Functional Training: A Balanced Approach
Paul M. Juris, Executive Director, Cybex Research Institute
In the last 10 years or so, the “functional training” movement has grown in popularity. It is often touted as a superior alternative to traditional cardio and strength training using machines. The prevailing wisdom regarding functional training is that exercises need to be replicated actual movements in order to be effective, and by extension, the more creative and challenging those movements become, the more function people will acquire. This is an interesting notion, but it fails to explain the flexibility and adaptability of the human system.
Take for example, tennis. There may be hundreds of different rotational patterns that one can execute in order to hit a successful forehand. Does that mean that one must train in every permutation of rotation in order to play tennis? That may not be possible. So long as the system has the necessary tools to execute the rotation of the swing (overall stability and equilibrium, endurance, power, flexibility, etc.), then the brain will, with some practice of the specific skill, figure out how to conduct the movement.
This idea that strength exercises do not need to be specific to the desired movement pattern in order to be effective is supported by a large body of research, as summarized in this Truth on Fitness article. Several studies have shown that movement specific strength enhancement has little impact on movement accuracy, except for conditions in which significant force production is a necessary component of the skill. For example, performing overhead press and wrist curl exercises only improved basketball shooting accuracy from three-point range, no closer shots. In addition, there are many studies that demonstrate exercises with little to no similarity to a motor task can improve performance in that task. If exercises such as the bench press have been shown to increase bat swing speed, just how movement-specific must strength training be?
The common link in all of the research studies that have demonstrated functional gains, regardless of whether the strength training was movement-specific, was the focus on power development. Power is a function of resistance and speed; therefore, working with higher loads at higher speeds appears to have the best transfer to a functional goal. Even isolated exercises such as a knee extension machine, can improve functional performance as long as they are performed at higher speeds. By introducing high loading to complex motions, it is possible that we are significantly reducing our power output by demanding a decrease in the speed of that motion.
The Cybex Research Institute, with some help from our associates, has performed research that shows that using the Arc Trainer can result in significant gains in back squat strength, four mile time, vertical jump height, and sprinting speed. Also, the Eagle Leg Press has been shown to improve power and speed performance. These are certainly functional outcomes, from the use of machines!
Another limitation to current thinking in functional training is that it eliminates many forms of training that might otherwise contribute significantly to effective outcomes. It unfortunately excludes many more traditional applications that could lead to increased training success in performance and power. In fact, when it comes to the competitive element of many functional training programs, using advanced scientifically engineered equipment like you’d find in a gym could help target trouble spots that don’t get enough attention in “whole-body” workouts.
You might be saying, “Of course Cybex says machines are important. After all, you make them!” That’s true, but they’re not important because we make them; we make them because they’re important - and they work. Machines like the ones Cybex designs and builds are first-rate tools for the development of strength, speed, power, and endurance. By omitting these devices in pursuit of a “more natural” form of training, we may be denying ourselves an excellent means of improving performance and achieving our goals.
Here at Cybex, we fully support the idea of functional training, to the extent that functional training is defined as a process that helps people achieve their goals, regardless of the modality that is used to accomplish them. We support any method that gets people exercising, and that can effectively improve muscle strength, power, endurance, and flexibility, which are the prerequisites for most, if not all, activities of daily living and athletic skills. Of concern to us are those new to exercise; these functional training programs may be too difficult and off-putting, whereas machines provide customization that allows new fitness-seekers to build up their abilities over time. It’s wise to really take the time to evaluate whether any program is right for you on its merits, looking beyond the marketing hype and peer pressure.
We encourage fitness and sports practitioners to use all of the tools at their disposal, and not omit effective modalities because of trends or prevalent thinking. The combination of our own studies and research over years leads us to suggest that overall functional outcomes could be vastly improved if one develops the prerequisite capabilities in the gym and practices their skills on the field, rather than trying to accomplish both at the same time.