Just What the Hell is ‘Functional Training’?

 

Today’s guest article comes to us from Will Brink. He’s articulate, seasoned, and highly educated—why he’s choosing to sully up his image with the likes of us is beyond our comprehension. Let’s just get our learning on before he figures that out.

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Will Brink

As anyone not living in a cave the past few years knows, “functional training” is all the rage. On the surface, that’s a good thing. It’s a generally positive trend toward training that’s more functional, applicable, and “real world”. It’s found some acceptance with the military and law enforcement communities, plus the civilian market. Yup, everyone, and his mother has jumped on the “functional fitness/functional training” bandwagon.

That’s all well and fine, but it’s also taken many people away from the importance of training specificity concepts. If you attempt to train for a marathon and a powerlifting meet simultaneously, you’ll likely fair poorly at both come competition day. I don’t think that comes as a shock to most.

That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates a point; one can only push the “functional” thing so far before it’s of little value. What does standing on a balance ball doing pistol squats holding a kettlebell (KB) overhead make you “functional” for? I’ll tell you: it makes you functional for standing on a balance ball doing pistol squats holding a KB overhead, and little else.

But but proprioception!” I hear someone yell. Proprioception is another big buzz term these days, but it’s overused, generally misunderstood, and far less relevant to most people’s training approaches, especially those with specific needs for a specific job (like shooting bad guys in the face, surviving a fight, etc). It’s a buzz term to justify a lot of useless shit and programs, so go argue that one with someone who cares if you think a large portion of training doing goofy shit for improvements in proprioception makes sense.

[Grunts: proprioception]

This brings us back to training specificity. Which is more likely to help you, for example, scale a wall, drag an injured person out of the line of fire, and engage a threat: 1) standing on a balance ball doing pistol squats holding a KB overhead? Or 2) going over a wall, dragging a heavy object a distance, then engaging a target with a specific drill?

The basic rule of training specificity states that to get better at a thing, do that thing repeatedly. “The principle of Specificity implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill. To be a good cyclist, you must cycle. The point to take away is that a runner should train by running and a swimmer should train by swimming.” (1)

To paraphrase Bruce Lee, “I’d rather fight a man who has practiced ten thousand moves once than one move ten thousand times.”

brink_SF

Of course, a program can be too generalized to prepare a person for a specific task or goal. On the other extreme, it’s so specific you’re unable to perform outside a very narrow envelope. Hence, a balance has to be struck and the goals understood with goal-applicable training to follow.

To give credit where it’s due, the military is starting to realize that much of their training and testing may not be “job applicable” to what the modern warfighter will face. It’s also attempting to reduce injury rates, as evidenced by the Marine Corps’ newly-developed Combat Fitness Test (CFT) and the Army finally dumping sit-ups. As you’d expect, tip of the spear trainers and programs tend to be ahead of the curve, always looking to improve job-applicable performance and reduce injury rates by employing modern training science best suited to people who go into harm’s way for a living.

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If the goal is vague and general like “I wanna lose some weight and get stronger”, the training approach will often be as vague and unfocused as the goal. If the goal is more focused, such as “I want to ruck X weight over Y distance in Z time without incurring injuries” or “I want to maintain my strength and muscle mass while improving my endurance”, it allows one to target their training approach with superior results overall.

Finally, a goal of “I want to prepare for the worst as a SWAT cop in a major metro PD” should lead to programming and approaches highly job-specific rather than non-specific. If interested in some additional thoughts and intel on that final topic, Google-Fu my name and “SWAT”, and a number of my articles will appear from various LE pubs.

brink_SWAT

I find a lot of people training opposite of what their actual goals are, or worse, lacking specific goals in the first place. Now, back to the topic at hand on functional training vs. specificity.

No matter what any program claims, you can’t excel at all aspects of performance and fitness simultaneously. At least, you can’t do it without incurring injuries and overtraining syndromes (OTS) at some point. Hence, finding the balance of matching training approaches to goals to reap the best outcomes is essential. As goals change, so does the training approach, so going from more general to more specific is also part of the specificity concepts for training.

