Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Functional Training by Dan Kehlenbach

As resistance training becomes more accepted by endurance athletes, coaches and conditioning specialists are seeking dynamic training programs to prescribe to their athletes. Functional training can provide a unique challenge that benefits all aspects of athletic performance as well as offering an enjoyable supplement to traditional resistance training.

Functional training is defined as "training for a specific purpose or duty" by Juan Santana, one of the most respected strength and conditioning specialists. The concept of function varies from activity to activity and from individual to individual, thus encompassing a wide spectrum of activities. What is functional for one group of individuals may not be functional for others. For example, training strategies for strength and power sports may not be functional for endurance athletes, and the training program for an elite cyclist will not be functional for the beginning rider.

Functional training should address the unique concerns that face all ultraendurance athletes:

-Potential for overuse injuries due to the training volume necessary for success
-Strength and flexibility imbalances
-Inevitable neuromuscular fatigue that can hamper the performance of virtually every athlete. --Core strength weaknesses that diminish the efficient force production between the upper and lower extremities.

Functional training programs and exercises should involve integrated activities that demand balance and coordination to enhance proprioception (joint awareness). The methods and equipment used for these dynamic exercises hold several advantages over traditional or machine-based resistance training. First, these activities require that the athlete create his or her own stability necessary for the exercise rather that relying on a machine or bench to provide the stability. The table below illustrates the difference between the single leg squat and leg press exercise.

Leg Press -------------------------Single leg squat
Supine (lying back) -----------------Standing
No stabilization/balance required ---Substantial balance/stabilization required
Bilateral (two-leg) ------------------Unilateral (one-leg)
Non sports specific position ---------Sports specific positioning

Comparing the two exercises it is easy to explain why many athletes can leg press far greater than their body weight but may lack the functional strength and stability to perform a single leg squat.

Using tools to enhance balance and stability recruits often-neglected stabilizer muscles, which may result in fewer overuse-type injuries. This concept is referred to as prehabilitation - realizing that a potential for injury exists and the specific prevention strategies implemented to prevent such occurrences.

Another advantage over traditional resistance training is that these training tools are very affordable and portable. Equipping a home gym with machines similar to a health and fitness center would cost thousands of dollars not to mention the extraordinary space requirements, yet for a few hundred dollars any spare room or garage can be set up to perform hundreds of exercises with just a few pieces of equipment. The portability of this equipment allows the traveling athlete to continue workouts, or allows several athletes to get together in a club or team approach and perform exercises together.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of functional training is simply the enjoyment. Many of these exercises bring back the elements of fun, play and experimentation, which is something that most of have forgotten over the years. Remember how much fun exercise was growing up? Using stability balls, medicine balls, bands, and balance boards is fun.... or FUNctional!!

Functional Training Toys
There are many tools and toys that can be incorporated into a functional training program. Here is a sample listing of some popular functional training modalities:

Bodyweight: A fundamental element to functional training is for the athlete to develop control over one's body before attempting to externally load an exercise or movement. Using body weight exercises forces the athlete to focus on balance and dynamic stabilization during the movement. Examples of excellent bodyweight exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, dips, squats, lunges, split squats, step-ups, and bridges (explained later). Best of all, no equipment is required and these exercises can be performed virtually anytime and anywhere.

Medicine Balls: These training tools are making a comeback in the gym. While leather balls are still popular, today's medicine balls are weighted rubberized balls that can be gripped easily and thrown against a wall or to a partner. Medicine balls are available in many sizes and weights ranging from 2-30 pounds allowing many dynamic core exercises to be performed.

Stability Balls: The stability ball (SB) is one of the most versatile functional training tools on the market. Resembling a large beach ball, stability balls allow the athlete to perform hundreds of exercises that can improve balance and core strength. Since the ball is unstable, stabilizer muscles are constantly recruited to prevent the athlete from falling off the ball!

The SB can change the dynamics of even the simplest of exercises. For example, performing an overhead press on a traditional bench is a common exercise for shoulder development. Performing the same exercise seated on a SB forces the athlete to focus on proper posture (since there is no back support on the ball) and negotiate the balance demand of performing the exercise on an unstable surface.

One word of caution: avoid purchasing a SB at a department store. These balls do not stand up to the rigors of repeated use even in the home setting. This is especially true when using external loads such as dumbbells or medicine balls. For safety's sake, it is worth the extra few dollars to purchase a ball specifically designed for commercial settings.

Steps/Boxes: Steps of various heights can be used to increase the difficulty of lunges, split squats, step-ups, push-ups and other exercises. As an example, elevating the trailing foot in a split squat increases the intensity of the exercise as well as providing an additional balance and flexibility challenge. Many steps for aerobics are adjustable in height (usually 4-8 inches) and are ideal for home use.

Bands/Tubing: Rubberized tubing is an excellent tool for all aspects of resistance training. One unique feature of bands and tubing is that the resistance can be geared towards different vectors. Gravity is always dominating a free weight exercise - it always exerts a downward force. With bands, exercises can be set up so the resistance originates from different regions. For example, to modify the lunge, a band can be placed around the waist and anchored in different locations. The resistance can come from the side, the front, or the back and adds an additional balance, stability and strength demand to the lunge exercise. Another benefit of bands is that they are very portable and can be used anywhere, which is especially helpful when traveling.

Balance boards: Balance boards are excellent tools for training both static and dynamic balance. Simply standing on these boards presents a unique challenge and can be enhanced by performing different exercises while on the board (explained later).

Three excellent sources for equipment are:
Ball Dynamics
Perform Better
Power Systems

Program Integration
With the popularity of functional training, there is no reason to abandon traditional resistance training. Functional training and traditional training can provide an enjoyable supplement to one another. Many health clubs have stability balls, medicine balls and other equipment available to provide integration between the two strategies of training. Every training method is a tool and has its purpose, whether that is machines, barbells, dumbbells, bands, tubing, stability balls, or medicine balls. Every tool has a specific purpose, and the bigger your toolbox, the more options you have with program design.

Remember - there is no one correct way to strength train. If you ask 20 different gourmet chefs to prepare their favorite chicken dishes chances are that all the methods to prepare the chicken will be different, but they will all taste good. The best program is the one that the individual finds enjoyable and doable. So, keep your training fun, or better yet, keep it FUNctional!

Sample Exercises: illustrated

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