Monday, November 3, 2014

Why "functional" isn't functional at all in the PT world

Years ago, when I first started writing this blog, it was initially called "functional strength".

That's right.  I named it that.

Why in the world would I name it that, when the industry is filled with a word that has been bastardized to death, and doesn't really mean what you think it means?

Easy.  Because I wanted to redefine it.

However, I came to the conclusion that, despite any effort on my part, nothing would change.

The word functional has been thrown around so long in the personal training word that it has a meaning that can't be changed.

Functional, in the personal training industry, is often associated with combining strength and balance used in a simultaneous manner, i.e. standing on something wobbly while you do a strength training movement.

Because this term has already been thoroughly cemented, the task to overthrow it or redefine it would be absolutely futile in effort.  And the worst part about all of that is, it's never going to go away.  At least not anytime in the near future.

For some reason, years ago when bosu and swiss balls became popular, people started doing exercises on them and when they asked "why?", I suppose the answer from the trainer was "because it's more functional."

I suppose their thinking was, you just never know when you're going to need to balance yourself on a wobbly object at the supermarket while trying to snatch that last box of Reece's peanut butter cup cereal off the top shelf.  Without training for that task, you'd be limited only to the cereals right there in front of your face, like Grape Nuts and Oat Bran.

Plus, all grocery stores require you to stand on a basketball to get shit off the top shelf.  It's a mandatory test of your functional strength for real world application.  You must EARN the Fruit Loops.

Because you need this in your life, Alice.
In all seriousness, I just defined what function strength was several times over.

The ability to demonstrate or apply strength in a real world application/situation.

That's it.  Nothing more.

If you couldn't do something, then got stronger and could do it, then the strength was indeed functional.

So the next question is, how much functional strength does one need?

And the answer is, "however much it takes to accomplish the task."

If you do often find yourself standing on wobbly objects as you try to navigate through life, then yes, by all means stand on wobbly shit in the gym and do strength training movements.

My guess is, you probably don't find yourself in such a precarious situation very often.  I can't tell you the last time, in a real life situation, that I had to stand on a wobbly surface and do something that required a significant amount of strength.  In fact, if such a situation existed I would probably say "doing it that way doesn't seem safe.  Let's fix that wobbly surface so the rest of the job can be completed.  I really need that box of peanut butter cup cereal and I don't feel the need to balance on that basketball to get it."

So what movements are truly functional?

That all depends on what you are using them for, and why.

It seems like, to me, that there exists two extreme camps in regards to this question.

Camp 1 = "a combination of balance and strength"

Camp 2 = "only shit like squats and overhead pressing"

To me, the logical group is the one that says "any movement that allows you to perform real life tasks in and easier or more efficient manner."

This could mean that a myriad of movements fall into the realm of "functional movements."  Even movements detested by a great majority of those in the strength training world.  You know, like leg pressing or even....GASP....the smith machine.

If an elderly person needs more leg strength to make living life easier, i.e. climbing stairs or going on walks to improve overall health, and the leg press accomplished that task then the leg press served a functional purpose.  There's literally no getting around that fact.  The problem with the "hardcore strength community" is that they beat their chest so dogmatically hard that everything has to be about squats, deadlifts, and overhead pressing.  Then often ignoring that not everyone is trying to get as strong as humanly possible with a barbell.  There's a lot of people out there that need more functional strength just to perform mundane tasks without straining or aching to do so.  They probably don't need a 600 pound squat in order to do that.  Just more strength than they currently have.

For some people, the barbell squat or deadlift may even be bad choices to accomplish having more functional strength.  There are plenty of people whose job it is to help the elderly or people with physically disabilities that would never choose the barbell squat or deadlift as a viable option to increase their functional strength.  I know it's alien concept for some, but there are people out there that have short comings that may not allow for doing such movements.  In those cases, the squat or deadlift do not represent the ability to increase functional strength in an optimal manner.

However, I also have trouble finding a purpose for squatting while standing on top of a swiss ball.  Maybe if the circus starts implementing that in their gigs I could see that as a reason for someone looking for work that is really good at that shit.  Outside of that, I'm really struggling with finding the reasons for it.

I think we will always have trainers that ask their clients to do shit standing on one leg while while balancing the top of a toilet on their head while doing a rotator cuff movement because, well, it seems complicated.  And lots of people do in fact believe that the more complicated training appears, the more effective it has to be!  Confusing people seems to be very effective in the training industry.  If it's confusing, it works.  When the reality is, a great coach can take a very complicated thing, and make it seem very simple.  Both in application AND understanding.

Don't get sucked into the thinking that complex means better.  When in doubt, simply apply Occam's razor.  The simplest solution is most often the correct one.