Functional Exercises: How to Train


For several years now in the country, in the wake of overseas, the so-called functional workout.

Gyms and fitness centers are filled with people jumping, throwing and throwing cast iron balls, latching onto ropes and trying to balance on unstable floors - sometimes in a combination.

Almost all the most innovative concepts of fitness suggest that training should be intense, as free from mechanical constraints as possible and respectful of the mechanics of the human body; functional exercises respect all these traits.

In the following article we will reflect on the functional methodology, on the practical application in gyms and on the correctness of the information disclosed in this regard.

For further information: Functional Hypertrophy: What it is and what it is used for


Why train functionally?

To the question: why should I train functionally? The possible answers are basically three:

  1. In base all'effectiveness: "... with functional training you increase strength, endurance, mobility, speed, body aesthetics ...".
  2. Based on evolutionary theory: "... with the aim of hunting, fighting, fleeing, for thousands of years man has survived by performing complex motor gestures and therefore functional training is the only truly natural one, which also makes him safer against injuries … ".
  3. Based on prerequisite e practical utility: "... since in all sports multidirectional movements are performed, a complete training cannot ignore the functionality of the gesture itself; moreover, we live in a three-dimensional world, subject to the force of gravity and its relative rules, so training should also respect these basic principles… ".

In principle, all three answers seem to have a clear and fairly simple logic.

However - quoting the dictionary - by logic we mean (also) the configuration of a fact and a phenomenon, in relation to the interdependence relationship between its constituent elements; in other words, the "way of reasoning or seeing things". The fact or phenomenon is constituted by the probable effects of functional training, while its constituent elements are the variables described in the answers.

But what if other elements are missing from what most instructors describe? Maybe of vital importance? Seeing only what one wants and striving to demonstrate rather than analyze are, on the other hand, extremely widespread attitudes.

In practice, therefore, things get complicated. That is why, with a pinch of criticism, we will "overturn the medal for a moment" below.

Why NOT train functionally?

In base all'effectiveness

With functional training, strength is increased but only specific to the protocol in question; even in this method, the stimulus is repeated systematically, which is why it cannot improve all aspects of strength. By continuously varying the program, the effectiveness is more extensive but less intense. Same goes for the resistance. If we were talking about the speed of movements, better defined as the speed of the gesture, functional training is not the best. The speed of the gesture is achieved by moving with a natural load, with concentration and above all specificity, since it implies a significant involvement of central and peripheral regulation as well as neuromuscular; small stimuli of maximal strength may be helpful. It is possible that, when discussing the speed of functional training, most insiders mean agility of movement and dexterity; in this regard, nothing to say. If we examined other methods without supplementary protocols to improve muscle flexibility and joint mobility, functional training would undoubtedly be superior. As for aesthetics, however, we totally reject the idea that functional training can be more effective than other training systems. This is basically for two reasons: the first is that, in order to lose weight, the most important aspect is the diet; indeed, having a very high energy cost, functional training stimulates the appetite much more. The second is that - after the initial conditioning - the so-called functional hypertrophy determines an increase in the diameter of the fiber cells in series (length), not in parallel (section); therefore, those who hope to volumize themselves with functional training are wrong.

Based on evolutionary theory

The goal of hunting, fighting and fleeing stems from the need to survive. This need was quite pressing, as the dangers were numerous. The average age, in fact, was much lower. What does it mean? That most of the subjects died even before they got old. Therefore? Functional training does not lend itself to a non-young organism.

To train in a functional way properly so called you must not have any kind of ailments and you must know how to perform all possible and imaginable gestures. Impossible. Apart from paramorphisms and dysmorphisms - which natural selection would have discarded - we cannot ignore the fact that evolution itself has pushed the human being from the quadruped to the bipedia, a totally sustainable condition until the mid-800th century, starting from which average life has almost doubled. Aging weighs on the points of greatest gravitational impact, namely the joints of the back, shoulders, pelvis, knees and ankles, and obviously on the adjacent tendons.

Try to make the entire 50-year-old population jump up and down a step - in the country the average age today is 83,24 years - and see how many remain and how many end up in the emergency room. For these reasons, the very definition of "functional", when applied to the system we will describe, is not appropriate.

Based on prerequisite e practical utility

Regarding its practical utility in everyday life, functional training "has its say" - provided that, obviously, it does not itself undermine osteo-articular and muscle-tendon integrity.

Conversely, if we wanted to discuss propaedeutics in sport, functional training would not be appropriate - competitive, not amateur sport. With a few exceptions in which the expression of athletic ability is so complex that similar training can be used - such as Greco-Roman wrestling and other forms of "grappling" combat, rugby and a few others - most disciplines require an extremely specific stimulus. For example, a rower won't be able to waste time climbing a rope, as the repeated pulling motion he performs in the boat is horizontal, not vertical - muscle involvement changes.

