary effective bodyweight exercises, and progression for these exercises. Continue to progress weight on the lifts, vary the accessory exercises, and make the bodyweight things more challenging. Voila.. It’s really that simple. Dont put them on a PhysioBall, dont have them clean on one leg, or curl in a lunge…. Sometimes the “Functional” crowd gets a little too complex for their own good. One of my favorite coaches in the “Functional” side of the spectrum is Mike Boyle. In his book “Advances in Functional Training” he covers everything from the FMS, functional dynamic warm ups, strength training, power training, plyometrics, and program design. Much of his programming is broken down into Linear/Lateral Plyo’s, Trunk stability, Hip Dominant, Knee- Dominant/ Vertical Press/ Horizontal +Vertical Pulls/ and Power+Explosive movement. That’s it. Train these movement patterns with what exercises best fit your athlete. Progress them in these large movements that are put together in a methodical way. Dont reinvent the wheel, just get your clients results.
So here’s the verdict on “Functional” exercise: much of the methods that are still in tact baffle me. I have been slightly frustrated by the fact that these coaches with such a great track record have published books with ideas and programs containing many things that are (for lack of a better term) geriatric. It’s not necessarily the movements themselves, as they carry a lot of efficacy. Moreso, their application is my true problem. When the main course of your programming is single leg DB rows and chops/lifts and the closest thing you have to a heavy compound lift is alternating DB bench press, I feel like your athletes are missing out on timeless, highly effective exercises. All is not lost however… Combining these “Functional” concepts to help prevent injury, improve body awareness, address assymetries, and create new stimuli is not a bad thing. Improvements in these avenues will definitely create better athletes and should be a goal of any strength and conditioning coach. The thing is, as with any program out there, there are holes and omissions.