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Functional Training

The buzz word in the gym and in the personal training world these days is functional training. It has many meanings to many people in the training industry. It is very different from the long time norm of sitting still in one place a move a desired weight through a given path. To define functional training you would have to say it’s exercises that make the body use different groups of muscles in athletic, balanced coordination to achieve an outcome. It has its start in Physical Therapy as a way to get clients back into the work force. The training emphasizes the body's natural ability to move in three planes of motion. The movement usually involves more core stability and control than traditional exercises, thus training you core in a multitude of angles.

Let’s take a look at some of functional training most important benefits :

  • Everyday life – functional training helps you develop your muscles to work together as a group, resulting in an overall increase in strength, balance, co-ordination, and power.

  • Stronger core muscles – A pull up will require your back, arms, shoulders, and those important stabilizing core muscles to work. While a pull down will allow the core muscles to sleep. Weak core muscles are one of the reasons for our nation’s bad back epidemic.
  • Time saved by working several muscles at once – Women with children or businessmen that want to get the most bang for minimal time invested go for this type of training. If done correctly you could get done in two one hour workouts what another person may do in a 5-day period.
  • Money saved – you do not need expensive equipment (or even a gym membership), just some basics including your body and a small area to work. Perfect for on the road while traveling or people with small apartments
  • More muscles used equals more calories/energy burned. 

  • Improve balance- improved balance mean less falls as an elderly client and less falls to the turf for athletes.
*Improve range of motion- ensures less pain in joints and less likely of joint problems in the future.
I train many of my clients in this fashion and find it as a very refreshing break from the norm. My understanding and training in functional training has come from a variety of sources including my own training, training numerous sports teams, and having an academic back ground in Exercise Science. 

The easiest way to begin adding  functional movements to your training is to simply think about what you do every day. What are your daily physical activities? If you're a secretary you may find that your low back and neck ache at the end of the day from sitting in chair and working on the computer. These would be your first areas to pinpoint. You should know the core exercise and allow for use of body weight that would strengthen the area you need to care out that task in the future in a pain free manner. Don't think of fitness as something that is done only in a gym. By simply taking advantage of your every day movements you can turn your home or office into an effective functional training area.

If you are a personal trainer thinking about adding the aspects into your training, first I would ask why has it taken this long and second what are you waiting on? It is a perfect way to keep session fun and energetic throughout.  I have found it works well with women more so than men. Men seem to see the weight itself as a challenge, where women look at the completion of a set of events as a challenge. It also tricks women who won’t push themselves enough to a point of exhaustion they would have NEVER reached in a non functional setting. It also can be added to train balance and agility. You could also shock the body with a once in a while attitude toward it to spur further growth in muscles and remind your body that you know how to use those fast twitch muscles and you don’t want to lose them.

The factor of coming up with something that is different every session is daunting, but it can be done. Most of my clients come three times per week and to utilize function training in our routines, I will do a full body routine every session but in each session I emphasize a certain group of muscles. I may target chest and triceps on Monday along with something for all other body parts. On Wednesday I will target legs and shoulder along with something for all other body parts. Finally, on Friday I target back and biceps along with something for all other body parts. This set up allows me to do full body exercises with over training my client in a certain area.

The other thing is that my clients love it and especially the women. It gives them some sense of accomplishment that non functional training does not. It is a different mindset when a person remembers how many pushups they got from week to week or how many burpees (exercise that involves aspects of a push up, squat, and explosive jumping) they did from one week to the next. It is almost a sense of triumph when they beat their old personal record and are through with a workout, where in the past the end of a workout could feel like and awkward end to a slow intense lacking hour.

To help you better differentiate; below is a list of terms that should define each exercise in one category or the other. Put your exerciss to the litmus test and find out if it is functional or non-functional. 

Isolated Integrated
Rigid Flexible
Limited Unlimited
Artificial Natural
Fake Real
Link Action Chain reaction
Gravity Confused Gravity User
Lab-like Life-like
Mechanical Bio-Mechanical
1 dimensional 3 dimensional

There are six categories you can label functional exercises in. All functional exercises will use one of these actions as it main focus while also using other in a secondary focus. Example, you may be doing a push exercise with a twist, but the push is the primary mover with the twist being a secondary mover. The very fact that there is a secondary movement makes it a functional exercise.

6 Categories of Functional Exercises
*Push *Pull
*Twist *Lunge
*Squat *Bend

Look at specific functional vs. non functional exercises using same muscle groups.

Non-Functional Functional
Bench Press Push Up
Lat Pull Down Pull Up
Seated Triceps Extension Dip
Leg Extension Lunge
Leg Press Squat

Non-functional exercises have characteristics like these: being performed seated, on machines, involving single muscles in isolation, and not requiring the core muscles to stabilize. You should notice that one of the characteristics of functional exercises is that they involve using your body weight as a resistance. This ability is called relative strength. For example how many chin ups, pushups, squats, lunges, dips you can perform is an indication of your relative strength. This is an absolute way of measuring real strength.

Is It For You
There is only one way to tell if functional training is something you would like and benefit from. Just try it. You don’t have to convert totally and be the weird person at your gym that ONLY does functional stuff and sometimes takes it too far. There is a blend of both types of exercise that could fit into anyone’s routine. You could make slow changes like going from pull downs to pull ups, or try a standing shoulder press instead of seated. The point is to try new things and keep the body guessing. The last thing you every want to do is allow the gym to become boring.

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