What Makes Functional Training Functional?

TAGS: reynolds, program, lower body, upper body, sport, training

One of my favorite things to do is to sit back and observe people. Sometimes I feel like I am a scientist looking at some weird experiment gone wrong.

I often wonder why people do the things they do? I question whether they use a rational thought process, or if they just mimic their environment.

I think this is best represented with a little story about my last training session down in good old Washington, Indiana. We had just finished lifting and were sitting around having a little gab session. We had a high school wrestler who had lifted with us that day. I had noticed that he was strong in his upper body, but did not have much of the leg thing going on.

He started talking to the guy who owns the gym, and had mentioned how much he liked the workout. He said that their high school workouts were getting to be boring, and that he had been doing other things to help get his upper body stronger.

He continued to talk about how the coaches did not approve, because he did not really know what he needed to do, so he should stick to what they gave him. At this point in time, Power B (Glenn Buechlein, the man of the gym), asked him what they did to strengthen their legs, hips, and upper core.

The kid said, “Well, we run about four-five miles almost every practice, (which is probably an exaggeration, but they still run for 45 minutes to an hour) that is what we do for our legs.” At this point in time, I start to wonder what the rationale behind this highly specific program was.

The wrestler than said that they do leg curls, extensions, and the leg press on occasion, because the coach says it is safer and more specific to their needs. This is when my favorite line of the whole conversation was dumped out onto the floor like a big bag of sh#%. “When I wrestle, my legs get tired. I have plenty of wind, but my legs start to give out. I don’t know why this happens. Do you think I need to be doing something different?”

I think if the high school kid can start to figure out this issue just by thinking about it a little, the coaches should be able to. I wonder if the coaches have ever really thought about what they are having there athletes do or if they are just regurgitating what they have experienced within their environment.

I don’t feel that every coach needs to become a full blown strength and conditioning specialist, but when they write a training program, they do need to think about what they are doing. Just because you did it in college, or high school, does not mean that it was right.

What to Look For

When you set up your program there are certain elements that you need to look for.

