Functional vs. Practical – Discussing Effective Exercise Selection in Context

Recently I had a public conversation – or as I like to call, professional banter – on Twitter with a very reputable and credible private-sector strength coach. His questioning was of a post that I wrote for Driveline Baseball discussing common technical faults that I see in the Bench Press, and some suggestions for cleaning up this exercise and some of its variations.

The questioning was: why choose the bench press at all when there are more functional options? The overall theme of my response was that most functional isn’t always most practical, especially outside of the private sector.

Now, I am not one who gets easily offended or defensive if somebody doesn’t agree with my beliefs. In fact, I try to respect the opinions of others, even as we professional challenge each others’ viewpoints. I respect the aforementioned strength coach and his thoughts.

That being said, 140 characters just is not enough room to elaborate my own beliefs on the topic. And, I thought this entire topic was interesting enough to expand upon.

So, let’s talk about functional training in context:

Defining Functional Training

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In one way, functional training can be thought of as a movement that has increased in prevalence and influence over the past 15+ years or so. Initially, functional training was essentially the death of machine-based training, in favor of ground-based movements. Specifically, it was driven by exercises performed on your feet. The term has also been used to talk about the function of training relative to the purpose of a specific joint – i.e. the joint-by-joint approach. Does a joint need mobility or stability, and are we training in accordance of this?

Today, it seems that functional training is thrown around a lot more loosely as the industry has evolved. Most strength coaches would surely say that their philosophy is movement-based and/or functional in nature.

Maybe it is incorrect, but I have my own interpretation of the term functional as it stands today. I like to think less of functional training as a subset or specific method of strength and conditioning (i.e. you either are a functional strength coach, or you’re not; an exercise is either functional, or it’s not), but more of a term to describe the relative appropriateness, effectiveness, and efficacy of training for the joint, athlete, or sport (in other words, how appropriate is the exercise or movement for the function in which we are training?).

This paradigm is about breaking down the black and white view-point of functional training (e.g. is this exercise functional for baseball? No? Okay, omit it indefinitely) and instead seeing functionality as a part of a sliding scale or continuum, allowing plenty of room for grey-area (e.g. is this movement functional for baseball? Well, it certainly has benefits, and works the best in our situation. Okay, let’s work it in as we can)

Functional Training in the Context of Practicality

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The problem with having a black/white, yes/no approach to the functionality of a given movement or exercise is that it ignores practicality. If we deem one exercise non-functional, then we must eliminate it.

In the case of the private sector, this may be an easier proposition. The private facility is a much more controlled environment, whereby the logistical constraints of facility space, equipment, and group-size can be augmented with relative ease compared to other sectors of performance training.

Although the private sector is the one area I have spent the least amount of time working, I have in fact worked it. From a year at an LA Fitness when I was 18 years old, to 4 months at a terrific facility in the Orlando area, I’ve definitely experienced this aspect of training. I have, too, accumulated experience at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels.

Then there is the high school setting, which can pose less-than-ideal logistics with much less control over those circumstances. Sometimes the weight rooms are old. Sometimes all they have is a handful of squat racks. Sometimes they have dumbbells, other times  they don’t. Sometimes they have cracked medicine balls. Sometimes the facilities are less than 2,000 square feet. Sometimes (more like most of the time) the sport coach – with little to no human performance training knowledge – is in charge of running the training.

This isn’t always the case, but more often than not it pretty darn close.

Take that non-strength-coach high school baseball coach, for example. He may be on a staff of 3-4 coaches, and is responsible for the entire baseball program. Now he has to try to figure out how to best train his team on top of his many other responsibilities. With all the time constraints considered, he may choose to train his entire baseball program (JV and Varsity) of 30+ players at once, for 30-45 minutes a couple of times per week.

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Would he probably like to do medicine ball throws, landmine presses, and dumbbell presses for his upper-body push work? Most likely. But, what if he has no medicine balls, one set of dumbbells, and only 1,500 square feet to work with? He most certainly does not have a cable stack or a Jammer apparatus either. In fact, many colleges may say the exact same thing.

In a black and white view of functional training, this may severely limit the exercises available for this team to use. And, in this case, that means very few options to get one of the major internal rotators of the shoulder (the pec) stronger.

It isn’t just the amateur levels that see these kinds of constraints. In professional sports, especially at the lower levels, facilities aren’t always much better. Oftentimes the “weight room” is simply a sectioned-off part of the clubhouse.

On the road, training may be done in a small mom-and-pop gym, a massive and crowded corporate gym, or on the field. 

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In either case, the facilities and logistics already constrain exercise selection. I should say there is hardly room for the absolute functionality mind-set to take away any more.

For me, four major questions need to be asked when determining exercise usage in a program:

  1. Is it safe? This is priority number one. If it significantly increases the risk of injury during the workout or in performance, it will not be used.
  2. Is it functionalIn terms of the function for which we are training (e.g. baseball; football; life), the exercise should be as appropriate as possible.
  3. Is it effectiveIt is important that the exercise actually accomplishes what we are striving to attain.
  4. Is it practicalIn terms of logistics and capabilities (both tangible and intangible), we must be able to actually utilize the exercise efficiently given our current circumstances.

Realistically, all of these questions should rest on their own sliding scale or continuum. To illustrate my point, take the Olympic lifts for example:

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  1. Are the Olympic lifts safe? Relative to a body-weight squat, probably not as safe, no. How about considering the safety of a properly taught and implemented OLY lift vs. an improperly taught/implemented one?
  2. Are the Olympic lifts functional? Well, the athlete will be on their feet, promoting hip and shoulder mobility. There is power-production and strength involved. There is kinetic chain sequencing at work as well. All of this is functional to sport, itself, but is it highly functional to a specific sport, like baseball?
  3. Are the Olympic lifts effective? Depends on your goal. If your goal is to build a base of strength, then they’re probably not as effective as less complex and less power-focused movements, like a standard squat. If you goal is to get more powerful, then yes, absolutely.
  4. Are the Olympic lifts practicalWell, only if you can safely and properly teach it to your athletes. And, only if they are ready to perform them (i.e. they are experienced trainees). Don’t forget to account for the equipment (you might want some olympic bars, bumper plates, and platforms), the time, and the facility size.

As you can see, even these four questions about one set of exercises open up the discussion for many more questions, making exercise selection way too complex for any absolutes, in my humble opinion. Ultimately, this is why I say that functional – albeit a very important aspect of training – is only one aspect that must be considered when selecting exercises.

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The goal of this post was not to force-feed my philosophy onto anyone, nor was it to combat anybody else’s thoughts. In fact, there are probably more questions than answers in this post – and that was done on purpose. The hope is that these questions spur more great conversations on the matter.

Respectfully,

RJF

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