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 has 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 catch myself using this word to describe our training sensibilities to an outsider, so let’s take some time to better describe what I mean…
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 (or get better at lifting bottles of beer).
Some fitness professionals say ‘functional training’ and then proceed to have their clients balance on BOSU balls while lifting 2lb dumbbells. If ‘functional’ means ‘directly transferable to activities you do in your life’, how does this balancing act transfer? Unless you’re training to be a circus animal, this isn’t very functional.
Where Do We Start?
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 a number of people to break state, national, and world records in this lift, which has earned me the nickname “the deadlift whisperer.”
Our student Bud Brown holds several state powerlifting records. He has deadlifted over 300 pounds in competition in the 70+ master’s division.
Needless to say, there are a solid 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. If I wrote that list here, it would be a tl;dr, so let’s just say this: Since we can all agree that we will never stop needing this skill in life, we might as well learn how to do it right.
Thfitness world has seen a resurgence in the popularity of deadlifting. This is a good thing. I still see some buffoonery when I visit some gyms, but for the most part, serious gym-goers seem to have gotten the memo. The place where I see the ‘deadlift’ being horribly butchered is not the gym, it’s outside the gym where people are using horrendous movement mechanics to pick things up in daily life… but I digress.
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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.
Thirdly, let’s talk about safely putting something overhead. 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 fancy new purse, 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?
This is also a skill that you will need later in life… I promise.
I notice 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. Most of gen pop desperately needs help with this movement pattern.
As far as I’m concerned, the ‘functionality’ of most exercises beyond the basics 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, Asher.