Functional training exploded onto the scene 20 years ago, yet the term is still used to describe just about any training that is not bodybuilding. More troubling, according to Institute of Human Performance (IHP) founder and director Juan Carlos “JC” Santana, is that almost all strength and conditioning coaches now claim to do functional training—but actually finding qualified strength professionals who are well versed in this method of training is difficult.
Santana, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), as well as a member of the NSCA board of directors, points out that the popular training approach is everywhere despite a lack of specific research or clear definitions, not to mention a fair amount of controversy surrounding its methods.
“You can't attend a fitness conference or go to a sport training camp without seeing the functional training revolution,” admits the author of Functional Training, a comprehensive resource for athletes, coaches, and athletic trainers. But what is it about this training method that makes it so effective and popular? Santana says the answers are actually quite simple:
- Little space, little equipment. Nearly any gym features thousands of square feet filled with hundreds of pieces of equipment that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In stark contrast, functional training gyms have ample room with only some basic equipment around the perimeter. “Functional training is about movement, not equipment,” Santana stresses. Therefore, a set of dumbbells, some medicine balls, a few hurdles, some bands, and a few stability balls can allow anyone to turn a room, a parking lot, or an athletic field into a functional training area. The low cost of equipment is another major advantage of functional training. With a few hundred dollars and a duffel bag, a coach can train a single athlete or an entire team anywhere, anytime.
- Little time. Time is as scarce as money these days; everyone has busy schedules filled with responsibilities. Therefore, the ability to train anywhere and at any time allows the athlete and coach to be effective where many cannot. Functional training circuits are extremely effective in keeping an athlete or a team in tip-top shape, especially in season and while traveling. For example, you can take the 15 to 40 minutes spent traveling to and from a training facility and spend it training anywhere. You can perform 15- to 20-minute individual and team workouts in a parking lot, dorm hallway, gymnasium, or hotel room at any time of day or night.
- Strength without size. A great characteristic of neuromuscular adaptation is that you can get stronger without getting bigger or heavier. This is a huge advantage for athletes who are in weight-class sports or sports where weight gain may create a disadvantage. The coordination between muscles and muscle systems also allows the body to spread the load among muscles. This distribution of work creates less stress on any one muscle, reducing the need for a specific muscle to adapt and get bigger. “With functional training, no single muscle screams; instead, the entire body sings,” Santana says. “That is the essence of athleticism.”
- Performance benefits. Considering the benefits of functional training as well as its specificity-driven philosophy, it doesn't take a vivid imagination to figure out its performance benefits. Functional training can focus on and improve any sport skill. The single-leg exercise that addresses locomotion teaches the hamstrings and glutes to extend the hips and stabilize the body, increasing running speed, boosting cutting ability in field sports, and improving single-leg jumping in court sports. The level-change exercises that target jumping and lifting improve two-leg vertical jump height as well as lifting mechanics. The pushing and pulling exercises enhance punching, swimming, and throwing. Finally, the rotational exercises improve swinging, changes of direction, and rotational power generation.
Functional training differs from sport-specific training by focusing on the application of functional strength to a sport skill—such as the coordination of various muscle systems—not necessarily the sport skill itself. At IHP, Santana has helped train hundreds of elite athletes since 2001, including Olympians, NFL players, world-class tennis champions, and MMA fighters. “In essence, functional strength allows an athlete to apply strength to a sport skill,” he concludes. “It's the best and most progressive way to improve athletic performance.”
Featuring a three-tier approach to integrating functional movements into an existing strength program, Functional Training offers strength, endurance, power, and sport-specific programming in easy-to-understand language. It also uses a range of modalities among its 28 programs and 135 exercises, including body weight, bands and pulleys, dumbbells and kettlebells, medicine balls, and stability balls.