  1. Does your sport require balance and proprioception? I have yet to find a sport that does not require balance. If you have any questions, try to perform the sport with you eyes closed (at least the parts of it that you can). If you feel your balance was challenged at all, then you need to add balance oriented movement to your training. (Just as a side note, if you are doing anything other than lying down, you are utilizing the proprioceptive receptors of the body.)
  2. Does your sport utilize the core? Everything we do uses the core. The core is the bridge between the lower and upper extremities. You cannot shoot a basketball, throw a punch, jump, run, or stop without activating the core. Try to do a push-up while relaxing the core musculature. The hips will sag and your spine will be put into a compromising position. It is no different when you are standing. When you push against someone or something, the core has to activate or the spine will extend. The core will not be able to transfer the force to the legs, which acts as the body’s anchor. The resultant action becomes movement of the pusher, not the target.
  3. How is the core utilized? During sport, does the spine move independently of the pelvis and legs, or do they all perform in concert? Movement is without independence. Every movement we make is a highly orchestrated muscular activity that involves everything from the foot muscles to the neck muscles. The act of opening a door doesn’t just require the shoulder and arm muscles. It also requires the muscles of the core (so you don’t break at the waist under the weight of your arm). It requires the muscles of the legs since the legs are the anchor through which the core forces are expressed. It requires the muscles of the foot and ankle, or your platform would not hold you up when the body’s center of gravity shifts forward due to the arm lift. It requires the mass stabilizers of the body. If these stabilizers did not activate the joint structures would not function, and the larger muscles would have no secure structures on which to attach. Thus, core training must utilize the entire body to truly transfer to functional activity (note that abdominals are just a part of the core).
  4. Does your sport utilize three-dimensional movements? Once again, I have yet to find a sport that doesn’t. Freedom of movement is what makes movement so complicated. If movement were more robotic and less fluid, training single joint activities would be great. However, this is not how the body is programmed to function. Could you imagine if you had to think to make each muscle contract when you walked? How confusing would that be? It takes more conscious effort to move one joint that it does to walk. I can guarantee that you have to think about doing a unilateral leg extension before you do it. I am not saying that you sit there drooling for five minutes while your processor overheats, but the thought process is still there. This is not so with multi-joint activities like walking. With this in mind, why do we do exercises such as leg extensions and leg curls? Are these actions done in sport? Yes, but not by themselves, and not in the joint configurations that the machine will force you into. This is where they lose their appeal. Guided activities such as those done on machines do not require a rotational loading of the body. They do not require your stabilizers to control the limb in any direction other than that which is linear with the load of the carriage. They do not utilize activation of the core musculature to support the spinal column. Finally, they do not utilize the proper functional programming that the central nervous system is designed to utilize.
  5. Does your sport require a large amount of strength or rapid expressions of power? This is a double-edged sword so watch where you grasp. Typical sport movement happens so fast that the body cannot reach maximal force production. So it becomes important to teach the body how to produce force quicker, after all, power is the name of the game now a days. However, at the same time, the level of absolute strength that the athlete possesses will set the ceiling potential for many other types of strength. I will admit I have seen some explosive dudes who could not move any weight in the weight room. I do not feel that these individuals were explosive because they didn’t do absolute strength training, rather they were explosive in spite of the fact. This simply means all types of strength need to be constantly addressed.
  6. Does your sport require you to decelerate your body and/or an implement? If so than eccentric or yielding strength training is important. Not many athletes get hurt from jumping or from the initiation of a sprint. Rather the injuries tend to occur when they land, cut, or abruptly stop. Many times the athlete’s musculo-tendon systems have not been conditioned to handle rapid loading during a lengthening state. This needs to be addressed through activities that mimic these actions, but on a progressive basis. Activities must allow adaptation to occur at a manageable rate or structural damage and subsequent injury will likely happen.
  7. Does your sport require upper body strength, lower body strength, rotational strength, core strength, pushing strength, and/or pulling strength? A well-rounded athlete is strong in all these strength planes. Many times athletes over emphasize the upper body/pushing plane. This is only a small part of the whole picture. In all reality, the lower body should be the number one focus for almost all sports. The posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors) are the most powerful and most trainable group of muscles in the body. These muscles are responsible for power development when we run, jump, and drive into somebody or something. The upper body/pulling plane should be a large priority. These muscles are crucial for stabilizing the activities that occur on the front side of the body. Furthermore, they are responsible for proper posture. Without good posture, the functionality of movement is decreased. Muscles have to work harder and improper recruitment patterns are experienced. Although the core should be trained through all the multi-planar activities of the training session, individual portions of the core can be focused on with exercises that emphasize them, but utilize multi-planar activity.
  8. Does your sport require a reactional component? Size, strength, power, speed, quickness, and agility mean nothing if you have poor reaction time. If you cannot utilize these components instantaneously, they mean nothing. Training, at some point, must focus on reaction. Reaction needs to be developed on a gross movement level, which incorporates full body recruitment and on a specific basis, which may be more limb or implement oriented.
  9. What is the main energy system of your sport? Many times coaches think of this as cut and dry. The fact of the matter is all energy systems are used all of the time, just at different levels. There is no magic switch that is flipped at 15 seconds or at 60 seconds. It is more of a shift. I like to think of it like the digital readout of the equalizer on your stereo. Although the base may be the greatest peak, the treble is still registering. As the dial is shifted, there is a smooth flow from one emphasis to the other, not an immediate change over. This is why some coaches may see improvement in their sport, even though they are training the wrong energy systems. The bleed over will effect all systems to some degree. It just may not be with good efficiency.

I hope that this will clarify some of the questions people have about why we do things the way we do. It is not that complicated when you sit down and think about it. The next time you develop a program just remember these little tips:

  1. Keep it simple (KISS)
  2. Have a reason for your madness. Each exercise should accomplish a specific task.
  3. Picture each exercise as a sport. Does the exercise involve a high or low degree of athleticism? You can figure out which one will have the greatest carry over.
  4. Attack the entire animal. Do not get stuck emphasizing one thing, unless there is a deficiency.
  5. Make it enjoyable. A bored athlete is not going to respond well…
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