Are You Getting Functional Training All Wrong?

“Functional training is only functional when your body is functioning well.”
Dr. Andreo Spina

Ah, functional training, one of the many great fitness buzzwords. Remember when being functional was synonymous with arm curls on a Bosu ball and back squatting on Swiss ball. Yep, we used to call it functional. Luckily things have moved on and most folks now understand that stuff that’s great for circus and Instagram isn’t always the stuff that actually serves a purpose in real life.

Unless that purpose is Instagram, or circus.

To me the word functional is all about training to get better at a certain task. While also training using movements that the human body is meant to do. Stuff like crawling, climbing, sprinting, squatting, jumping, throwing Molotov cocktails…

But it’s only functional as long as your body can safely do those things.

What is the issue of diving into functional training?

People jump into these activities without having any of the required prerequisites for them. “But bro, the body is meant to do them, it’ll adapt.” Well, yes and no.

It’s true that your body was meant to do all those things, and if you look at kid who is yet to fall a victim of the wicked ways of our modern society, they can do all of that, except perhaps the Molotov cocktails (unless their parents are somewhat free-spirited).

But you are not a 12-year-old kid. And just because you used to be able to do functional movements when you were 12 doesn’t mean that you can do them now without certain limitations.

Because you know what happened between when you were 12 and today? Life kicked you in the ribs. Hard. Your body isn’t meant to be used to sit eight or more hours a day staring at flashing lights on your computer screen. I hate bursting anyone’s bubbles, but you’ve regressed since your youthful self. And the less attention you’ve given to your body the last 20+ years, the less likely it is that you can just jump into one of the cool and fashionable “primal movements”.

So, yes, your body will adapt. But instead of just adapting by getting all functional and primal, it will adapt by compensating where necessary to just keep you moving.

And compensation doesn’t mean “I will become Spiderman.” I’ll admit, in the past I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone.

How to make your functional training more functional

Let’s start with your joints. Before you can put your body through some complicated movements, you need to have your joints functioning well enough to get into those positions.

Let’s use an example that is all the craze in gyms today: handstands. To me this seems to be the new “let’s squat on a Swiss ball”. Why everyone thinks this is the coolest thing since picked and peeled and sliced and repackage and sealed and frozen banana is beyond me.

But, alas, handstand still wins a fistfight over squatting on Swiss balls, so let’s see what your joints are required to do for a solid handstand so looking cool doesn’t make your body hate life.

The ranges of motion you need to safely do a handstand

In handstand most of your weight is sitting on your wrists, elbows and shoulders and scapula. For the sake of keeping this article somewhat on the shorter side, let’s leave out all the other parts (thoracic spine, rib cage position, fingers, etc.) that work too. Because, internet attention span.

What you need is not only mobility, but also controlled mobility to safely get to a handstand. To keep it simple:

Shoulder: 180 degrees of flexion, of which 60 degrees comes from scapula upward rotation. 
Try it: standing with you back against a wall, can you bring your arms overhead next to your ears without arching your back or shrugging your shoulders?

Elbow: a full elbow extension. 
Try
 it: repeat the above shoulder extension test. Are your elbows staying straight as you reach overhead?

Wrist: a minimum of 90 degrees of extension. Probably more.
Try it: again, repeat the above two steps. After reaching your arms overhead can you bring your palms horizontal i.e perpendicular with the ground? To illustrate this, can you hold a tennis ball (or any round object resembling a ball) on your palm without it rolling in any direction?

Did you pass the range of motion tests?

Yes? Well hello there Peter Parker. That means that those three joints can get into the position for a handstand. But that doesn’t mean that they are yet strong enough to take the load of your full body weight. Also, don’t forget your thoracic spine, rib cage, fingers… As you can see there are a lot of moving pieces to a movement that looks relatively straight forward.

No? Before you start swing your body against a wall, stop! Work on improving the control of those joints. Why? Because what do you think will happen when you swing your body up against a wall and force your non-functional joints to take all your weight? Perhaps nothing in the beginning, but keep doing it and over time your body will let you know about it one way or another. And no, compensations still doesn’t mean becoming Spiderman. Not even if you compensate in latex.

How to improve how your joints move

As mentioned, you need to not only improve the flexibility of the joint but also the control you have over that flexibility. And just because your wrists are strong with hands dangling on your sides doesn’t mean they are strong with your hands overhead. Strength is position specific.

The best ways to start this process are controlled articular rotations and isometric contractions. You can click on the links and find detailed guides on how to get started on both.

Handstand is just an extreme example. There are more common movements that still require fully functioning joints: push ups require 90 degree of wrist extension. With crawling you probably need even more.

Finally, how much of controlled mobility do you really need

This starts with it depends. The answer depends on the activities you do and the goals you have. From an athletic point of view a powerlifter needs way less controlled mobility than a ballet dancer needs. Sure, powerlifter has to be extremely strong in the movements they need, but the ranges are not excessive. In contrast, a ballet dancer needs to get into all kinds of weird and funky positions. So, it depends. 

For those of you who train for a general goals of feeling great and looking like Batman (because Spiderman is lame) think of what exercises you practice during your training and what level of movement allows you to live a fulfilling life.

And as you get older keep in mind that if you don’t use it you will lose it. I am notorious, sometimes to my detriment, for looking at the super-un-sexy bigger picture: how do you want to feel, move and look on your 80th birthday?

I’ll answer this one for you: great.

Earn the right to be Spiderman. (But really, you probably want to be Batman).

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