You will have heard the term ‘functional’ being thrown around when trainers, writers and magazines write about the specific movements you should be doing in the gym.
There is a misconception that we should all be doing ‘functional’ movements in order to most benefit our training.
What I mean by functional movements are movements that aid in the function of everyday activities and living in our modern-day society such as sitting up out of bed, moving objects about, doing work in the garden or lifting heavy stuff about at your day job. I don’t think many trainers and experts would disagree with this definition of functional movements or exercises.
So what movements are deemed function movements or exercises traditionally by trainers and a like?
Well typically the big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses and chins which are all multi joint movements.
What makes them functional?
The argument is they use multiple muscles and joints which mimic that of everyday movements and also movement pathways which mimic that of every day movement pathways which in turn provides skill adaption to these specific movements. This seems logical on the face of it doesn’t it? For example one could argue that deadlifting with a barbell will provide carry over strength for picking bags of cement off the floor.
Flaws in this rationale
Firstly I want to point out that movements like deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses and chins are some of the best movements one can do in terms of gaining size, strength, general conditioning and aesthetics and improving your functional ability. They’re big multi joint movements that work numerous muscles at once (giving a bigger bang for your buck), they’re very taxing which provides the overload that the musculature, CNS Aerobic system needs for a positive adaption (i.e.- adapting by being stronger and fitter)
That said any exercise is specific. Just because you can deadlift a big number doesn’t mean that the deadlift specifically means you’re more ‘functional’. Yes it means you will have more carry over general strengths for other everyday tasks but who is to say that the same strength cannot be gained using other movements like Leg press, Lat pulls, machine rows etc. The carry over residual strength increases from ANY gym related movement will help you be more functional in everyday life.
Another analogy of this is cycling and running. Although a good runner will develop the muscles of the quads, hamstrings and calves and also work the aerobic system it is arguable that this will transfer to anything outside of running. To become specifically better at running one must run and acquire the skill and physical adaptions that are specific to running alone.
Who needs superman?
Not to blow too much smoke up my own ass here but I’m a reasonably strong guy I can deadlift more than 200kg, squat 160kg and bench 110kg. Does this make me more ‘function’- I doubt it, strength helps to a certain extent and being able pull my own body weight up vertically and horizontally is useful.
However, how useful are my strengths gained in the gym in real life? They’re arguably useless. There might be an occasion when I need to lift a car off somebody but it is not likely. Never have I had a tree fall on me that is positioned on my chest while I’m on my back and I’ve thought to myself “so glad I can bench press some good numbers or I’d be screwed here”. Same goes for lifting everyday objects off of the floor, it is not the same movement as a barbell deadlift really and in all honesty most everyday objects do not weigh 200kg nor would you even attempt to lift such an object of this weight.
The only thing I’ve really gained is friends and family asking me to help with moving furniture and washing machines.
Can function exercises can be dangerous?
I’ll start by saying that if you correctly execute these movements in a slow controlled and safe manner without putting your body in compromising positions then there are no safety issues so carry on.
That being said I regularly see terrible form in these movements in the gym. If you can’t do the exercise in good form, see a PT to correct your form or find an alternative movement. Is it really worth potentially causing a chronic long-term injury for the sake of obeying the “thou shall do squats” commandment? Not really considering most people’s goals are health a vanity related. If you cannot squat with decent form, have a condition that makes squatting painful or have such poor biomechanics which means poor form then don’t do it, use the leg press instead it is no big deal and you’ll still improve muscle mass, strength and conditioning which will make you more functional, with the added benefit that you increase your training longevity. Of course these thing will carry over to everyday movements.
Do deadlifts, squats and benches they’re great movements. But don’t get hung up on doing them or calling them functional and realize any strength increase in the gym in ANY exercise will help you become more functional in everyday life. Also appreciate that all exercise is specific. Do what you can safely and enjoy the most.