Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Functional fitness is the foundation of all successful athletic training plans. If you want to reach your goals, whether that is getting stronger, making your life easier, competing in Crossfit, or some other sport, you need to ensure your training meets three essential criteria:
- Incorporates movements, intensities, and capacities that replicate the activities of your sport, for your goals, and for your daily life
- Consistent, methodical, adaptable, and progressive training plan that spans across weeks, months, and years.
- Consistent and tracked recovery times per muscle movement and your Central Nervous System
The importance of targeted training cannot be overstated. And, chances are, you’ve heard of this.
It can also be called functional fitness.
Ring any bells?
Functional fitness is really just the revamped principle of sport-specific training that has been known for many decades in the athletic community.
Any type of training only trains you in the exact movements that you do and in that specific capacity.
There is some bleed-over, but by and large, the movement you do in the gym are the movements you are getting better at.
Because of this, if you train for a specific activity in your life, you need to ensure your training is targeting those activities.
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The Growing Trend Of Functional Fitness
There is this growing trend of “functional fitness”. Which, as we talked about above, is exactly what fitness should be; targeted functional fitness designed to make you better at performing the activities you do in your life.
But, unfortunately, this term has been skewed to mean any type of high-intensity interval training that has more dynamic movement than a weight machine or barbell curl.
This misunderstanding is dangerous for several reasons.
One, because no workout singularly makes you better. It’s the conglomeration of workouts that make up your training plan that makes you better.
Two, because it leaves you wide open for injury. Partially due to the lack of building the necessary biomechanical efficiencies necessary for heavier weights, butalso, it’s the lack of training the assisting muscles (as opposed to the primary muscle performing the movement) in that specific capacity that are needed to support a specific movement.
All in all, this idea of functional fitness being anything that leaves you gasping for breath and has a random assortment of equipment, leaves you in an area of stagnation, slowed growth, and injury.
That’s not to say you will not accomplish anything. You will still be burning more calories (though less than cardio), you will still be exercising your heart, moving your body, and you will still have growth in areas that you do train (first 3-6 months). The problem is, the bodies adapt to specific challenges and needs.
So, if you are not planning out and targeting your specific functional needs, you are not practicing or reaping the benefits of functional fitness.
It’s time we bring back the real meaning of functional fitness. The term functional fitness directly relates itself to targeted training, not this generalized, encompass all training plan that it has become common in today’s growing fitness community.
Before the cult gets me, this is not a knock on Crossfit.
Crossfit is great for what it is. A sport.
Any sport will get you in shape to a certain extent, but there is a reason why every sport has strength and conditioning in addition to the sport.
Just like most sports, Crossfit gets people in shape in a social environment.
And, because it builds up your aerobic and anaerobic capacity and does cover a large range of movements, it does help you live your everyday life more healthy.
But despite all of this, it is still not targeted “functional fitness”.
Unless you have a gym that trains to specific goals, it might not even make you that much better as Crossfit.
Are We Just Splitting Hairs?
This distinction is important because it detracts from people’s ability to excel at what they do in their lives.
The average person does not need to spend the time and or invite themselves to risk of injury by performing a Snatch.
The average person does not need to learn how to Double-Under or learn the tricks of how to perform better on a row machine, or how to use kettlebells.
It’s not to say these are bad to do. I love to do these exercises and do these quite often in my training, but it’s with the understanding of why.
They’re fun, I like to be able to compare (and brag) about my performance, and they are also tools that can be used to accomplish specific tasks. Like, the Turkish get-up with a kettlebell for building back shoulder stability.
The problem is, for a lot of people, not only are they not fun and they are not needed to accomplish their goals.
But, they are sucked into spending time on these tasks by a training plan they stole from the web, they took from some well-intentioned but ignorant trainer, or told to by the gym they belong to.
This not only risks injury in some of these high-risk activities, but it sacrifices your time that could be being used to accomplish your goals.
Sport Specific Training Is Right Training
Few people go to the gym and say “I just want to be better”.
Typically it’s, “I want to lose weight”, “I want to get faster”, “I want to look stronger”, “I want to build muscle”, or “I’m training for X, Y, Z”.
