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What the h&!! is functional exercise anyway?

In the ever-evolving landscape of fitness and exercise, one term that has gained significant popularity is "functional training." Originally coined to describe exercises that mimic real-life movements, the term has now become a buzzword in the fitness industry. However, the misuse and misinterpretation of this term have led to confusion among fitness enthusiasts, trainers, and even researchers.

The origins of "functional training" can be traced back to the late 20th century when physical therapists and rehabilitation specialists began incorporating exercises that replicated everyday movements into their rehabilitation programs. Over time, this spilled into the mainstream fitness industry, but the lack of an agreed upon definition has allowed it to be interpreted and misinterpreted.

Recent research challenges the idea of "functional training" as a distinct category, suggesting that all strength training is inherently functional. Traditional exercises like squats and deadlifts, often dismissed as generic and “non-functional”, have been shown to yield substantial benefits. Contrary to the belief that a “secret” set of exercises for athleticism or injury reduction exists, studies indicate that focusing on fundamental movements and compound exercises can be MORE beneficial than chasing elusive specialized routines. Consistency beats exoticism.

The idea that certain exercises hold the key to improved athleticism or injury reduction has been debunked by consistently. Why has it prevailed? Marketing. If you want o stand out from the crowd claim to do what no one else does. Evidence be damned. Research shows that foundational strength training, which includes compound movements like squats and deadlifts, contributes significantly to increased sprinting speed and enhanced vertical jump performance. To double down they have also found that isolated strength training like leg extensions confers similar strength and hypertrophy increases as squats, simply in more targeted areas i.e. the distal quad versus proximal quad. The concept of a magic exercise for specific outcomes is not supported by the data.

While research reinforces the impact of strength training on athleticism, it is crucial to recognize that strength alone does not guarantee success on the field. While squats and deadlifts contribute significantly to overall strength and power, athletes must complement their training with on-field or on-court preparation. This is true no matter WHAT you do in the weight room. The demands of each sport are unique, requiring a tailored approach to skill development, agility, and conditioning.

Achieving peak athletic performance necessitates a holistic training regimen that encompasses both general strength and sport-specific skills, acknowledging the synergy between the two. You can’t short cut the process. As studies emphasize the importance of strength in enhancing athletic capabilities, athletes should be mindful that a comprehensive training program goes beyond the weight room, incorporating specific drills and exercises tailored to the demands of their chosen sport.

Moreover, the overarching benefits of getting stronger extend beyond athleticism. Studies reveal a strong correlation between general strength improvements and a reduction in all-cause mortality. The misconception that functional training is the only route to injury prevention is challenged by evidence showing that overall strength gains play a crucial role in minimizing the risk of injuries across various activities and age ranges.

What to make of all this? Know that the term "functional training" has become a catch-all phrase, losing its original context and contributing to misconceptions in the fitness and rehab industry. Research consistently supports the idea that all strength training is inherently functional, debunking the need for exclusive exercises claiming athleticism or injury reduction benefits. It's essential for fitness enthusiasts and professionals to reevaluate their approach, focusing on evidence-based practices that prioritize foundational movements, overall strength gains and sport specific preparation.


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