Functional Training – Method or Madness? Part One

As someone who is considered the father of functional sports training I think it is time to revisit the concept in order to better understand it – Where did it come from, how it evolved, where it is today and where it is going. Functional training is a label for a concept. As with any label it is subject to various interpretations. I originally conceived it as multi lateral training integrating various training modalities (medicine ball, stretch cord, weight training, dumbbells, body weight etc.) to produce significant adaptation in specific performance parameters. It trains all systems of the body while recognizing and respecting the wisdom of the body. The end result is a highly adaptable athlete who is able to perform without limitations in the competitive environment. Contrast this to biased one- sided training that results in adapted athletes who are inconsistent in performance and prone to injury.

For me the concepts came together and solidified in the late 1980’s. I was alarmed at the biased one-sided training regimens that I saw being imposed on athletes. We were trapped in a reductionist, mechanistic approach that segmented the body into parts and separate systems. We were creating robotic athletes that were good in a sterile training environment but had difficulty transferring training to the sport. It was also clear to that if you are doing too much of one thing then you are probably not doing much of something else, it was a zero sum relationship. The result was an athlete fully adapted to that one component of training.

To thrive in the performance arena demands the polar opposite, a versatile highly adaptable athlete whose training is not biased, but reflects the demands of the sport and the needs of the individual athlete. The problem was the failure to recognize that for the body to execute movement, whether it is a sustained endurance activity, explosive bursts or fine motor skill that all parts and systems need to work together in harmony. Movement is s symphony not a solo. You can’t do a “cardio” workout, just like you can’t do a “neural” workout. You better hope every workout has a cardio vascular and a neural component, because all systems of the body work at all times with the demand on a particular system determined by the intensity of the activity. To continue the symphonic metaphor a section of the orchestra is featured or highlighted while the other parts of the orchestra are still playing, albeit in the background. Let’s also give credit to the conductor; the brain, the muscles and all systems of the body are slaves of the brain. It is the brain that drives, connects and controls movements to enable us to accomplish the desired task. To use Tim Noakes term the brain is the “central governor.” So we can’t lose sight of the whole, the big picture in the desire to understand the parts. What evolved as functional training gives the body credit for it’s inherent wisdom and it’s ability to learn to link, sync, connect and coordinate in order to play the beautiful movement symphony we call sports performance.

At the time I had been coaching close to twenty years and been exposed to many ideas and methods of training, some of which worked and some of which failed. I was at a stage in my career where I thought there had to be a better way, I realized a better way was an eclectic approach that combined my interpretation of sport science research, study in methods and concepts of rehabilitation coupled with my practical experience both as a coach and as an athlete. Someone labeled it “functional training” and the name stuck; to me it is just common sense training.

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  1. […] One to the points I’ve focused more is on training move movements and larger parts of movements as I discussed in last week’s episode on specific developmental exercises. As Vern says, training can be boiled down to: “Link, sync, connect and coordinate“. […]

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