Define “Functional”


Following along the thought process and training approach of some very respectable colleagues of mine, I wanted to share some of their knowledge with mine, as well as experience and facts.

What is “functional”?
That’s a loaded question. Literally, it means something relating to the way something functions or operates. It’s been a “buzz word” thrown around in the fitness industry because it creates an emotional trigger in your brain making you believe whoever is using the word knows what they are talking about (whether there is an actual functional application to the movement or not). Case in point: how is a side bend holding dumbbells overhead functional in ANYTHING you do in your daily activities? How is doing biceps curls standing on a BOSU ball strengthening your core better than a plank? (“Core”, by the way, is the best friend of the word “functional”. Almost a guarantee for a successful sale of training. Almost, because people are getting smarter, I hope).
People will argue that standing on a BOSU creates imbalances and forces you to work harder at staying upright. Fair enough, it does create a challenge. But how’s that improving your curls? You dissipate your effort and focus staying upright and therefore curl a lighter weight. Go heavy, you WILL go home on a stretcher. Besides, what’s “functional” about curls anyway? Developing the biceps that way only isolates it and when do you EVER curl anything heavy in real life (you don’t, even when you think you do. Email me if you want to argue this)? Work on developing a stronger back with pull-ups or deadlifts, even rows. Your biceps will work throughout these exercises AND you strengthen your core too without trying (try deadlifting a heavy weight with weak abs and back, or without recruiting those muscles. Doesn’t happen!).

How do trainers fool you?
Trainers will conjure up an exercise that will make you “feel” muscles burning through a complicated drill combining (lack of) balance while managing a weight that is “offline”, or deviated from your center of mass. That alleged controlled instability is designed to challenge your proprioception and will be sold to you as “functional”. Again, challenge the drill by trying to apply it to something you do. And here’s the funky thing: if you can’t find a use for the move, you might get a bogus answer like “we need to shock your muscles by doing something unusual, having them do something they don’t normally do so that when you’re caught off-guard, your body will better adapt to the situation”. Again, even I said such things and believed them (in my early days of training).
Here’s an easy way to debunk the funk in “funk-tional”: let’s apply the concept to self-defense tactics. You learn to punch, kick, stab, deflect or break. You never know what an assailant can do to you, yet you practice the drills over and over till they become part of your muscle memory so that in the event of an attack, your reflexes take over and you just react. Under duress, we revert to what we know. If you’ve never practiced any self-defense tactics, your chances are slim under attack. If you do stupid-ass moves in the gym that “burn” but make zero sense in practical applications, your muscles, however shocked, will NOT respond to the challenge appropriately, because they are “confused”.

Muscle Confusion:
Here’s another idiotic concept. “Let’s confuse your muscles to make them respond”. What happens to YOU when you are confused? Do you give smart answers? Do you drive safely? Do you operate quickly or stall/hesitate? The same goes for your muscles. Confusing your muscles yields NO results. You want them to grow strong or big? Lift heavy, or a lot, consistently. The WOD concept (Workout Of the Day) whereby you lift differently so you can adapt to various situations is only still around because the statistics regarding injuries haven’t caught up yet. Those who are successfully gaining results do not factor in the fact that:
A) They are already fit and disciplined.
B) They are consistent in their changes, and actually vary their load, intensity and specificity.

Yes, there are benefits to practicing random acts of training. But that refers to skill development, biofeedback, specialized variety (doing the same drill a variety of ways: light, heavy, bilaterally, unilaterally…), rest/recovery and most importantly fun! What’s the point if you don’t have some fun? (See my previous article)

Implied Knowledge:
When you go see a doctor, lawyer, trainer or any trade person in an arena you are not familiar with, there is an implication that the person you are getting the information from is knowledgeable in their professional field. This goes for trainers receiving education for a certification. Some apply it, some don’t and just want to get it over with to just go work at a club and be allowed to called themselves “certified”. Among those that apply it, few question the source because they implicitly trust their teacher. I used to be one of those people. I even taught things I didn’t quite buy because I learned them from a trusted source, even if it didn’t work. I would do everything by the book, and still, the results would be marginal or the pain remain present (I’m not referring to a client’s lack of accountability, which is a different topic). I’ve acquired a lot of education over the years and am confident to pass on effective knowledge, discarding the wrong, using the right. Basically, I transferred my Ninjutsu training philosophy of “answering before questioned, applying every form of martial art known at that time in History”.

The more I learn, the more I discard, the more I simplify. I don’t complicate things and falsely label something as functional unless it truly is functional. I’m not saying your trainer might be fooling you on purpose, just that they might themselves have fallen prey to misdirected concepts in the attempt to justify the cost of their education. It’s almost like going to see a movie and trying to like it to justify the cost, even if it’s a dud. And for those that train with me or share my knowledge, rest assured that I do not pass on bogus information to you. As a matter of fact, as a coach, I filter through the pile of coals to find the diamond, which I then cut for you, saving you time, money and injuries in the long run. I train in a variety of systems. The good systems uprade, fix bugs and become more efficient. If your coach/trainer doesn’t do that, you’re not making progress either.

2 comments on “Define “Functional””

  1. Carmen Bott

    I love it! Keep these coming Phillipe. May I re-publish?


    1. Philippe Til

      Absolutely, Carmen. You can always re-publish, in perpetuity!

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