First off, the two trainers above should be banned from training anyone ever again. One of the biggest buzz words in fitness in the past 5 years has been “functional training.” Often when something spreads fast, it loses much of its context in the process. Functional training can be properly defined as using exercises that simulate specific movements used in sports or activities. The term “functional training” and its popularity is relatively new, but the concept is not. What is new is the charade of new exercises and equipment being marketed as being superior or beneficial because of their “functional” manner. The truth is, few exercises worth doing are directly similar to movements in sports or daily activities unless you are a weightlifter or gymnast. The real fact is that the most effective exercises for improving performance are those that strengthen the prime movers needed to perform the sport or activity. For the sake of this article, when I refer to functional training, I am referring to how it is advertised in a commercial sense. This refers to exercises where you are basically doing multiple things at a time, or with a rope, balance devices like bosu balls, functional training machines, exercises on one foot, kettle-bell, TRX, and the new MMA style training systems.
So why is there a new idea in fitness to promote exercises and equipment that is inferior and usually more injury prone than traditional strength exercises that have been proven effective in research and years of training? The answer; cost effectiveness. Very few new innovations have been made in the realm of new exercises and equipment in fitness compared to the number of products and gimmick programs released each year. The truth about the fitness industry is that there are more things that don’t work than things that do. However, as consumers, we only have ourselves to blame. Everyone wants the magic fix, and they want it cheap and easy. The demand for low cost false promises far exceeds the demand for proper nutrition and consistent exercise.
If you were to look at the history of fitness clubs, you will see a consistent trend. The very first pieces of equipment to show up in gyms were very science based, rugged, and bulky machines and weights that would resemble what we now see in sport training facilities. Science is being replaced by fancy designs and flash marketing. If you look at today’s fitness marketing, you won’t find anyone advertising quality barbells, or machines with ergonomically and scientifically correct force curve. No, instead you will find DVDs, cheaply constructed ab machines, the newest fad aerobics or yoga class, and of course “functional training”. The one thing they all have in common is thqt they are cheap and easy. Any box gym based on using only functional training equipment likely costs less to open than the set of dumbbells at your local gym. This makes it a very attractive option over a gym filled with weights and machines that take up space and are an expensive investment. If you are lucky enough to join a full service gym with machines and weights, more than likely the quality and function would not stand up to its predecessors because the price difference between quality and generic in fitness equipment is astronomical. We are talking comparing Hondas to Ferraris here.
I’m not here to say that all functional training exercises are bad, but you get what you pay for. In other words, it’s better than aerobic training or no exercise at all. That being said, a person can exercise hard enough to vomit with nothing but a floor to stand on, but that does not mean it’s a good workout. A proper exercise program needs to be designed for a person’s structural strengths, weaknesses, and imbalances. Using exercises commercially considered “functional” when there is an imbalance in in strength or flexibility are often unsuited for re-establishing the correct balance. In some cases it can lead to further injury by promoting improper movement patterns.
If one of your tires is 10 PSI low, you don’t add an additional 10 PSI to each tire, you only add air to the low tire. This is just one area where isolating muscles is very beneficial compared to “functional training”. Many of these exercises deemed functional are also far inferior when it comes to improving strength and performance in their respective sport or activity. In a gym setting, often times exercises using large movements are referred to as functional because they require stabilization or incorporate core muscle activation. While these exercises use more muscles, they actually use fewer fibers of those muscles than traditional strength exercises. So if we compare a standard barbell squat which is a real functional exercise for many sports and activities to say a one leg squat hanging from a TRX. Both exercises use the entire muscular chain of the hip and knee extensors. The TRX exercise however in its “functionality” is limited by your ability to stabilize the hip and knee joint and balance your body. Basically you can’t exert the large quads, gluteus, and hamstrings beyond what the stabilizers can maintain. This is like taking a truck that can pull a 10 ton payload, but only installing a hitch that will support 500 lbs… The truck can now only tow 5% of its capacity, because it’s limited by the hitch, in the same way your quads and glutes are limited by your balance and stabilizer muscles. Another setback is the supported movement of the TRX actually takes away from the proper function of the core muscles which normally support the torso in a squatting movement. Another example would be a chest press using a functional trainer cable machine vs. using a standard dumbbell or barbell bench press. The latter would recruit a much larger percentage of the muscle fibers of the pectoral muscles, which would elicit a greater training response. In my personal experience, the weight of a dumbbell I can use in this exercise is about double that of what I could do using a pulley while standing simply because I can not stabilize my body at the resistance required. If you want to get technical, the full squat is known to correct 17 points of knee stability. The TRX squat has not been proven to correct any.
Using tools like the functional trainer and stability training in which many muscles are required while performing the exercises can be used successfully with de-conditioned or beginning exercisers. This is because they are so weak and their nervous system is so poor at activating their muscles, even this limited activation recruits enough fibers to elicit them to be stronger. After a period of 2-6 weeks though, traditional strength training methods should be used for optimal results. There is a false sense of getting stronger in these “functional” exercises simply because people get better at performing them. They are learning a skill in this sense, which in no way dictates changes in body composition or true strength. Functional training systems are not marketed because they are an improvement, but rather because they’re something new to sell and cheap to start. As with most things, you get what you pay for.