5 Fallacies of Functional Training
USA’s CJ Cummings is a junior world champion and junior world record holder. In 2014 when he was just 14 years old, CJ clean and jerked a senior American record of 337 pounds at a bodyweight of 137 pounds. He currently holds the junior world record of 425 pounds at a bodyweight of 153 pounds. Photo by Tim Scott @liftinglife.
“Functional Training” is the latest buzzword in strength coaching. Weight rooms have been making room for Swiss balls, rocker boards, suspension ropes, Indian clubs, and even adjustable ankle pads to perform the so-called “Bulgarian lunge.” BFS has been in the strength coaching profession for nearly five decades – are we missing something?
One of the earliest references we could find about functional training was from the early 90s by Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky in their classic exercise science textbook, Supertraining. These respected sports scientist said there are two types of strength training, “structural resistance training” and “functional resistance training.” They said the primary goal of structural resistance training is to increase muscle mass – so, bodybuilding.
Functional resistance training, in contrast, refers to activities that will enhance your ability to perform daily tasks or sports. More specifically, Siff and Verkhoshansky said functional resistance training improves the following physical qualities:
- 1. Intermuscular coordination between different muscle groups
- 2. Intramuscular coordination of fibers within the same muscle group
- 3. Facilitatory and inhibitory reflexive processes
- 4. Motor learning
This brings us to the main point of this article: Just as labeling a breakfast cereal “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s organic and good for you, labeling an exercise program “functional” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a superior way to develop athletic fitness.
In researching this topic, we looked for common ideas from those who have made presentations on functional training in the form of articles, books, videos, and even Instagram and Twitter posts. We have also watched, in-person, the coaching methods of many coaches who claimed they practiced functional training. With that background, here are five observations we can make about many popular functional training workouts:
- 1. Leg exercises performed through a limited range of motion
- 2. Weightlifting exercises taught incorrectly
- 3. Valuable auxiliary exercises are neglected
- 4. Exercises performed on unstable surfaces
- 5. Workouts focusing on bodybuilding protocols
Focusing on squats and lunges through a partial range of motion can reduce the elastic properties of the tissues, making athletes more susceptible to knee and ankle injuries.
Let’s look at these issues, one by one:
1. Leg exercises performed through a limited range of motion. Many functional trainers have taken up the cause that squats can easily injure the lower back (thus dissing the sport of powerlifting) and are not sport-specific. As an alternative, these coaches recommend performing various types of lunges, especially with dumbbells (as no spotter is required).
So what’s the big deal about, as they say in Game of Thrones, “bending the knee?” It’s a big deal because tendons can absorb, store, and release energy – they are, essentially, biological springs. Focusing only on exercises that work the muscles through a partial range of motion adversely affects the elastic qualities of these tissues, making these athletes more susceptible to injury. Consider the Golden State Warriors.
The 2019 NBA playoffs were disappointing in that the returning champion Golden State Warriors were hampered by lower extremity injuries. Kevin Durant pulled his calf and then his Achilles; DeMarcus Cousins, who joined the Warriors while still recovering from an Achilles tear, tore his quad and (during the offseason) his ACL; Andre Iguodala nursed a tender Achilles, and Klay Thompson injured his hamstring and then tore his ACL! Consider too that most of these injuries were non-contact. So rather than being involved in a collision with another player, the athlete did a sudden stop or turn or lunged awkwardly, placing a knee or ankle in a compromising position that the connective tissues couldn’t deal with it.
We don’t have access to the GSW strength workouts, and it could be that all these injuries were simply flukes. However, could it be that these basketball players were more susceptible to such injuries because they did not perform full-range movements under load? Think about it: Have you ever seen photos of any NBA player doing full squats? In fact, sports scientist Bud Charniga published screenshots of LeBron James from last year trying to pick up a dropped ball and severely injuring his groin when his knee angle reached about 90 degrees – the injury kept him out for 17 games. Alongside these screenshots were photos of James in training performing what Charniga called a “dis-functional” squat that limited knee bend and ankle flexion.
