What Is Functional Training?
Many buzzwords seem to fly around the fitness industry. Words like "functional," "primal," and "developmental" hover above us, just slightly out of focus to make for clear definition, like dark vultures waiting to swoop on unsuspecting little athletes who dare to make a run for freedom or stand up to these notions in an open environment.
These words of prey are given all manner of mysterious determinations. But the process of assigning definition to these words seems as flighty as the words themselves. No one really knows why these words are lurking around us, and it seems almost dangerous to guess.
Look up to the skies, and you will see many top coaches taking swipes at each other's definitions of these words. This becomes more than a little meaningless for the average athlete on the ground.
The Importance of Purpose
This is ironic, as function IS meaning. Or in other words, purpose. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Boyle's latest book, New Functional Training for Sports. I like the book, and I knew I was going to do so from the first few words of the first chapter.
Boyle opens with the following definition:
"Function is, essentially purpose. When we use the word function we are saying that something has a purpose. So when we apply that term to training for sports we are talking about purposeful training for sports."
He goes on to say:
"Since the concept of functional training was first applied to sports it has been misunderstood and mislabelled by many athletes and coaches. Terms such as sports specific, which implies that certain movements and movement patterns are specific to individual sports, have been used to describe some functional training concepts. But sport-specific training takes place with the athlete on the mat, field, or court, whereas in strength and conditioning we work to get the athlete stronger and to improve specific conditioning."1
Don't just think this has to apply to sports, either. For "sports" insert "life." It still works the same. This resonates with me at the most fundamental level. And it should, because purpose is at the base of everything we do. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines function as "the action for which a person or thing is specially fitted or used or for which a thing exists", as well as "any of a group of related actions contributing to a larger action".
This is a big clue to understanding the deeper definition of functional training. There is nothing about compound exercises, primal patterns, brain-based training, or any other iteration of functional training in the dictionary. That's because these things don't form the definition of function training. Those are simply expressions of functional training, they are things you do. They are processes. They are much further up the food chain than purpose.
But that’s still not the whole picture. There's something that sits in between purpose and process and that is principles.
Principles are the commonalities that underlie purposeful training, like:
- Mobility and stability
- Tension and relaxation
- And so on.
These are the principles on which meaningful functional processes lie. They are the basic principles of movement that sit on top of any meaningful training purpose and support any viable training processes.
At Strength Education, we put all these words into a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is a wide purpose block, on top sits a principles block, then a processes block. And at the top is the culmination of correctly layering all of these things on top of one another, in the right order. Balanced at the top sits performance.
This isn't about putting some random words into a fancy shape. It's a system to define our training through purpose, and to understand the common training principles you must master to be able to effectively express your purpose through functional processes, like compound movements such as the squat, press, and deadlift. Because these are only functional processes if they sit on sound principles and have a meaningful purpose. Then add specific performance variables.
This purpose-principles-processes-performance pyramid is so important that it forms the centerpiece of our Five Pyramids of Performance. Everything else we need to know and learn about training stems from here.
So next time your head is spinning with meaningless (literally - purposeless) Internet conversations about functional training and what constitutes function, sit back and work your way up this pyramid. Stack the blocks up in your head. If the blocks are stacked in the wrong order, or any of them are missing, you know it makes no sense.
Functional training is purposeful training, grounded in universal principles. And at a base level, it's as simple as that.
1. Boyle, Michael New Functional Training for Sports. (Human Kinetics, 2016)
Headline photo credit: CrossFit Empirical