The Functional Training Paradox

Language is a beautiful thing. In strength and conditioning, carefully-chosen words can succinctly and efficiently describe exercises, movements, training modalities, etc.  I frequently mention terms and phrases that get thrown around these days with little-to-no regard for the intent of the original meaning. “Functional training” is just the latest in a series of well-meaning catch-all fitness terms that has been mutated into a monster that grows ever larger every time the phrase is uttered. What functional training has become is anything but.


When the term first hit the scene, it served to describe an exodus from the traditional big box gym training styles. You know what I’m talking about: the fitness magazine workouts, bodybuilding, endless treadmill sessions, etc. It was a movement of people who wanted to train movements. These pilgrims wanted better joint mobility, strength at every healthy ROM, balance and stability, and a condensed, efficient program that enhanced their personal day-to-day existence rather than detract from it. In other words, existing prominent exercises were re-tooled to achieve “functional” goals rather than merely aesthetic goals (not that there’s anything wrong with aesthetics). The fringe of the fitness world was being brought toward the middle and people began squatting and deadlifting to improve their health.
Now imagine an 80’s montage featuring a combination of infomercial products, false science, and a healthy dose of trainer one-upmanship and that brings us to 2017. What was once a righteous movement to bring the fringe back into the fold rapidly degraded into creating the most unstable training environment imaginable. Average gym-goers are standing on Bosu Balls performing rapid alternating dumbbell curls with 1 lb hand weights… some of them might even be wearing a Jawzrsize for good measure. Ugh.
How did we get to this point?
How did functional training become so dysfunctional?
Here’s an example of how this goes down.
Personal Trainer A has his client performing a lunge-to-overhead DB press as an auxiliary exercise near the end of the workout. The single-leg squat pattern serves to increase balance and stability at the knee, ankle, and hip of his healthy client while improving the function of the muscles that have been pre-fatigued by the previous exercise (squat, deadlift, etc). Adding the overhead press increases the load of the lunge, increases the efficiency of the workout by adding more into the hour, improves movement dynamics, and as a bonus, burns more calories!
Personal Trainer B spots this and wonders how he can do it better. He accurately hypothesizes that instability is the primary variable being manipulated but falsely concludes that more instability is always better without any regard to why the variable was manipulated in the first place. His response is to place the lunging foot on a Bosu Ball. What he doesn’t realize is that instability has a point of diminishing return and that too much can lead to regression of his client’s physical abilities, rather than progression.
Personal Trainer C sees this and thinks he has to up his game. Now it’s become an arms race for who can provide the most “functional” training. Everyone has to be first to the new big thing. Fitness governing bodies scramble to release certifications based on the shaky “science” that is now functional training. Trainers scramble to have the latest specialty certification to get a leg-up on their competition. Millions of dollars are now wasted annually on supporting studies in the hopes that one of them sheds positive light on their new pet project.
Things have gotten out of hand. A quick Google image search of “functional training” finds us some very special specimens doing things that should give you a WTF moment. The functional training movement has splintered off into subgroups of people that when combined, seem to make up an overwhelming majority of today’s fitness enthusiast population. Using the squat as a vehicle to describe them, they either:

  1. Assume their movement patterns are too dysfunctional to squat with a barbell. They go through endless hours of corrective exercise.
  2. Think that they’re not strong enough to put a loaded barbell on their back and need to train on a balance board to improve joint stability first.
  3. Trust that squatting on a balance board actually builds more strength than on a platform.
  4. Believe that squatting on unstable surfaces is somehow safer than loaded squats.

Contrary to the original intent of functional training, the fitness industry has literally created a population of people either too afraid or too pious to squat 45lbs.
I don’t like to use the word “never” often. Every piece of equipment in the gym is another tool in the toolbox. While some may be redundant, they each serve a purpose. Unstable environments are essential to rehab and post-rehab programs. Retraining joint stability by challenging the proprioceptors helps get you back into your program faster. However, if you’re healthy, you don’t need rehab. Unstable surfaces can also be beneficial for your auxiliary exercises. As I elluded to before with Trainer A, after you’ve pre-fatigued your muscles with stable surface training, you can elicit a healthy dose of motor unit recruitment with some of these exercises. However, centering your workout around them won’t give you the same functional benefit.
There’s not a lot of exercises out there more functional than the squat. How else do you get out of a chair? Not one apparently healthy individual is too dysfunctional to squat. The trainer might need to manipulate some variables (ROM, load, etc) but squatting is one of the most functional things you can do for yourself. For athletes and general clientele alike, plates are loaded onto the bar to increase bilateral force production. Now, this might seem counterintuitive relative to current “functional” trends but there’s an incredible amount of instability in a heavy barbell back squat. Knee, ankle, hip, and spinal stability are crucial to the success of each rep. Sufficient joint mobility is necessary to descend to whatever your chosen depth might be. To top it all off, the potential for force production skyrockets when standing on a stable lifting platform. Don’t believe me? Try your 1-rep max on your trusty Bosu Ball. It can’t be done. Yeah, you can lighten the load and yes, your muscle might work hard to create stability where there is absolutely none but you’re sacrificing everything else. Stable, loaded squats build strength, stability, mobility, joint health, and bone mineral density. It’s 1-stop shopping at it’s finest.
Speaking of squatting on a ball, there are people that actually believe these unstable surfaces not only yield better strength and stability gains but also afford them a safer environment in which to train. SMH. If you’ve never seen a gym fail video, you haven’t scratched the surface of all the funny Youtube can offer you. The upside is that you’ll be so familiar with unstable surface training that it won’t be foreign to you while you’re rehabbing the injury you sustained from training on an unstable surface.
The best/worst part of it is that I’ve never come across one peer-reviewed article that proves squatting on a ball is better than the squat for healthy populations. Millions of dollars are wasted annually on unnecessary peer-reviewed research grants to determine the degree of muscle stimulation in these unstable environments only to have the select few studies that show instability training in a positive light for rehab patients cherry picked to further the nonsense. Science used to be about discovery and truth and now it seems to be just about covering up errors and lapses in judgement.
The long and the short of it is: regain your sanity. Functional training has always been a relative term. Your training should be specific to what you want to get out of it… what can make you happy and your life better. Your training should be functional. Unless you’re a juggling circus bear, don’t center your program around the most elaborate party trick you can conjure up.

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

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