Tyler Robbins Fitness

B.Sc. Biochemistry, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified CrossFit Trainer (CCFT/CF-L3), USA Weightlifting Level 1

What is "functional?"

Wow, what a topic to discuss. If you are here, please hear me out and read the whole blog.

I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. I'm not sure if it's because I am now into my thirties, because I have kids, because I have been pretty heavily involved in the healthcare/health and fitness industry for some time, or some sort of combination of all of the above, but I can't help but think about the meaning of the term "functional."

In the health and fitness industry, this term gets thrown around quite a bit. I have my own thoughts about what the term should mean, which I will discuss. What finally inspired me to write this was coming across Tom Purvis' latest video (posted below). I have a lot of respect for Tom, I have watched all of his videos and generally appreciate most, if not all, of what he has to say.

So what does "functional" mean?

In my opinion, functional, or in other words - functional training, is the ability for one to train in order to improve the quality of their life.

That's it.

I thought about adding to that statement, with additional caveats that relate to athletic performance, or injury prevention, etc. but to be honest, I think improving the quality of one's life is the most important. Not only that, but I will argue that improving the quality of your life is directly related to the goals and aspirations that you have.

Are you a basketball player? Sure, this is how you should train. Are you a CrossFitter? Sure, this is how you should train. Are you a sedentary individual who has been told to increase the level of activity that you partake in in order to reduce your risk of disease or death? Sure, this is how you train.

Now, this is not an argument against one form of training or another. I am a huge proponent of big, compound functional movements (there's that word again) in order to improve the quality of life. In fact, I believe that at its core, training for every day life versus training to be a top-level athlete is differentiated not by movement patterns, but by levels of intensity.

Let's just go back quick and make a quick aside over what I mean by functional movements. These are movements that most people either do, or should be doing in every day life in order to move and feel better. Deadlifting (picking something up and putting it back down), squatting (getting off the floor/chair/toilet), pressing (getting off the floor), pulling, core training (midline stability), etc. Again, I have no problems with a 90 year-old grandma and a 20 year old football player both squatting and deadlifting. The differences between their training differs by intensity, not exercise selection. Functional movements should be used in functional training.

Our bodies move in certain ways. We train them to be better at life or we train them a lot more than that to perform a certain set of skills or movements as optimally as possible (athletics).

The problem is, and this is what Tom discusses in his video (make sure you watch the whole thing), is that too many individuals blur the lines between health and sport. For readers of my blog, you know that I have been quite critical of CrossFit in the past. I had an opportunity to take over the CrossFit Combine program here at the Athlete Institute in May 2015 and although there were aspects of CrossFit that I wasn't entirely enthralled with, I saw it as an opportunity to run the program as I saw fit.

In fact, in reading and trying to understand CrossFit as deeply as I could, I have learned that the true intention of CrossFit when it began was just that - to improve the health and quality of life for its participants. The conundrum for CrossFit heading forward however, at least in my opinion, is that they need to attract participants to their style of training for improved health rather than distancing themselves further and further from the top level athletes that have unfathomable skills and levels of fitness.

I have no problems with an individual coming to me and asking for me to help them train for *insert sport here*, whether that be hockey, soccer, basketball, football, tennis, CrossFit, etc. I have the knowledge and skills available to take an athlete to the level of athleticism that they seek.

Having said that, there is also an entire other realm of training here, and one area that is much larger and more important, in my opinion. That relates to regular folks looking to improve their level of fitness. Dads that want to be in shape to not get winded playing with their kids. Men and women that work physically demanding jobs that require a level of fitness for personal safety. Former athletes with previous injuries looking to reclaim some of their athleticism, pain-free. Although I use many of the same tools to train the athletes and regular folks alike, there needs to be an appreciation for the fact that some things just don't need to be done by regular folks.

To summarize, I think this discussion can be broken down into 3 main topics.

  1. What is training?

    As Tom points out in the video, there are 2 main goals or outcomes when it comes to the purpose of training or as it should probably be called in most situations - exercise.

    When an individual is just getting started on the path to get themselves healthier, sure, movement is movement and getting active is the first step. However, that period doesn't last long, and the focus should shift from exercising just for the sake of moving, and training to make you more functional.

    Usually, a good indicator of whether or not you are training vs. if you are just exercising is whether you have short and long term goals, and a plan in place to help you reach those goals. Again, let me reiterate that I don't have a problem with exercise, but individuals tend to have a very specific reason (i.e. goal) for physical activity, so someone like myself can help you put the gears in motion to reach said goal - making it, at least in my opinion, superior to just exercising.
  2. Why exercise if its not for a sport?

    This is a cloudy area for many, especially an area that I see the most difficulty with in situations like CrossFit.

    Quantifying your fitness can be an extremely effective tool to induce intensity and growth. Whether it be breaking through personal bests and plateaus, or competing with friends or colleagues to best a score in a workout.

    Having said that, many end up being stuck in the endless pursuit of being better than others rather than improving themselves, which can lead to a slippery slope of only focusing on besting others rather than focusing on the true nature of fitness, which is to better yourself, making yourself more functional.

    There is almost an endless list of benefits gained from physical activity, or training, but these benefits come from focusing on very specific indicators and movement patterns, many of which can get lost in the constant desire to beat a score or clock.
  3. Should you sacrifice your body for a goal?

    I hope that by this point I have made things perfectly clear and have explained that I have absolutely no problems with individuals training for sport. In fact, it is one of the greatest human endeavours - to challenge ourselves against others in a controlled setting.

    That seems to be the defining line, however, between being a top-level athlete and someone who trains for life. Athletes push themselves to their physical limitations, sometimes even beyond that! It is not uncommon to see a professional athlete go through major surgery or surgeries in the course of their careers, all because they have pushed their bodies to be at their absolute best.

    That is the line that needs to be decided on whether or not to cross for most individuals. Yes, training for life should be rigorous and intense. How else do you adapt and be well prepared for the rigours of life? But choices need to be made when training about whether or not pushing beyond your personal limits are necessary or even warranted.

    We are constantly bombarded with the messages and quotes akin to "no pain, no gain" and "glory lasts forever" and although that may be true for athletes competing at a high level who value competition more than anything else in this world, remember that we are all human and have lives to live. In the grand scheme of things, nobody really cares how much weight you can lift. You are an individual with a very specific set of circumstances that lead you to being in the position you are in now.