You may have noticed in recent years that the space dedicated to fixed weights machines inside your average gym or health club has diminished somewhat. What it's being replaced by is dedicated space filled with equipment such as Swiss balls, BOSUs, TRX bands and Powerbags as well as more traditional equipment like barbells, kettle bells and medicine balls.
Ask your average fitness instructor or personal trainer what this is all for and they'll say it's for functional exercise. But what exactly does that mean and is it worth all the attention and space?
The origins of functional exercise
Functional exercise itself has it's roots in rehabilitation and physical therapy. A physiotherapists job involves returning or maintaining a patients movement or function if they've been affected by injury, illness or disability. Exercises here are context specific and vary depending the nature of the issue being dealt with. For example, someone with a shoulder issue will obviously have different requirements than someone with a knee issue and even within these separate categories specifics will vary depending on what the exact issue is. A rotator cuff tear for example, will need a different approach to tendonitis in the same muscle tendon. It's all very complicated and not at all straight forward but essentially functional exercise in this sense is whatever exercise the physiotherapist prescribes to return a patients function.
Functional exercise in the fitness zeitgeist
Outside physical therapy, functional exercise is usually thought of as exercise which improves general movement. This means that functional exercises can be defined as those that have an impact on the movements performed in everyday activities. Again, as you can imagine this covers a broad spectrum of things and what maybe important for one person as compared to another may vary considerably. For some it could mean simply having the ability to get out of a chair, for others it could mean having more energy to remain on their feet all day, for another group it could mean being able to cope with the demands a physical job, the list goes on.
Another area into which functional exercise can be categorised is strength and conditioning for sport. This is obviously going to vary considerably between sports, so what functional exercise/training is for one sports person may be completely different to another. A functional training exercise for a rugby player, say using a scrum machine, will be completely inappropriate for a footballer for example.
As you can see the term functional exercise can apply to a whole gamut of exercise/training so categorising it as being particular exercises performed with particular equipment seems futile.
The knowledge gap
Unfortunately a lot of this is misunderstood or misinterpreted by many fitness instructors or personal trainers. Functional exercise to them often represents any and all exercises utilising one of many of the pieces of equipment that as previously mentioned, have appeared in gyms over the last decade.
For example I regularly see trainers and instructors getting their clients to do all sorts of exercises whilst standing on unstable platforms and on occasion I've even seem exercises performed whilst kneeling or even standing on a Swiss ball. Thankfully though the exercises are usually more innocuous and much less likely to result in embarrassing and potentially dangerous falls. What I find alarming about all this though is that if you ask the person doing the exercise or the trainers prescribing them what they're for, they'll explain they're functional exercises or words to that effect. Ask the same person if a bicep curl was functional and I'm sure they'd say no but if I'm lifting a bag of shopping off the floor to put into the back of the car I'm certainly going to be using my bicep a lot! And this is one of the main issues; your average fitness professional and the clients they are advising more often than not have no understanding of the nuances, no understanding of the complexities. They just use 'functional' as a blanket term for certain types of exercise.
Does 'functional' mean better?
Whether you understand the actual definition of functional or not it's really important to understand that exercises that are commonly seen as functional in the sense that I've explained, aren't necessarily superior to others that may not be. For someone with no balance or stability issues for example, would doing a squat or a push up on a BOSU be better than doing them on the floor? The answer is no. Assuming the idea was to maximise strength then the stable version is better. A stable platform enables greater force generation within the muscle, more force generation means greater potential strength gains and greater strength translates to improved movement function. So which of these exercises is superior? Which one is more functional? A good personal trainer will of course tell you that a stable squat or push up is a highly functional exercise but that is by no means the default view!
Unfortunately, marketing and the lack of good education in the fitness industry (a topic I'll address in a future post) means that functional training, functional exercise and functional areas have taken on a meaning of their own, one that doesn't really relate to the reality of the matter. Don't get me wrong, I love the new toys in the gym and the areas dedicated to their use. They allow more variety in exercise prescription and can make exercise more interesting for people who often find exercise boring. I also realise that gyms and health clubs must keep re-inventing themselves to keep fresh and seem innovative. In a market where having the latest and greatest equipment sells this is understandable. I only wish the purveyors of fitness (and by this I mean the instructors and trainers) had a better understanding of what they are selling.
So to conclude; the term functional exercise is a misnomer in the way it's commonly used. It's a blanket term that's used inappropriately and without thought. Although I know nothing will change, I'd suggest we just call exercise exercise and explain any specific functional element separately if there is one and only when necessary. And please can we stop referring to certain parts of the gym as functional areas. Every gym is full of machines and equipment that can improve movement and increase fitness. They are all by definition functional spaces.
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No Difference in 1RM Strength and Muscle Activation During the Barbell Chest Press on a Stable and Unstable Surface. THE JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING RESEARCH. Jan 2008.
Muscle Activation Patterns While Lifting Stable and Unstable Loads on Stable and Unstable Surfaces. THE JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING RESEARCH. Feb 2010.
An unstable support surface does not increase scapulothoracic stabilizing muscle activity during push up and push up plus exercises. MUSCULOSKELETAL SCIENCE & PRACTICE. May 2008.
Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality. THEEUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PREVENTATIVE CARDIOLOGY. Dec 2012