One of my favorite pastimes as a boy was turning over rocks in the various creeks and woodland streams near my Southwestern PA home. I was in search of salamanders, crayfish, frogs, and any other treasures that inhabited those areas.
I realized that I was quite limited in the size and number of rocks that could be moved. Muscles adapt and strengthen to an extent, but even fifteen minutes of this labor of love began to feel like backbreaking work. I was sure that larger prizes lay under the larger rocks, if only my 10-year-old frame could move them.
It is counter-intuitive that a person may lift something without using their arms. But one day, I realized that if I could straddle a larger rock and establish a solid grip, I could then stiffen my arms and torso but otherwise not really use them. The arms and torso were simply a conduit from my lower body to my hands. This way, relatively larger muscles in the hips and legs could do the heavy moving.
I was amazed to find that my rock turning limits did indeed immediately triple, and I did not tire nearly as easy. My creature finding abilities soared (well, in my mind). I had unintentionally stumbled into what adult physical therapy and strength coaches of today call functional training.
For athletes and adults of all ages, functional training involves building strength in a manner that optimizes efficient, graceful movement among all body segments. Gaining muscle size may or may not be an additional goal, but a combination of strength and flexibility is always a result. Functional training makes use of open space and basic free weights such as barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. This is opposed to training methods that involve the trainee usually seated on and supported by various weight training machines that work one or two muscles at a time. In Functional Training, the body is exercised as an integrated unit with no machine-guided path to balance and stabilize the resistance.
As a side note, cardiovascular type training such as treadmills, stationary bikes, and ellipticals do provide health benefits. But these do not substantially change the coordination of body segments, literally how you move, when your body is called upon to pick up a bag of mulch, reach high overhead to catch a ball, or pick an apple from a tree. Long duration stretching and dance-y type circuit training will not do much to keep our humerus from dislocating when we miss the bottom stair (fall) or our dog surprises with our shoulder with a sudden tug at the leash.
Functional training and its tools are not new. They were first used by old time weightlifters and strong men who were part of circuses or simply strength hobbyists. Most people didn’t identify with that image, and the fitness industry responded by creating gyms and gym culture filled with many of the technology dependent training that rose to popularity in the 1970s through 1990s. In recent years, many if not most gyms have incorporated a Functional Training section that includes free weights, various semi firm boxes, and other basic (but effective) equipment.
What is relatively new in functional training, however, is the known benefit of individual evaluation and exercise prescription. While functional training sparks significant improvement in our resiliency and ability to move well outside of the gym, without the fixed guidance and other limitation that exercise machines have to offer, there are certainly risks involved. Many individuals suffer injury when they jump into the wrong exercises for their body type and abilities, or use unrealistic progression (too much too soon).
Some individuals benefit from 2 to 6 weeks of light posture and targeted mobility work before they are able to safely perform body weight squats or press even a light weight overhead with the correct form. For more advance athletes and fitness minded folks, please understand that the elite level competitions and tests that you see on TV and social media are not how you (or any athlete) needs to train on a regular basis. Outstanding improvements outside of the gym can absolutely be achieved without taking workouts to those extreme levels. Even athletes are beginning to learn that -too much- tearing the body down leaves no room for recovery and growth.
Qualified physical therapists and personal trainers will be able to assist you with a comprehensive movement screen and create a training program that is appropriate for you. See a physical therapist to address any areas of pain or significant restriction that you have been dealing with before beginning a functional training program.