Much has been said about functional training in the last couple of years and it has been all the buzz in the fitness industry. It’s proven to be very effective for fat-burning, athletic improvements and even rehabilitation from injury.
The trouble is, it’s such a vast field for exercise that the word “functional” seems to be thrown around way too often. As long we use two or more colorful gym “toys” in the same exercise and move in ways that are unique, one would brand it as “functional exercise” already or, heaven forbid, as long as we are not using machines, the exercises are already “functional.”
Let it be said here that doing push-ups on the ground with our feet on a bosu ball, wearing ankle weights, balancing a kettlebell on our back, sporting a weighted vest, while a Booty Band is strapped around our thighs is not going to make the exercise magically “functional.”
What Functionality Is Not
Functionality is not random. Functionality is deliberate. There is and should be a purpose to every functional exercise. And the purpose should be specific. Purposes such as “to burn fat” or “to build muscle” are already a given for the general concept of every proper exercise. Hence, functional training must entail a more specific purpose.
Functionality is not arbitrary. Functionality is logical. It can and should be explained based on the biology of the subject, in our case, the human being. Arbitrary movements per se do not equate to functional exercises.
Though functional exercise can appear to be arbitrary and random relative to traditional exercises, the acid test here is to ask the question: what is the purpose of this exercise and how does it accomplish that purpose? More importantly: why is that purpose important to accomplish?
If we go back to our fancy push-up example and use this acid test, what would our probable answers be?
Functionality is not random. Functionality is deliberate. There is and should be a purpose to every functional exercise. And the purpose should be specific.
What Functionality Is
The textbook answer to the question of what constitutes functional training is training that focuses on the everyday movements of the average individual, which includes walking, going up and down the stairs, carrying groceries, carrying a baby, etc. It can also extend to jogging or running, to training for a specific sport.
Most recently, functional training, when done properly, restores and rehabilitates an individual from injury.
While the benefits are broad, the definition does not have to be so. If we look for a common denominator among all the examples in the definition above, we’ll first notice that the subject of functional training is a human being—the average human being who wakes up in the morning, takes a shower, cooks, cleans, does laundry, carries groceries, and enjoys sports and hobbies. We are not talking about a bear or a kangaroo nor a snake. This first point is crucial because we cannot define a practice without first specifying its subject.
Biology and Anthropology
Now that we know the subject of functional training is a human being, the following logical question is what makes a human being a human being?
Since the context is exercise, what movements separate a human being from all other animals? What movements do human beings do the most in a 24-hour period? What does our body’s design tell us about how we should use it? How have our muscles naturally developed due to these natural movements of ours?
The answer to all these questions is largely based on biology and anthropology. Biology shows us our body’s capabilities and limits, e.g. we cannot naturally fly no matter hard we try, but we are capable of swimming if we learn it. Anthropology shows us how our movements shaped our habits and culture and developed as a society.
Taking our biology into account and contrasting this with other animals, it appears our primary mode of locomotion is walking—walking upright, on our two feet alternating from left to right, with an accompany swing of our arms and rotation of our ribcage. Singularly, the movement of walking is arguably the most human movement. Physically speaking, it’s what makes us most human.
Functional Training: Biomechanics
When you combine our biology, our body’s blueprint, so to speak, and the mechanics of our movement, we have our biomechanics.
The better we perform our biology’s designed mechanics, the more efficient we become. The more efficient we are, the less stress we impose on our bodies and its systems.
Imagine binding your left leg in a cast and going for a run, or attempting to. Notice how much more taxing it is on your system? Notice how your heart rate goes up much quicker, your sweat probably starts to build up rapidly, and you develop shortness of breath immediately. This example showcases how your system works double time when something is off.
It’s just like a car with wheels that are not aligned. The problem is not that apparent externally, but in time, the car will develop all sort of problems, beginning with the tires wearing out unevenly. A seemingly “small” problem can wreak havoc in the long run on the car’s transmission and engine. This will be apparent in the inefficient gas consumption and various other fluids needed for the car’s engine and transmission.
Think about the human body’s heart and brain as the car’s engine and transmission. The more muscular dysfunctions and imbalances we have, the more inefficient each step we take will become. With every inefficient step, more effort is required from the body, creating more stress on our heart and our brain. If we take an average of 5,000 steps a day, that is 5,000 mistakes repeated and 5,000 compensations the heart and brain have to make.
Functional training is all about efficiency, especially when viewed from the biomechanics perspective. By learning what movements bring us closer to our biological characteristics, we’re able to use our bodies for what they were designed for. Like in all things, when used according to their design, we prolong their lifespan.
At the core of human movement are what we call oblique slings. Basically, an oblique sling is a set of muscles and fascial lines that run along a certain pattern in our body. When it comes to walking, running, and throwing, we have oblique slings on the front of our bodies (anterior) and on the back of our bodies (posterior). These act like rubber bands that expand and contract, with the posterior and anterior slings activating simultaneously. The assumption is an optimal human body that is well-integrated.
Posterior Oblique Sling
The posterior oblique sling runs from one side of the latissimus dorsi (let’s say the left side for this purpose) and runs all the across to the contralateral gluteus maximus (right side for this purpose). The other posterior oblique sling will run across from the right latissimus dorsi to the left gluteus maximus. This forms a huge X mark on our back side.
Anterior Oblique Sling
The anterior oblique sling runs from the left pectoral muscle across to the contralateral adductor muscle (right side). The other anterior oblique sling runs from the right pectoral muscle across to the left adductor muscle. This also creates a huge X mark, but this time on our front side. The muscles in between the two points will include internal and external obliques.
From the perspective of partnering muscles when working out, this would mean finding exercises that activate one side of the latissimus dorsi and the contralateral partner gluteus maximus. The same goes for the one pectoral muscle and the contralateral partner adductor muscle. Biomechanics training will seldom have the two pectoral muscles firing together, nor the both side of the latissimus dorsi firing together.
These slings activate whenever we walk, run, and throw. Hence, the sequencing and timing are very intricate matters that are substantial in proper biomechanics training. The sequence and the timing have to be practiced in every movement, so as to recreate the patterns that our bodies are designed for. In that way, efficiency sets in and the heart and brain do not have to take too much of a toll.
For beginners, it will be very useful to start out with unilateral training. This means working out one side of the body at a time, rather than always simultaneously working both sides. This is taken from the fact that most human movement in a day is unilateral.
Intermediate exercisers can move on from unilateral movement to train contralaterally. This means that while we engage in exercises that train one side of the body, the opposite move is done by the other side of the body.
Integrating contralateral movement with slings training is foundational in biomechanics training. It is in practicing this that we practice what it is to be human – functional humans, integrated, efficient, strong, and protected from injury.