For further information: Total Functionality and Personal Coaching

How to do

Functional training is not the "devil's seed" anyway. Again, what tends to alter the logic we have talked about is exaggeration, excess, but also ignorance.

Determine if an exercise is functional

First of all, you need to find one or more definitions that allow you to define whether or not an exercise falls into the "functional" category. We could therefore state that:

Performing functional training means respecting the characteristics of objective, but also subjective, and natural functionality of the human body, from all points of view.

An exercise can be considered functional when it has at least three of these four characteristics:

  1. Kinetic chains functional;
  2. Mechanical proprioceptivity e motor control;
  3. Activities area of abdominal belt - today more fully defined core;
  4. Similarity o equality to the structure of natural movement, both in terms kinetics than in terms kinematics (Data ELAV-FIPCF 2009).

Simple to understand, these guidelines are a useful source of information for navigating the functional world.

Functional Analysis: Why Are Many Functional Exercises Actually Not?

Before performing a functional exercise we should take into account all these points, but also that a sedentary would need a different training from that of a professional wrestler and vice versa.

For the first point, you have to start having a perception of the body; learning to use it correctly can already be considered functional training, while the development of the second point will need more stimuli.

Another factor to remember is the force formula: F = M * A. If I accelerate an object it acquires a certain strength, which always tends to discharge itself in the most fragile points, which in the case of our body are the joints. Therefore, when we are in front of a person, before recommending a functional exercise we must also take into account this parameter.

The shoulder joint is a complex structure developed in such a way as to give great mobility; this is its value, but also its defect, because it makes it prone to accidents.

In an untrained person, the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder girdle are most likely weak; for this reason, many functional exercises that we find in the media are not suitable, while a work on the rotator cuff, of arm abduction, strengthens the joint in a satisfactory way, for almost all activities and for today's sedentary life , decreasing the possibility of a subacromial conflict.

Same thing for what concerns the structure of the back; it must be remembered that this, if not used correctly, is subjected to considerable loads and beginners are often not able to manage them, because these are carried out quickly. Without proper preparation, the load borne by the structure easily doubles.

By applying these concepts to an exercise very popular in functional training, such as the kettlebell snatch, we can see how it is of fundamental importance to calibrate the movement well according to the person. The acceleration that is given to the kettlebell to lift it with a tearing action must be managed by the shoulder, activating the fixators very well in the final part of the movement to avoid a crushing of the supraspinatus; finally, in the lower phase of the movement there must be a control of the abdominal muscles of the buttocks and of the whole thigh, so as not to involve the back both to overcome the inertia and to give the impetus for the ascent.

This exercise may fall within the category of functional exercises, because it satisfies the required parameters; however, before being proposed to a beginner, it will be necessary to proceed step by step, starting with an initial preparatory course in which the subject will learn to manage the muscle chains to perform the exercise safely.

Many exercises and equipment that we find among the functional ones were born for disciplines such as wrestling, athletics, powerlifting and strongman or military training, then brought into fitness.

However, if we take the above concepts for granted, we will see that many of these exercises, tools and methodologies - however interesting and valid for trained athletes - do not respect the concept. Therefore, we cannot always insert them into the functional, because even if they respect some necessary technical parameters, they perhaps do not satisfy the main one: subjectivity.

We can consider functional exercises in a fitness environment, all exercises that satisfy the points analyzed above and that above all adapt to the state of preparation of those who have to perform them and to their objectives, without creating excessive risks to the well-being of the person.

Functional exercise should be part of the training program of a subject who intends to improve certain physical characteristics, or to determine an adaptation of the motor control systems and optimize the motor strategy.

As we have seen, a functional exercise, to be such, must respect certain parameters; the latter, if applied correctly, should result in greater control of the body's stabilization and reaction systems, making it more efficient, therefore functional in times of need. Also from this point of view we must always make an analysis of the situation of who we have to train and where we have to or want to act before starting with functional exercises.

Also with regard to strength, it is good to make a clarification. To be functional, an exercise must satisfy certain parameters, including a certain degree of instability, in order to require a good activation of the stabilizers. Therefore, it is quite difficult to be able to develop maximal strength, which instead needs:

  • to work with a load ranging from 70% to 100% of the external maximal, since at 70% all the muscle fibers are recruited (but the fast fibers at a non-maximal frequency);
  • to work with a stimulus time must not be less than 700 ms;

Starting from these considerations, exercises such as deadlifts, pull-ups and squats with loads close to the maximum, although excellent exercises, cannot be considered functional.

To make them you should implement strategies to meet the points we have analyzed, such as creating a certain degree of destabilization to obtain the activation of the stabilizing muscles of the body.

Concluding this analysis on the application of functional exercise in the reality of fitness, it is important to remember that the means and exercises present at this moment are excellent for training, but must be subject to precise rules and their use must be planned according to physical characteristics that you want to improve, and of course the abilities of the subject.

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