Ask yourself, “what is the functional training I’m doing making me functional for?” If you can’t answer that, look for another program or reexamine your goals.

Doing Everything ‘Cuz You’re So Damn Hard Core…

Simply beating the snot out of yourself in some program that has you doing a bunch of unrelated stuff in some attempt to be hardcore badass works great, until it doesn’t. A fairly recent article in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine (JSOM) examined the training-related injury patterns/musculoskeletal injuries from the 5th Special Forces Group came to some useful conclusions.

This study revealed that physical training caused 50% of all injuries. Injuries resulted in ten times the number of profile days (lost work days) as illnesses, with the leading reason for outpatient visits being musculoskeletal disorders.

The authors concluded:

Finally to focus more on prevention, Special Forces Groups should modify unit physical training programs to incorporate the fitness and performance fundamentals used in today’s top athletic programs. Military researchers have shown that modified physical training programs can result in lower injury rates with improvements in physical fitness. Training regimens that emphasize core strength and cross-training would likely increase physical readiness while decreasing the incidence of spine and lower extremity injuries.(2)

The no-shitter here is, training hard and training smart are not always interchangeable concepts. The latter leads to superior performance and reduced injury rates, improved operational readiness with potentially greater operational longevity for professional warriors. It can also help the person looking to lose some fat and get stronger for everyday life and whatever it throws at him.

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The Basic Take Home

Being in good overall condition is a good thing, but overly general programs without a specific focus and end goals often do more harm than good. That “harm” often presents as injuries, OTS, or simply being unable to perform to requirements on a specific task that could save your life.

While the approach ‘back in the day’ may have been overly specific – people spending hours lifting weights but being unable to jog a mile, or marathoners who couldn’t carry a laundry bag up a flight of stairs – the swing to trying to be good at everything at once – “functional training” – is also a potential negative.

 

Take time to narrow your goal(s) and design or find a program that best fits them. They may start out general: “I need to lose some fat and improve my conditioning”, followed by a new goal once that’s achieved, such as “I want to increase my strength in the core lifts while maintaining my conditioning.” Then there’s the always-popular-for-us-dudes-over-40, “I want to have a well-rounded level of fitness without all my shit hurting all the time”, which is a perfectly valid goal that may require a slightly different approach.

1) Principle of Specificity – Definition @ About.com sports med section

2) Clinical Diagnoses in a Special Forces Group: The Musculoskeletal Burden
James H. Lynch, MD, MS and Mark P. Pallis, DO, FAAOS. Journal of Special Operations Medicine (JSOM): Volume 8, Edition 2 / Spring 2008, 76-79

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About the Author

Will Brink is a trainer of high level athletes, police, and military personnel. He’s written for a number of publications such as Muscle Media, brink_author_photoMuscleMag International, Lets Live, Muscle n Fitness, Life Extension magazine, Muscular Development, Townsend Letter for Doctors, IronMan, Inside Karate, Tactical Response, Police Magazine, Exercise for Men Only, Physical, Power, Body International, Oxygen, Fitness RX, Big, and our favorite: Penthouse. Will has the better part of a dozen book titles under his belt, a degree from Harvard, and probably a naked picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger hidden someplace on his person.

You can read more on his work on his webpage Brinkzone, and be sure to hitup his Mil/LEO-centric page OptimalSWAT

7 thoughts on “Just What the Hell is ‘Functional Training’?

  • June 20, 2016 at 10:12 am
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    I just the nah Sayers of CF! I’ll bet money he has never done it! And when I say have done it I mean at least 6 months of it. Not to mention Dave Castro is an ex Navy Seal. Tell him it doesn’t work!

  • April 16, 2016 at 5:13 pm
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    Cool picture of Reeder doing a push press. Now if this article was focused on craft beers I would certainly have a resume of expertise; however, I’ll just comment on what has worked for me.

