Across the board, I’ve come across two general thought processes on what functional training is…

Definition #1 –

Functional training is how much a certain movement/exercise will transfer into the actual activity or sport you’re training for.

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For instance, if you were working with a rock climber – climbing rocks would be the most functional thing for that athlete to do. Based on this definition: In the gym, an exercise like pull-ups would have a high functional carryover. Where as a bench press would have low carryover.

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This (#1) definition of functional training tends to be specific in nature and based more on what the exercise looks like.

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There is some validity to this definition if you look at the folks who study Dynamic Action Systems and Human action movements. ?Here are a few quotes from the leaders in that field:

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“Humans have the ability to piggyback information and/or skills concerning posture, strength, flexibility, gross motor skills and proprioceptive acuity to real life movements that are “learned” and “controlled” by the CNS” (Edward Reed PhD – Ecological Psychology -expert in Human action movements)

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“Qualitative Strengthening: Smooth recruitment of just enough motor units to efficiently complete the task (economy of effort) – Cooperative excitation of appropriate synergists in function specific whole-body patterns – Necessity of pattern specificity by making the exercise look something like the motor behavior you’re seeking to influence (linking to real-life movement) – Proprioceptive perceptions are critical in learning and relearning motor skills” (Sandy Burkart PT, PhD)

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“Real life movements are developed through the synergistic action of muscles and the movement of joints in response to environmental needs.” (J. Scott Kelso PhD: One of the leading movement scientists in the world from FAU)

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We’ve all seen how and what an exercise looks like – can and does successfully influence an actual real-life movement. Think about how and why a barbell back squat is one of the best ways to improve one’s vertical jump, where as a barbell deadlift isn’t. The deadlift has better carryover to a long jump because it looks and feels more like a long jump due to its more horizontal body action. The squat is a more vertical body action, which allows you’re CNS better to piggyback of off and become better at the vertical jump which is the same movement pattern w/o load. So, loading a specific movement pattern can have a positive training effect.

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Definition #2 –

Functional training is a matter of neural complexity and CNS demand. The higher the CNS demand, the more functional the movement.

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For instance, in this definition (#2), an Olympic lift would be more functional to an athlete than a push-up exercise because it’s more neurally complex and involves multiple body segments/many muscles working together. Where as a push up is much more simple and involves less joint/muscle actions. Further more, a push up would be more functional than a Cybex machine chest press because the machine doesn’t require the CNS to control body posture or the movement action/direction.

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There is also validity to this thought process which is why many coaches prioritize high CNS demand movements like O-lifts, med ball throws and plyos first in their workout programs over slower, more segmented, less CNS demanding strength exercises like basic pushing and pulling movements.

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How to use Both Methods to Better Your Training!

As with every other argument in our industry, the correct answer usually is some where in the middle of the two sides. I can’t tell you what to do or which side to take. But, I can tell you how we do things.

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I don’t argue or take one side or the other. If both sides seem to work well – as you just learned they do – we just use both methods together. In other words, instead of just training movements or just training muscles.

Here at Performance U, we take a truly integrated training approach – we train MOVEMENTS AND MUSCLES! Here’s how…

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During our off-season training, we tend to apply the thought process of definition #2, which is a more general approach. But, during the pre-season, we gravitate toward training that’s more along the lines of definition #1. This is where we do use some specific exercises, which resemble what the athlete will be doing during competition.

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In short, during our off-season, our training goal is to help our athletes to better Produce, Reduce and Control force through general exercises.But, in the pre-season, we switch to more specific exercises that help the CNS to specifically “functionalize” the general capabilities (above) we gained in the off-season.

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