Welcome to the world of functional fitness.
A world which poses the question that, if you are not suspended from the ceiling or balancing on an unstable surface, are you even training?
Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh there.
You see, I don’t have anything against functional fitness when done correctly.
It’s a great way to train!
But what I do dislike, however, is the way the term has been bastardized in the last 10 years to take on a BS meaning which has caused tons of people to over-complicate their training routines and leave out key ingredients like the barbell squat for some nonsense they saw in Men’s Health magazine (no offence please feature me).
Why Functional Fitness Sucks
Every gym has a functional fitness preacher.
He’s usually patrolling the abs area, wearing five finger training shoes and saying “core” every five seconds.
This guy spends the bulk of his gym time interrupting other gym users, telling them they are training incorrectly, or wasting their time with certain exercises because they aren’t functional enough when “training for life”.
Yeah. Training for life.
Even more impressive, perhaps, is that he can say the whole thing without cringing.
You see, at some point functional fitness stopped being about training towards your goal, and started being about trying to deliberately complicate things just because you can. And that’s my problem with it.
Because why squat? When you can do a one-legged hip hinge while balancing on a Swiss ball?
And why perform lying leg curls? Who cares that you want to strengthen your hamstrings or increase the mind/muscle connection… You could be doing single-arm kettlebell swing step ups while wearing a Hulkbuster suit.
What Is Functional Fitness?
An exercise should be deemed functional or non-functional depending upon whether it is useful in achieving your training goal.
So if your training goal is to get stronger then you’d class deadlifts as a very functional exercise.
If your goal is to build more muscular legs then barbell squats would be functional.
If you are a bodybuilder trying to pack on inches to his biceps, then the classic concentration curl is one of the most functional exercises out there.
It has nothing to do with how many bands, balls, or bells you are using in your training – and everything to do with why you’re training.
Concentration curls are a good example here, because isolation exercises such as this are often the first exercises to be classed as “useless” by uneducated trainers.
“You don’t need to train biceps! That’s not going to help you when reaching for the top shelf to grab a tin of beans in everyday life!”
But if your goal is to get bigger biceps, they are literally the best exercise you could be doing. (1)
This was confirmed during a recent study published by ACE, which found that concentration curls, cable curls, and chin ups activate the muscle fibers in the biceps to a greater degree than any other exercises.
Further still, in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, it was discovered that the barbell front squat is among the very best exercises for “engaging the core”, and they’re about as old school as it gets. (2)
No fancy equipment or wobbly balls necessary.
Which brings us to another question; does performing exercises on an unstable surface even make a difference in terms of activating the core?
Researchers from Norway say no, especially if your goal is strength.
During a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, they tracked the muscle activation across the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, external obliques and rectus abdominus (all the key players in the legs and midsection) during barbell squats being performed on a variety of different pieces of equipment:
- a solid floor surface
- a bosu ball
- a power board
- a balance cone
They discovered that strength and muscle activity across all key areas were at their highest when barbell squats were performed on a solid floor surface. (3)
In fact, strength dropped by 10% when performing squats on a power board. Another 20% was lost when doing squats on a bosu ball, and 25% lost on a balance cone.
Like I said, I have nothing against training the muscles of the core (it makes perfect sense), but I take exception to trainers removing key components like the barbell squat or dismissing old classic movements and replacing them with fancier, unnecessary exercises for the sake of being trendy.
And as you can see from the example above, it’s more common than we’d think.
As you can see from the examples above:
- Functional does not mean abs
- Functional does not mean wobbly surface
- Functional does not even mean it mimics something you do in everyday life
So if the “functional fitness guy” at your gym interrupts your next workout to show you the 6 different apps he’s hooked up to, and explain how every exercise is useless unless it requires you to turn into Tarzan and hang from the ceiling, feel free to redirect his attention to my article or my free butthurt report.
I like conflict.
- Young S, Porcari JP, Camic C, Kovacs A, Foster C et al. ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Acefitness.org. 2014.
- Comfort, P., et al. An Electromyographical Comparison Of Trunk Muscle Activity During Isometric Trunk And Dynamic Strengthening Exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2011.
- Saeterbakken, A. H., et al. Muscle Force Output And Electromyographic Activity In Squats With Various Unstable Surfaces. J Strength Cond Res. 2013.