What people don’t realize, is that this is functional training.
This is training for what you actually want to do in your life, for a specific reason, hence functional.
This concept is what has been being preached in the lifting community for literally decades under the guise of sport-specific training.
If you want to build muscle, why are you spending time learning how to do handstands when you could be focusing on Pressing?
If you want to sprint faster, why are you spending so much learning to Clean?
You should be out sprinting first and foremost and then maybe incorporating Power Cleans to assist.
Functional Fitness is Targeted fitness, but it needs to be targeted at the functionality of your life
If you are a parent of five and want to better carry your kids all day while chasing after a couple of them on the soccer field, it might be worth your time to practice farmers’ carries and Squats while leaving the Snatches, rope climbs, and Double-Unders at home.
But, if you hate the idea of Squats and are terrified to get under the bar, while my athletes may hear this as a shock, it’s not required.
It’s just the best tool for the task.
Lunges, leg presses, and deadlifts while not as ideal can cover your gaps while still maintaining functionaility.
If you are a roofer and you want to make it easier to climb up a ladder carrying shingles, lunges, squats, deadlifts sound great to include, but sprinting is not something that’s part of your goals.
The key here is finding out exactly what movements you need and want to get better at in your life and train to that and not change it for an extended length of time.
Functional Training Does Not Mean Replicative Training
Here is what this does not mean. It does not mean replicating the exact motion. You need to target muscle use for carryover.
Baseball is a prime example of this. For years baseball has been trying to find ways to make their batters swing harder. One of their solutions was to start using weighted bats in practice and warmup.
Interestingly enough, this made the batters swing slower. Because their body was trying to accommodate for a heavier weight. This was proven by Coop DeRenne, a physical-education professor at the University of Hawaii and again at the California State University, Fullerton.
They could show that when batters practiced with heavier bats their swings got slower by a proportionate amount with the velocity of the swing being reduced by as much as 30% once the weight was removed.
But here is the thing, baseball is not the only sport to have recognized this. Repeatedly it’s shown that if the movement is too similar but still different it makes the body perform worse.
This can be attributed to several factors to include wrong muscle type recruitment and incorrect pattern learning, but regardless it’s a lesson to be learned.
The solution across the board has become to practice the actual action (like swinging a normal bat) for pattern learning and then training muscle movements with strong carry over like presses, deadlifts, bench, and squats.
So, in your search for a sport-specific functional training plan, think about carryover, not replication.
Parting Words for Those That Crossfit
If you are into Crossfit, there is nothing wrong with that, and I would encourage anyone to try it, to see what is it about, and to learn the numerous lessons it does have to teach, like anaerobic thresholds, teaching people that all people can find improvement, and teaching tat workouts can be made fun, social, and competitive.
But, just like outside the Crossfit community, all gyms and all coaches are not created equal. Make sure you get your money’s worth, ask your coach what their specific goals are. See if they have macrocycles, periodization across the year. Check to see what the background of your coach is in terms of training, hopefully it’s more than a level 1 certification and preferably outside CrossFit experience.
Also, if you want to get good a Crossfit, if your coach isn’t placing strength as a foundation of your training, he’s doing it wrong.
As Pavel states, strength is the foundation of all fitness. And, if you don’t want to listen to some of the greatest coaches of all time, look no farther then Eddie Hall, the world’s strongest man doing CrossFit for the first time and breaking world records. Or, look at any competitive Crossfit gym or a program like “Crossfit Black Box” and see that they train strength first with a very conventional strength program built-in. Or, experiment for yourself. I promise that if you took a break from Crossfit and trained just strength and kept up your cardio, you will improve drastically at your sport.
All in all, just because someone has a title, doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. Take some responsibility for your health.
You Can’t Be Good At Everything
While it would be nice to be better at all of these things, we have relatively limited time in our lives. So, if you are in the gym for any other reason besides “fun and being active”. It might be time to take out the less ideal exercises that don’t pertain to your life. And, it might be time to cater to your training to how you live. You will find that often your specific goals bleed over into the rest of your life. But, while you gain those benefits, you will also reach your actual goals much faster with your sport-specific training.