“What is functional training and why are we doing it?” are two of the most common questions our clients ask when crunches and sit-ups are missing in our workouts. I usually ask in return, “Would you rather look brawny like a bodybuilder albeit incompetent and injury prone at your sport, or look healthy and be the best athlete you could be?“ While most inevitably ask if “both” is an option, the majority usually realize that they’d rather be more like Will Myers or Alex Morgan than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But what if I told you “both” were actually an option. That in fact there is a way to train like an athlete and look like an athlete. What if I told you that there is a way to train in healthfully and own the functionality, fitness and endurance-levels of a professional athlete? That is “functional training.” If this interests you, read on.
“Functional Training” has become increasingly popular in the athletic community because of the results it produces, but what does training functionally actually entail? According to Gary Gray, the renowned “Father of Function,” the definition is as follows:
“Applied Functional Science is the convergence of Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Behavioral Sciences that consists of the Principles-Strategies-Techniques process for functional assessment, training and conditioning, rehabilitation, and injury prevention that is practical for any and all individuals regardless of age or ability.”
Gary Gray suggests that there are three foundations for human function (Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Behavioral Sciences) and that we can use these disciplines to assess injuries, determine rehab approaches, and create workout strategies for all individuals (whether you’re an athlete or not). He also believes there are two principles you must know in order to functionally train the body. The first is that every single joint and muscle in the body moves in three planes of motion. These three planes of motion are defined as:
- Sagittal: An imaginary plane that divides the body into right and left parts.
- Frontal: An imaginary plane that divides the body into front and back parts.
- Transverse: An imaginary that divides the body into top and bottom parts.
Now that you have a better idea of what we mean by tri-plane motion, let’s look at tri-plane movement in the spine.
- Sagittal: Flexion/Extension
- Frontal: Right Lateral Flexion/Left Lateral Flexion
- Transverse: Right Rotation/Left Rotation
The second principle you need to know is that we live in a world with gravity. And so, depending upon the body’s orientation with gravity, the function of muscle can actually change. Don’t believe me?
Try this experiment out on yourself: Lie down flat on your back and make yourself go through sagittal plane spinal flexion (like you’re doing a full situp). What muscle is active? The abs are causing spinal flexion, and if you were to inspect the muscles in your back you would find that they are relatively inactive. Now stand up and make your spine go through the same spinal flexion (bend over as if you’re touching your toes). Did your abs do any work? Unless you tried to flex faster than gravity’s natural pull, the answer is no. What about those back muscles? Chances are you found they were pretty active in trying to slow down that flexion to act against gravity. The muscles did the exact opposite in the two scenarios!
Now answer this: which of those two positions do you play your sport in? Unless you’re a wrestler, swimmer, or gymnast, you probably spend most of your time on your feet. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it then make sense to train your body in that position? Right, exactly.
Thus, let’s examine the hip motions your body performs when in an athletic position on your feet.
- Sagittal: Flexion/Extension
- Frontal: Abduction/Adduction
- Transverse: Internal/External Rotation
When we put these motions together in one exercise we get a lunge matrix that works all of these muscular planes in your body. This approach not only helps maximize your results in the weight room, but also helps improve your athletic performance on the field as well.
By performing functional exercises and focusing on completing them consistently, even at body weight, you’ll see a great improvement in both your body composition and your athleticism. Why? Because for the first time, you’re actually working your muscles in an athletic, functional, manner