Jan 29, 2015
When Functional Becomes Dysfunctional

By Todd Brown, CCS

Approximately one month ago in a health club, I witnessed a trainer working with a stay-at-home mother of two. The trainer was explaining the concept of “functional training,” its benefits for injury prevention, and how specific functional movements would enhance her ability to perform daily activities. But I wonder, did the exercise address her function?


The woman appeared to be very excited about using this new level of training to help her “get in shape.” She was promptly instructed to stand on a single leg atop a BOSU ball while tossing a six-pound medicine ball back and forth with her trainer. In between this activity, as “active rest,” she was asked to sit, balance on the BOSU ball, and execute crunches with her feet off of the ground.

After several rounds of both exercises, she exclaimed how fantastic the new drills were. The banter continued between her and the trainer as to the origin of the exercises, which were from a magazine article that discussed the routine of an NFL wide receiver. So the trainer explained that his client was training like a professional athlete. Fast forward to a few weeks later, and I have since witnessed multiple trainers executing the same cycle of exercises with their clients.

The Encarta dictionary defines functional as having a practical application or serving a useful purpose. Within the parameters of the gym, functional training has become something of a mainstay. “Functionality” has benefits well above and beyond the archaic isolate and overload mentality, but we as a training society need to be very aware of what we are asking of our general population clients.

Often times, we as trainers are so concerned with the “new wave” of training that we may become blinded, causing us to not be able to see the forest beyond the trees. How “functional” is the aforementioned cycle of exercises? If this mother of two would like to get into “shape,” we must first have a basic understanding of what “in shape” means.

More often than not, “getting into shape” is basically acclimating the body to daily or specific activities. In the general population, this does not entail much more than sitting in front of a computer screen or behind a desk for eight hours per day. What most people appear to desire is a general sense of health, well-being, and an aesthetically pleasing appearance.

Functional training can be used to challenge a client by staying basic and safe. We must not lose sight that the underpinning of functional training is appropriateness. A trainer should view the exercise(s) as being appropriate and either cost effective (benefits outweigh the potential damage) or cost prohibitive (potential damage outweighs the benefit).

A mother of two standing on a BOSU ball with a single leg, catching and tossing a six-pound medicine ball may appear to be “functional” with its unilateral balance component and core stability concepts through dynamic movement, but when viewed through the appropriate lens, “functionality” may not be the proper term to describe the exercise. I would venture a guess that if this mother needed to stand with one leg on a waterbed while playing catch with a newborn infant, she should engage in this type of “functional” training. Protective child services, however, may not deem this activity very appropriate.

Furthermore, the cost effective/prohibitive viewpoint may also have the trainer move away from the core stability aspect of crunches on a BOSU ball. In 2000, Vera-Garcia published a study illustrating the benefits of training the core on an unstable surface. The results showed promising information, with the unstable surface producing a heightened challenge and muscle activation patterns while training.

Many trainers ran with the information, while for some reason ignoring that the spinal compression forces almost doubled during these types of activities. Is this type of routine functional for an NFL wide receiver? Unilateral stability and heightened lumbar-pelvic forces in a dynamic atmosphere do make sense for this athlete, as it is part of his daily or specific activities. Is this appropriate for a mother of two in her 40s? Probably not.

Often times, training regimens from athletes seep into programs for the general population and are looked at as quality, promising programs. Why? Would a sound program that has yielded quality results for the everyday office worker looking to lose a few pounds and lower his blood pressure ever be adopted by an NBA point guard? Probably not. While there are some “normal” people who can withstand the same training demands as professional athletes, most cannot.

As a training society, we should hold ourselves accountable for our training methods. It is important at times to take a step back and look at things in a simpler manner. While “functional” training does have its benefits above and beyond the bodybuilding approach, we need to bear in mind that appropriate, cost effective training will provide better, more practical results in the long run. Instead of asking if your client can, it may be better to ask yourself if your client should.

Todd Brown, CCS, is a sports science consultant working in south/central New Jersey. He has worked with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and Women’s Professional Soccer. He can be reached at: [email protected]




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