If an athlete focuses on squats, lunges, and split squats performed through a partial range of motion, not only are the protective muscles around the knee inadequately developed, the connective tissues lose their elasticity. Taping or bracing often makes the problem worse as it can redirect the force elsewhere (such that, for example, an athlete who artificially supports their ankles might put more stress on their knees) and interfere with the functions of these tissues. Likewise, performing a full range of motion exercises increases the elastic properties of this tissue, which is why ACL, ankle, Achilles, and even hamstring injuries in weightlifters are extremely rare. Although functional trainers often claim a low injury rate during training, the reality is that focusing on partial range of motion exercises can make athletes more susceptible to injuries during practice or competition.
2. Weightlifting exercises taught incorrectly. Functional trainers frequently recommend only performing the Olympic lifts through a partial range of motion – definitely nothing from the floor. They are not OK with the classical full weightlifting movements (snatch and clean and jerk), but are just fine with hang power cleans, hang power snatches and even (we’re not joking) single-leg hang power cleans and single-leg hang power snatches. We’ve seen some of these trainers allow their athletes to use straps on cleans (a really, really bad idea as this can cause serious injuries to the wrists and elbows) and, for some odd reason, perform snatches with a jerk grip.
One reason for their animosity towards weightlifting is that many functional trainers believe that Olympic lifting exercises performed from the floor are too difficult to teach. We agree that these exercises are too hard to teach…if you don’t know how to teach them! BFS has been in the athletic fitness business for nearly a half a century, and we’ve found it’s rare than we cannot teach a decent athlete how to perform a respectable power clean from the floor in about 20 minutes, even in a group setting. In fact, the power clean is part of the BFS Readiness Program, which can be used by middle school and even elementary school athletes.
The BFS Readiness Program includes teaching power clean technique with lightweight equipment, such as our 15-pound training bars and lightweight plates. Yes, full lifts such as the classical snatch and clean and jerk take longer to master, but rather than badmouthing these lifts and settling on performing inferior exercises, contact a BFS coach and ask them to show them how to properly teach these movements from the floor.
Next, functional coaches often teach partial weightlifting exercises significantly different from how BFS coaches (and, of course, weightlifting coaches) perform them. They start by having the athlete lean way over the bar and push their hips back; this posture places a high level of stress on the lower back and usually results in the initial bar movement to be more diagonal than vertical. Rather than using the knee flexion, these athletes will perform what could be called a “hip thrust” to heave the weight so that it travels in a large loop back to the athlete’s shoulders where it often slams against them and jams their spine – ouch!
Finally, one of the benefits of weightlifting is that it develops strength through a large range of motion, thus improving flexibility and stability. The overhead squat, which at the bottom is the catch position of a snatch, is one “functional screen” used to determine flexibility and muscular imbalances (and at BFS, we call these power balance drills). As for addressing the matter of “risk versus reward,” here are several other benefits of performing Olympic lifting movements from the floor:
+ Strength (relative, absolute, speed/explosive)
+ Jumping ability (vertical and horizontal)
+ Short sprint speed
+ Muscle mass
+ Reduced body fat
+ Muscular endurance
+ Core strength
+ Cardiovascular health
+ Postural Alignment
+ Body awareness
+ Reduced risk of injuries
That’s a lot of bang for your buck, such that the “rewards” these lifts offer are certainly worth the “risks” associated with practicing them.
3. Valuable auxiliary exercises are neglected. “We train movements, not muscles!” is a common soundbite from functional training coaches to justify their exercise recommendations. Nice try.
In his book, Functional Training Handbook, editor Craig Liebenson says training that focuses on isolation exercises “may change our ‘hardware’ by hypertrophying individual muscles, but it will not enhance the quality or efficiency of movement – our ‘software’ – and may even corrupt it by causing or perpetuating muscle imbalances or faulty movement patterns.”
Yes, BFS prefers that athletes focus on multi-joint movements. However, one issue with being dogmatic about avoiding isolation exercises is that it doesn’t serve the best needs of the athlete. For example, there is considerable research proving that the risk of concussions can decrease significantly by performing isolation exercises for the neck. Isn’t one of the goals of functional training to help prevent injury? Is it being disloyal to their cause if a functional trainer has American football and soccer players perform isolation exercises for the neck to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury?
Many functional training programs focus on exercises that use unique apparatus and require considerable balance. Drawings by Sylvain Lemaire, www.physigraphe.com;
4. Exercises performed on unstable surfaces. Functional trainers often claim they can make conventional weight training exercises (such as squats and lunges) more valuable by performing them on rocker boards, Bosu balls, and other unstable surfaces. There are some questions to ask here, such as why practice on an unstable surface when sports are played on stable surfaces?
