Functional training helps the client function optimally for their work, daily life, sport, or recreational activities. Functional training addresses the client’s weaknesses and helps them regain their function so they can resume daily activities.
It is often tempting for personal trainers to get creative with functional training, and add an entertainment component to the program. However, it is important to keep the client’s goals – as well as reality – in mind when designing and implementing a functional training program. Functional training is not supposed to prepare clients to perform in circus acts; it is supposed to help improve the quality of life they lead.
Improving strength is basic to all functional training programs. Start by addressing muscular imbalances. One of the best ways to fix muscular imbalance is to perform unilateral exercises.
Unilateral training helps the weaker side recruit muscle fibers on it’s own, without compensation and unnecessary muscle recruitment from the stronger side. Unilateral training also increases neurological drive to the working side.
For example, split squats and step-ups are unilateral exercises that help strengthen the lower body. The central nervous system (CNS) has only so much neurological drive – also called neural drive – that it can devote to a given task. By requiring the body to perform single leg training, one allows the CNS to devote a greater amount of neural drive to each leg.
Sometimes, a simple exercise – such as standing on one leg – can be challenging. You may be strong, but have problems with balance if you don’t have proper body awareness or proprioception (sense of your body position in the space it occupies).
Try standing on one leg. If that is no problem, try standing on one leg with your eyes closed. It is important to incorporate some type of balance training into your workouts to keep your brain sharp, as well as your body. Other simple exercises to help your balance are single leg squats, single leg deadlifts, step-ups, and split squats on a stability disc.
Coordination occurs when different components of your body function together to achieve a specific goal. In order to catch a ball, for instance, your brain sends a signal to your body to react. Almost any activity that you engage in requires coordination. It is a huge component of functional training. Jumping rope, swimming, riding a bike, and running all require coordination.
Reactive training exercises, such as ball throwing and catching, plyometric jumps, and other sports-specific type exercises help improve coordination. These exercises are all part of the functional training paradigm.
What about tight muscles? It is important to improve the range of motion of tight muscles. Strength training exercises that take the joint through its full range of motion are optimal for improved flexibility.
For example, when performing a shoulder press or chest press, make sure you complete the eccentric portion of the movement by coming down to a full stretch. And finish the concentric part of the movement by completing the shoulder extension short of locking the elbow. Do not perform half-reps.
Stretching the muscles is important to stay limber, but it is more important to be able to move optimally and through the full range of motion of your joints.
NYC Personal Trainer / Strength Coach
Bindu Nambiar is a strength coach and personal trainer at Physiqology Inc., a New York City based personal training company. Bindu specializes in injury rehab, strength training for sport, flexibility, and mobility training.