    I was in patrol car accident 20 years ago, and it took almost another three years before I started having some neck issues. Don’t care much for pills or doctors, but I gave in to a pinched nerve and had a chiropractor get me back up and running. After that I steared away from traditional workouts, and started doing “some” of the crossfit workouts since they were certainly core based and involved a ton of pull-ups. However, when I read a workout that would most certainly mean I would shoot my spine out of my back I would improvise and come up with my own. I thought I had a strong core until I started doing some of the abdominal exercisses out there. Long story short, I’m pretty pain free nowadays and create my own functional workouts if you will.

    There are so many reasons to take care of yourself, and the majority of readers here are LE, military, fire, etc. I’ll never forget my recruit school commander telling the class that the average McDonald’s worker does more physical work in a day than a police officer….and over time I have read about officers that are five years into retirement that die of a massive heart attack. When it comes down to it, I want to have the ability to do my job and help anyone that is in need…not to mention retire someday with a little gas left in the tank. I would like to think I do practical workouts that allow me to be an effective and dependable police officer.

  • April 15, 2016 at 9:05 pm
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    Training? WTF? Just play some COD and Battlefield, the rest will come naturally!

    At least that’s what the mall ninjas say and obviously they’re right, I mean, they’re ninjas for fuck’s sake!

  • April 15, 2016 at 2:05 pm
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    After reading that what I got out of it (and I am paraphrasing here) CF is ridiculous crap. Is that about right?

    Well if I am right, DUH!!!!

    However, this part bugs me:

    “Finally to focus more on prevention, Special Forces Groups should modify unit physical training programs to incorporate the fitness and performance fundamentals used in today’s top athletic programs. Military researchers have shown that modified physical training programs can result in lower injury rates with improvements in physical fitness. Training regimens that emphasize core strength and cross-training would likely increase physical readiness while decreasing the incidence of spine and lower extremity injuries.(2)”

    The researchers can go suck an egg. The fact is Special Forces, Seals and any other elite military personal are trained in that manner to weed out those that can’t cut it. The reason for hell week is if you can handle hell week then you can handle anything you are thrown at when in a real life situation. It’s not as much as about being fit as it is about being prepared for the situations you may face.

    While they need to be fit and strong, they also need to be mentally ready as well as well trained and efficient with everything they have to do. There is more to their training than physical fitness and I know this as someone that was never in the military. It’s just commonsense!

  • April 15, 2016 at 12:12 pm
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    I’m in the over 50 I get up and work what doesn’t fucking hurt too bad that morning at 0400. The mile jog or first round of reps is just to get all the parts back in the right place. Doing what I can with what I got, damn buzzwords and what anyone thinks. I still got a few good fights left in me and I’m gonna make’em count as long as I can. Still got at least 5 till I retire, whatever that is.

    • April 15, 2016 at 3:36 pm
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      “After reading that what I got out of it (and I am paraphrasing here) CF is ridiculous crap. Is that about right?”

      No. I’m not a huge fan of CF, but like MA, CF gyms or “boxes” are not all created equal, and some do a far better job than others in terms of paying attention to exercise form, progression, exercise choice etc. For some people, going to a CF gym with decent instructors, it’s an effective approach to improving overall fitness/strength levels etc. The article was not intended as a wholesale condemnation of CF and one should not read into it as such. It is not however the be all end all of exercise programs, but that’s another story for another day.

      “The researchers can go suck an egg. The fact is Special Forces, Seals and any other elite military personal are trained in that manner to weed out those that can’t cut it. The reason for hell week is if you can handle hell week then you can handle anything you are thrown at when in a real life situation. It’s not as much as about being fit as it is about being prepared for the situations you may face.

      While they need to be fit and strong, they also need to be mentally ready as well as well trained and efficient with everything they have to do. There is more to their training than physical fitness and I know this as someone that was never in the military. It’s just commonsense!”

      I’m unclear how anything the researchers said would be counter to what you’re saying. No one is saying it should be easier just to avoid injuries, and I can say the people at NSW et al are very interested in anything that improves fitness levels, while reducing injury rates, improving readiness, and longevity of their elite warriors . JSOM is specific to that community as are the authors of their published articles/studies.

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