Training for Life: Understanding the Benefits of Functional Training by Stella Bergan, MEd, NASM CP
In the health and wellness field, we have a tendency to jump on whatever is "buzzy" at the forefront of science and proclaim it the secret sauce of getting fit and healthy. When I started my business over 10 years ago, the buzz at the time was "fascia," and the role fascia played in structural stability, protecting our internal structures and helping us move more freely. Next came "gut health" and the connection to chronic inflammation; then "epigenetics" and the idea that our DNA is not our destiny.
Now, we are hearing a lot about "functional training" or "functional fitness," the idea that we should be training our bodies to handle the stresses of our daily routines. Whether you are an athlete, a parent of young children, have a physically demanding job or just want to be fit and healthy, functional training can benefit you.
What exactly is functional training?
Functional training is a phrase used to describe exercises that help you perform activities in everyday life more easily. It is used in sport-specific training to train an athlete’s body to handle the stress of repetitive movements or better perform some movements specific to the sport.
Here are some examples of common actions that may lead to injuries that can be avoided if we incorporate functional training into our workouts:
Pulling the car seat out of the car
Lifting heavy grocery bags out of the well of a minivan
Lifting luggage into the overhead bin
Playing basketball with your teenage children
Trying to keep up as we age with athletes half our age
Competing in sports year-round for youth athletes
People repeatedly get injured performing routine activities. Functional training helps mitigate the stresses of everyday movements.
Aging and connective tissue In the world of aging athletes, "functional training" has become synonymous with training our connective tissue (tissue that supports, protects and gives structure to other tissues and organs in the body) to better withstand the forces of our sport of choice. As we age, we lose elasticity (elastin and collagen) and our connective tissue changes. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to train if we want to stay strong and agile as we age. Anatomy expert Tom Myers describes human anatomy as "bones floating in a bed of connective tissue." Given this definition, it makes sense to do the work to maintain tissue tolerance to prevent injury and support our skeletal system. If, as an aging athlete, you want to maintain your rigorous (or even not-so-rigorous) training schedule, then first and foremost, you want to maintain and build tensegrity (the tension between bones and connective tissue that helps keep us upright) in the body. Through functional training, we can build tissue tolerance and tensegrity. We can keep our bones healthy, our connective tissue strong and our joints lubricated so that we are able to conquer whatever is on our agenda with greater ease and enjoyment.
What does functional training involve?
Functional training involves purposeful compound movements or whole-body movements such as squat, pull, push, lunge, hinge, lift, rotate and gait. Think about all of the uses of the squat, for instance—we squat to go to the bathroom, to pick up our kids, to move furniture, to throw, to dance. The different ways in which we squat are multi-directional, not just linear, so we would want to train in the same way. When performing functional exercises, try to maintain a long, tall spine and keep your shoulders wide. I cannot stress enough the role of good posture in functional training (we want to avoid training dysfunction). Pay attention to the three primary areas of mobility: the ankles, hips and the thoracic spine. If any of these three are restricted, your range of motion will be limited as well, which can lead to injury.
Mindfulness and functional training
Anytime you are engaged in training the body, it is a good idea to be mindful of the exercises you are performing. Check your posture or stance when performing the exercises, connect with the specific muscles, muscle groups or fascial lines you are training and understand "why" you are choosing the exercises. Not only does connecting with the muscle that is being contracted help improve form, but it also has been shown to bring about better results in the gym. I believe that making a connection between the exercise and the "why" will help you perform the task with better alignment when the time comes, which should help prevent injury. As we make those connections with greater frequency, they become routine and we reap the rewards. Your habits become your architecture, so you want to refine your habits as much as you can.
Here are a few suggested functional exercises to help handle the stresses of everyday life (for a visualization of these exercises, watch this video).
Take a backpack or a medicine ball and place it slightly away from the body on the ground. Rotate to pick it up and then push it overhead, mimicking the movement of putting luggage in the overhead bin. Do 6–8 reps on each side.
One of my favorite types of functional training is ground-to-standing exercises because all of us need to make sure we can easily get up off the ground and stand up. Start in a kneeling position on the floor with your left foot out in front and your right knee on the ground. Sit back on your right heel. Gently shift forward on your left foot and stand up, bringing your right knee up to a balance on your left leg. Lunge to the right and then reverse the movement back to the kneeling position on the ground. Repeat for 6–8 reps on each side.
Put a light to medium weight (a dumbbell, medicine ball, barbell plate or a weighted backpack or sandbag) on a chair in front of you. Step away from the chair 4–5 feet (more if you are very tall). As you lunge forward, reach forward and grab the weight off the chair and bring it to your chest as you stand. Repeat the movement and place the weight back on the chair. Do six reps on each side before repeating on the other side.
For many of us, our daily habits take a toll on our tissues, our joints and our ability to move freely. Please, never accept age as an excuse for not moving well. I have been running for well over 35 years, and I firmly believe that functional training plays a part in helping my tissues withstand the repetitive stress from running, especially after so many years.
Dalcourt, Michol. Training for Health and Performance. Stick Mobility Podcast #24. youtube.com/watch?v=oTtYox9qN8k
Davis, Nicole. (2020). Healthline. How to Maintain Your Functional Strength While Sheltering In Place. healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/functional-strength-training
Gray Institute. (2018). Functional Movement Spectrum Series: Motion. grayinstitute.com/blog/functional-movement-spectrum-series-motion
Myers, Thomas W. (2009). Anatomy Trains, Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Elsevier Limited.
Tucker, Alexa. (2017). SELF. How to Get More Out of Every Workout Without Actually Working Harder. self.com/story/get-more-out-of-every-workout-mind-muscle-connection
Stella Taylor Bergan, MEd, NASM CPT
Stella is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Institute of Motion Applied Health and Human Performance Specialist. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and graduate degree from the University of Virginia. Her training as a therapist, along with a background in executive coaching/organizational strategy, provide the foundation for helping her clients make the changes they need to live healthier, more productive lives and perform at their optimal level. Stella takes an integrative approach to wellness and performance and believes that making small, sustainable changes over time can lead to profound improvements in overall health and performance. She works with some of Silicon Valley's top executives. She is a mom, an avid trail runner, loves to travel and really enjoys converting teenagers into green smoothie drinkers.