What are the “risk versus rewards” associated exercising with load on unstable surfaces. What type of injuries can occur if a Swiss ball pops while performing weighted crunches or supine dumbbell presses? How about performing squats on a rocker board? Fun fact: One coach who wrote a book about functional training tore his ACL during one of his presentations when he fell off the Swiss ball he was standing on!
Next, consider that we play most sports on flat, stable surfaces, such that the body rotates around the foot – not, as occurs on rocker boards, the foot rotating around the body. Although unstable equipment such as rocker boards may have some value in rehabilitation, for healthy athletes BFS recommends performing the BFS Dot Drill to improve body awareness and the stability of the lower extremities.
Finally, don’t be concerned that you are missing something by not performing these instability exercises -- EMG research shows that the same muscles are activated with unstable and stable exercises. The difference is that the instability reduces the amount of weight that can be used, reducing the strength training effect.
Although things look bad for this Venezuelan lifter, she was not injured. In fact, ACL, ankle, Achilles, and hamstring injuries are extremely rare in the sport of weightlifting. This is because weightlifting training works the muscles through a large range of motion, increasing the elastic properties of the connective tissues and improving body awareness. Photo by Bud Charniga
5. Workouts focusing on bodybuilding protocols. Except for partial weightlifting movements, most of the resistance training prescriptions in functional training programs use 10 repetitions or more. Bodybuilding protocols adversely affect an athlete’s ability to create maximal muscle tension. As such, functional training is not only training athletes to be weak, but also slow!
Another issue with bodybuilding protocols is that they increase the development of tissues that don’t contribute to maximal contraction, thus reducing relative strength (i.e., strength per unit of body weight) and adversely affect endurance. Why do athletes coached by functional trainers seldom display impressive muscle development? Simple – they use light weights and often don’t have enough volume (total work) or eccentric (lowering phase) overload to increase muscle mass significantly.
Of course, it might be pointed out that one week of the BFS program has athletes performing many exercises for sets of 10 reps. However, these workouts are performed for only one week out of four, and are necessary to recover from the high-intensity work performed in the previous three weeks – 10 reps use light weights and is easier on the nervous system than lower reps. This is consistent with many workout systems used by elite weightlifters and powerlifters – three weeks of intense training, followed by a low intensity, “unloading” week.
Jordan Dwyer is an exceptional athlete and fitness model who possesses a high level of relative strength. Graduating high school with a 4.7 GPA, Jordan was an outstanding softball and soccer player, earning an athletic scholarship. Jordan could full squat double bodyweight, clean and jerk over bodyweight, vertical jump 23.2 inches, and performed 12 strict pull-ups. Dwyer soccer photo by Joe Morel; Jordan fitness photo by Daniel Gagnon, make-up by Shimmer Day Spa.
One last point: We need to emphasize that this article is not trying to suggest that equipment such as exercise bands and Swiss balls have no value whatsoever, as they have certainly proven their worth in rehabilitation. There is also a good case to be made for including unique corrective exercises in workouts to prevent injuries. However, the reality of athletic fitness training is that strength coaches have a limited amount of time to work with athletes, especially during a competitive season. As such, they need to focus on exercises and proven training methods that will give them the most “bang for the buck” in terms of developing strength, power, and overall athletic fitness.
To sum up, let’s stop trying to market revolutionary athletic fitness training methods to athletes that use inferior exercises with light weights. Focus on the basics and realize that not only do conventional strength training methods have a lot to offer but that it’s OK to be strong.
Siff, M. and Verkhoshansky, Y. Supertraining, 1999, 4th Edition, Supertraining International, Denver USA 1999, pp. 708. (1st edition, 1993)
Charniga, B. Of ‘Flat Tires’ & Brittle Basketball Players. Sportivny Press. July 24, 2019
Liebenson, C. Functional Training Handbook. Wolters Kluwer Health, 2014, pp. 1-3.
Collins, C. L., Fletcher, E. N., Fields, S. K., Kluchurosky, L., Rohrkemper, M. K., Comstock, R. D., & Cantu, R. C. (2014). Neck strength: a protective factor reducing risk for concussion in high school sports. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 35(5), 309-319.
Goss, K. The Case Against Stability Training. Bigger Faster Stronger, March/April 2007, pp. 70-72.