Since posting my latest video, I have received some interesting comments. One of those comments was that performing 150lb DB bench presses on a Swiss ball isn't functional. Whether you agree with this comment or not isn't the issue. Understanding what makes a training activity functional is. The problem with issues/situations such as this is that we often place our own connotations on to a particular concept without understanding its origin. This results in multiple views/opinions of what that concept/term may or may not mean. Unfortunately, I see this root problem in a multitude of arenas. It is one of the major culprits in faulty communication. One person says something and means one thing, while the other person hears what has been said, but receives something different than what was intended.
In terms of functional training, let's start by literally defining what the word function means. It is important that we know and understand the literal definitions of the words that we choose to use. This understanding provides us with a common baseline of communication. In today's society, people often use words in the manner that they have heard them used without really understanding what the word means. It's no wonder we can't come to a consensus on topics such as this.
The definition of function is:
"the kind of action or activity proper to a person, thing, or institution; the purpose for which something is designed or exists; role."
So let's think about this, "the purpose for which something is designed or exists", "action or activity proper to...". This definition reveals two layers of understanding the concept/term "functional training". The first layer is if the body itself is performing in the manner in which it is intended. The second layer is if the exercise is proper and purposeful for said goal. This may seem simple at first, but as you get into each of these layers, you will see that simple doesn't necessarily mean easy.
Is the body performing in the manner in which it is intended? To answer this question, one must have a sound understanding of kinesiology, physiology, biomechanics, etc. In short, are the body's regions and systems working efficiently as a team performing the roles for which they are intended. For instance, when performing a dead lift, is the lumbar region acting inappropriately as a primary mover (i.e. - producing force to move the weight) or is it acting appropriately as a stable transitional region (i.e. - transmitting/connecting the force production to and from the lower extremities to and from the upper extremities). Often this is dependent upon the individual's ability to properly position themselves to execute said activity.
Sticking with the dead lift. If one can not properly assume the optimal starting position of the dead lift and the lumbar region is rounded, then he/she will have a difficult time with proper use of his/her lumbar region. The key to proper positioning and thus proper movement is joint centration. Joint centration is the process by which a joint is in the position that enables the optimal distribution of a load throughout the joints' surfaces during each position of a movement. This allows for an instantaneous center of rotation resulting in balanced/efficient activity throughout the movement. Understanding joint centration requires an understanding of anatomy and biomechanics. Bear in mind that this is only a part of understanding if the body is behaving correctly during a particular activity.
Is the exercise proper and purposeful for said goal? To answer this question requires that one knows the goal and understands the demands of that goal. I have heard time and time again that bicep curls are not functional. That it is an isolation exercise for the body building community. I can remember going through a dead lifting session in Marty Gallagher's weight room when this topic came up. He spoke of how many bicep tears he has seen during dead lift training and competitions and how easily the incidence is reduced by adding in a little training of the biceps with curl variations. So for a dead lifter, bicep curls may indeed be functional, whereas a freestyle swimmer may not find much use for them. The point is some exercises may be appropriate and thus functional for some sports and inappropriate and thus non-functional for others.
So the next time a person asks you if an exercise is functional, remember that the answer lies in how the body behaves throughout the exercise as well as the intent/goal of the exercise. Often when we are observing an exercise, we don't know why the individual is performing it. When this is the case, the only aspect of function that we can comment on is how the body is behaving.
Respect & Honor