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The Functional Training Fallacy

Although the term “functional training” has become increasingly popular in the sport and fitness industry, the use of the term is somewhat deceiving. The intent of so-called “functional training” is to perform movements that mimic movements performed during daily life. The thought is that these “functional” exercises carry over to our normal movements in daily living.

However, the scientific research around motor learning and control definitively indicates that strength training movements that attempt to mimic everyday movements do NOT carry over to everyday movements. Stronger muscles make daily life easier and more efficient, but the mimicking of these movements while training is not necessary.

Instead, exercisers should strengthen the muscles that are used to perform the specific movement in the most effective manner possible.

Consider a running example: A functional training advocate would suggest that because running is an activity performed on one’s feet, we should perform lunges (an exercise for the thighs and glutes) as they too are performed while standing. In truth, the runner’s goal should be to strengthen these muscles in the most effective means possible, which often involves sitting on a leg extension, leg curl, or leg press machine.

The movements are different than running but the leg muscles are strengthened and this improved strength transfers to running – not the neuro-muscular pattern of the strength training exercise.

An important question to ask is: What causes function? The answer, of course, is MUSCLE and MUSCLE CONTRACTION.

Here is the bottom line. The goal of strength training should be to improve the ability of a muscle to contract and produce force. Only then can functional ability (our ability to bend, run, swing, ski, jump, climb, live) improve.

Side note: To be precise, we can see improvements in performance by practicing a specific “closed-skill.” This simply means that if we practice a specific task or skill, we will get better at it. The limitation to this is that this improved performance does NOT transfer to other tasks or skills. This is a basic and long-held tenet in the field of motor learning and control. Exercise should be all about changing our physiology, NOT about improving our skills.

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