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About 15 years ago, ‘functional fitness’ became a hot trend in the fitness industry. Suddenly, people everywhere were doing squats on top of BOSUs, bench pressing on stability balls, and doing crazy one-arm, one-leg movements using cable pulley machines. At the time, I dismissed the trend as garbage. And, in the years that followed, studies backed that opinion: EMG muscle readings showed that people simply used their muscles less intensely when they used them in weird, unstable, cockamamie ways.
But as fitness expert Alwyn Cosgrove has observed, we tend to overreact to new ideas in the short term, and under-react to them in the long term. So while the functional fitness trend has largely now passed, I recently read Mike Boyle’s newly updated *New Functional Training for Sports, 2nd Edition*, and I think Cosgrove may be right. While there was certainly much to disdain about the functional fitness trend, I’m also pretty sure I threw out a valuable baby with that bathwater.
For example, as we’re working with a bunch of Baby Boomers and older adults through Composite, training to prevent falls is an increasing element of our programming. Previously, I had always thought of that as a ‘software’ question – improving the proprioception needed for balance. However, it’s increasingly clear to me in practice that the functional guys had it right: it’s not that your brain doesn’t know when your shin isn’t vertical, or when your hips aren’t parallel to the ground; it’s that you don’t have the strength to stabilize them correctly while you’re moving and on one leg. And, similarly, it’s not that your brain doesn’t try to move a foot to catch yourself if you start to fall; it’s that you don’t have the speed to move that foot fast enough. While strength falls off at 1% a year as we age, power, the fitness attribute that underlies foot speed, declines twice as quickly. So making sure we strengthen on one leg – and build unilateral power in particular – seems like a wise training priority.
Or consider “core work,” which often focuses on lumbar flexion (sit-ups) or lumbar rotation (Russian twists). However, as the functional training crowd points out, that’s not really how the body moves in sport or real-world pursuits. Instead, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that almost all athletic movement comes from flexion, extension, and rotation at the hips and thoracic (upper) spine. The lumbar (lower) spine mostly just braces in place, to transmit power. Therefore, exercises focused on anti-flexion (like roll-outs) and anti-rotation (like Paloff presses and plank reaches) probably better translate out of the gym.
Even the stability ball – a device I’ve long derided – might be worth its salt. For the past few weeks, I and handful of our athletes have been using them for hamstring curls (back on the floor, feet on the ball, rolling it in and out), and we’ve found they activate the hamstrings in a remarkably intense way (especially for anyone not yet ready to graduate to a full glute-ham developer raise). Which is to say, I’ll definitely be including the movement in programs going forward.
So, in summary, when it comes to functional training, I now stand corrected. Possibly even on one foot.