This lockdown has challenged and changed our lifestyle in multiple ways, a large aspect of which has been maintaining fitness and managing body composition. After months of “functional training” at home, (hopefully to some success if you’ve watched our 12 Days of Lockdown series and applied our article on programming) you are probably thinking “why do I ever need to go to the gym again?”
To answer this, it is helpful to understand the basic differences between functional and gym-based training.
“Functional Training” has recently gained a lot of traction for what would seem to be the right reasons. Its foundation is purposeful and context-specific exercises and it bases its ethos around taking people away from using machines to lift weights in the gym, and instead throwing around things like medicine balls, or jumping onto boxes. The thought process behind it is moving away from the “restrictive” nature of machines that only allow your joints to move in one plane of motion. The “dynamic” movements are meant to be better at mimicking day-to-day activities.
For many coaches this is the perfect marketing spin. As opposed to becoming a rigid, immobile bodybuilder, they will turn you into a supple, agile athlete. With a fraction of the investment cost, they can now build a gym in an almost empty space and have the core value of the sessions realized from their instructions in class. Not just that, the moves in itself are quite complicated and difficult to execute. Clients would require coach assistance every step of the way to achieve near perfect moves in the foreseeable future.
Let’s take a brief moment to understand the “how” and “why” behind development of gym equipment. Companies invest large amounts of time, effort and research in getting the mechanics right so as to ensure that the equipment is highly efficient in targeting the exact muscle or muscle group. The aim is to restrict instability and strain in the joints when executing the movement, and the best ones ensure the resistance profile of the machine matches the strength profile. This permits the user to focus on the contraction of the muscle. You’ll recall that targeted contractions of muscle over time is what results in strength building through adaptation. Unarguably, some machines are better than others. Most well-supplied gyms will have a hefty selection of various types of machines. The sceptical view is that machine manufacturers want their range of equipment to be as large as possible, so that they can maximise the variety products they can offer to gyms. This often leads to them building machines that are not the most accurate or efficient. Then there’s also individual mechanics; let’s face it, not everyone’s ergonomics fit perfectly into a machine’s design!
For this argument, take the example of a seated leg extension machine. This is where one pulls their ankle forwards from under a seat, extending their knee until the ankle is straight out in front of them. Known as the perfect exercise to reduce strain on the joint and target the muscles, it contracts the quadriceps. The main role of the quadriceps is to extend the knee in that exact movement. You could even call it... their function.
So, if the function of the quadriceps is knee extension, and performing repetitions on the leg extension machine increases one’s strength over time, does this knee not become more functional? Bearing in mind the knee, unlike the hip is not built to operate in different planes. It goes forwards and backwards, like on this machine. It is almost the definition of functional. The assumption that training the quadriceps and using the knee joint in this manner will reduce the knee’s ability to be stable and move dynamically in the rest of day-to-day life is rather absurd. It is getting trained in that dynamic function through the other 15 hours of the day that one is awake and (hopefully) moving.
Another consideration is the extent to which something is “functional” is arguable. Functional is a relative term that could differ in meaning and application from person to person. Using the leg extension to increase quadriceps size and strength is high in functionality for a footballer. For an average person who uses the stairs or gets out of their chair, it has moderate functionality. For a snooker player who lives in a condominium with a lift, it is less functional. However, for none of the above examples is it a bad exercise that creates unstable adaptations in their joints.
And the beauty of it? Like all machines, owing to its restricted movement, it’s more difficult to get wrong! Yes, you need to know how to adjust the pads and the backrest so that they’re in the optimal positions for your body proportions. How far apart and at what angle your feet should be. How not to whip the weight with too much momentum. How to pull yourself down into your seat through each rep. These details ensure the focus is on maximal contraction in the muscle and as little joint strain as possible, but you observe someone perform an un-coached, poorly executed “functional” squat, or an un-coached poor leg extension; the former is usually more stressful to their spine and knees.
Let’s flip the perspective and look at how functional the “Functional Training” movements are. How often do you pick up something that weighs 10kg and slam it into the floor? Do you ever grab two ropes and shake them up and down? Do you regularly need to jump onto a box and back down 10 times in a row? They’re all unlikely.
These moves were originally developed for athletes who train for specific, explosive movements. They are often very effective, when executed by someone who is already strong, has good mobility, and is well rehearsed in performing the same. Someone who has undergone years of coaching. Their functional application has carry-over to when they have to throw an opponent to the floor, wrestle with them, or start an explosive run.
The problem is that an average person enjoys these movements and considers it a fun work out. There’s more variation than being sat in a machine and a high increase in heart rate from more muscles being used at once. However, when executed poorly, there’s also significantly more strain placed on one’s joints. If you’re choosing to make that trade-off, be aware that you’re prioritising fun and not necessarily increasing your functionality.
“Function” is different for everyone. If dynamic training featuring more explosive movements that are a challenge to master sounds more enjoyable to you than chugging away on a treadmill as a means of burning calories, just make sure you or your coach is giving sufficient thought to your application of it!