‘Functional’ the word, when used in fitness circles has a mixed reputation, it is all at once deified, divisive and derisive. Taken literally, the word itself has two definitions- Firstly, it can donate that something has a specific usage, task, or outcome. Secondly, it’s used as an adjective to donate that something is designed to be practical and useful, generally at the expense of looks or style.
Surely then, at some level all forms of exercise meet the criteria of the first definition? If you’re looking to achieve a greater level of fitness, exercising is the obvious solution, meaning it’s specifically suited to achieve the desired outcome. Functional?
But what if your goals are more comprehensive than simply ‘getting fit’? Then the degree to which your form of exercise needs to be ‘functional’ becomes both more important, and individual.
It becomes clear then, that a plan that is ‘functional’ for a long distance runner is not then going to be particularly functional for a competitive powerlifter, how then can we have an entire genre of training built around training ‘functionally’, if the word itself denotes it’s lack of generality?
In my opinion, the term ‘functional training’, is used in the lexicon of physical culture as a catch all term for exercises and training protocols that provide a huge degree of carryover not to specific goals but quite the opposite- every day life. How ‘functional’ are you as a human being? Does your physical prowess limit or hinder you in day to day activities? And to what degree can you increase this functionality through exercise?
To me, being ‘functionally fit’, means never letting your physicality become a barrier of entry or limiting factor. Training your body to an extent, where beyond very specific physical tasks, you’re ready to ‘go’ at a moments notice (and keep going if so required).
Everything from not getting out of breath running around the park with your children to being able to bump start your partners car without needing a lung transplant after the fact.
If your training regularly pushes you beyond the requirements of this mixture of everyday challenges, then they will cease to be challenges. As the old adage goes ‘train hard, live easy.’
So how then can you train for both everything and nothing all at once?
By breaking ‘life’ down into the physical abilities it necessitates and ticking off as much as possible, as often as possible, by looking at where people’s ‘limits’ manifest themselves, and addressing these. Generally speaking we’re looking to improve-
(The ultimate meta skill, make heavy weights light and you’ll make hard work easy).
-Moving well, under load, with a variety of loads.
(Life very rarely presents us with a perfectly even load, on a perfectly even surface and asks us to perform 10 uniform reps, we must become accustomed to pushing, pulling and carrying, awkward, dynamic loads)
The ability to sustain a prolonged physical or mental effort. This aspect is arguably the most difficult to pin down and identify a truly ‘general’ definition for, however with clever programming, you’re able to factor in everything from short, intense bouts to longer, prolonged efforts, becoming as close to a truly ‘functional human’ as possible.
Once you’ve defined everything you need to attempt mastery over, the most glaring concern for most people, in an age where a 60 hour work week is not uncommon, is how on earth do you fit ALL of that in? This is where I think the second definition of ‘functional’ becomes important-
‘Designed to be practical and useful, generally at the expense of looks or style.’
In short and in context- trim the fat. We’re not going to waste time on flashy but impractical exercises and methods, we’ll dispense with anything that requires an inordinate amount of practice just to utilise on an actionable level and we’ll limit any ‘secondary’ exercises to those that directly push on the improvement and application of the first tier movements (or help us to build the structure to remain injury free, injury being the enemy of functionality).
To summarise- low skill, high yield movements , performed at an appropriate intensity, encapsulating a mixture of physical challenges and energy systems utilising enjoyable, time savvy methods with clear and achievable lines of progression to ensure a lifetime of continued improvement.
In much the same way a weightlifter trains to become a better weightlifter then, a functional trainee endeavours to become a more ‘functional’ human, using training as a tool to identify and work on weaknesses and using limits in training as a diagnostic tool and troubleshooting method to ensure these same limits don’t occur in life outside of the gym.