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Is Functional Training Still A Thing? - Tucson Personal Trainer Blog

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Is Functional Training Still A Thing? - Tucson Personal Trainer Blog

By: Jerry Trubman, Owner and Founder

You’ll have to excuse me, I might spend a little too much time cooped up in my 4 walls and things tend to slip past me, but I found myself stuck in a conversation recently where the topic of ‘functional training’ came up. I asked a simple question, “What do you mean by functional training?” The answer was vague to the point of being useless. “Functional training” has almost become like the word “core” or “Nazi.” It’s been used to describe so many things that, at this point, it can’t describe anything.

I will confess, however, for a lack of better terminology, I do sometimes use this word to describe my training sensibilities to an outsider, so I thought I’d take some time in today’s post to describe functional training the best way I can. Hope you enjoy…

When using a word like ‘functional’ to describe a series of exercises or movement patterns, the immediate follow-up question that needs to be asked is, “Functional for what?” For example, a bicep curl can be ‘functional’ if one is trying to rehab an injury. And if by ‘functional’ you mean ‘directly transferrable to activities you do in your life’, how does balancing on a BOSU ball while holding little pink dumbbells resemble anything you’d do in real life? Unless you’re training to be a circus animal, this isn’t very functional.

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When speaking to a novice, the best place to start is here: Unless you’re dead or in 24-hour assisted care, you will never stop bending over and picking things up from the floor.

This seemingly simple exercise is far more technical than people give it credit for. Many different muscle groups need to work in tandem to accomplish this particular feat. If you have ever, God forbid, really messed up your back, you quickly realize just how many times throughout the day you find yourself needing to bend over and pick things up. We do this all the time without even realizing it.  

This movement pattern has a name: it’s called the deadlift. Despite the morbid-sounding name, it simply refers to lifting dead weight from the ground. I’ve coached 5 people to break a world record  in this lift, which has earned me the nickname ‘the deadlift whisperer’. Needless to say, there are a good 50-60 things I can tell you about this seemingly simple move that would make bending over and picking up something heavy feel just a little bit lighter.

Let’s be honest, if I wrote out that list here, it would be a tl;dr, so let’s just say this: Since we can all agree that we will probably never stop needing this skill in life, we might as well learn how to do it right.

In reality, the fitness world has seen a resurgence in the popularity of deadlifting. This is a good thing. I still see some bafoonery when I visit some places, but for the most part, serious gym-goers seemed to have gotten the memo. The place where I see the ‘deadlift’ being horribly butchered is outside the gym. In other words, non-gym people using horrendous movement mechanics to pick things up in daily life, but I digress.

The second ‘functional’ movement we need to master is maneuvering a fall. 50,000 American adults die every year in fall-related accidents, so we take this movement pretty seriously in our facility. If every 50+ adult that we work with can successfully learn to maneuver a fall, I feel like we’re doing our part in reducing this statistic. As an avid kettlebeller, I’m obviously a huge fan of the Turkish Getup, but this may not be for everyone. The Fall Matrix, however, is. <click the underlined text for examples of both>

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Thirdly, let’s talk about safely putting something over your head. Modern life has made it to where we rarely have to put heavy crap over our heads anymore. However, when most people sign up for their first fitness program, what’s one of the first things the trainer has them do? Put heavy stuff over their heads! I have a Physical Therapist wife who has been eyeing a new vehicle, so I have a deep appreciation for these trainers loading up new ‘future patients of my wife’… um… I mean ‘clients’… with a bunch of overhead work in the first few sessions.

In all seriousness, stability mechanics need to come first here (did someone say Turkish Getup?), but this is also a life skill that you will need later in life. I notice this most frequently when I travel and watch how some folks attempt to put their luggage in an overhead compartment. This is truly a cringe-worthy moment for most strength coaches.

As far as I’m concerned, the ‘functionality’ of most things beyond the things I’ve written about here is up for debate. I suppose we can talk about squatting, pulling movements, etc. but in all reality, if you can lift something heavy from the ground, put it over your head, and maneuver a fall, you have to admit you’d have many of the bases of daily living covered.

Conversely, if your ‘functional training’ program still leaves you struggling with these critical movement patterns, you may need to rethink just how ‘functional’ your training really is.

Until next time,

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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