In today’s article Rugbydump Academy Strength Coach TJ discusses why searching for “functional” exercises may not be in your best interest. He talks about what may be a better way of looking at things as well as what Functional Training actually is.
A trend that seems to be growing in the fitness industry is “functional training”. More and more gyms seem to have either a “functional fitness” area, or be running “functional fitness classes”, or just have coaches that sell their method of training as “functional”.
Proponents of these functional methods of training would argue that their methods are superior to other movements/exercises. They will have you believe that their movements/methods will make you a better player, but other movements/methods actually might not.
To get an idea of whether this is true or not, first we need to answer the following question.
What Is “Functional” Training?
The problem with answering this is that the response will vary depending on who you ask.
Some will say that all movements must be in a “flow”, others will have you moving weight through multiple planes of movements (think different directions rather than the traditional up-and-down).
You also have guys that do everything on an unstable surface, others will adjust your rest-times to make it more like an in-game scenario. On top of that we have strongman training, medicine balls and all the SAQ equipment that you can use. All of these things have been argued as “functional”.
Perhaps a better idea would be to explore what exactly is ‘non-functional”, I think many of these functional gurus would agree that single-plane, single-joint, fixed weight movements are non-functional.
Does that mean everything aside from this is functional? That’s not a very good answer, let’s just define what “functional” means. Google says:
So “functional” needs context to be defined. So when somebody says a certain exercise is functional without actually saying what the purpose of that function is then it is stupid. By definition, anything you do in the gym can be “functional” if you have a purpose for it.
A simple bicep curl is functional because it can build up the bicep muscle, which in turn can help with your pulling strength (in all senses). As a rugby player you may be better in a ruck, maul or tackle if your pull is stronger.
You could even possibly argue that by simply having bigger biceps, you can fill your jersey better and have a better chance of getting scouted – people may scoff at that notion but don’t shoot the messenger, it is something I’ve been told by an actual professional scout.
Let’s Get Functional
The point I’m trying to get across here is that everything can have a purpose or a function , but whether that function is needed for you as a player depends on a number of things.
A younger/less developed athlete should be concerned only with perfecting the basic lifts before testing all the waters with the fancy stuff. It has been shown time and time in the science that the younger the athlete, the more return they will get from the simple movements. As a youngster you can cover your bases with as little as 5-8 exercises year-round and make outstanding progress on the pitch as a result.
A more advanced athlete will have to get more technical and incorporate some of the fancy movements to get the benefits of gym work on the pitch.
If you are heavy footed, have poor posture and just generally move pretty clumsily then it’s no use doing advanced plyometrics or heavy barbell snatches. You need to learn to move better. Again, this is done with the basic lifts, possibly with the help of BASIC running drills and jump work.
You may also need to fix weak points, which may need to be done using isolation movements. Once these weak points are brought up and in a better ratio with the rest of your body, you should be able to move better. However if you just do advanced “functional” training, your body may figure out a way of doing it without using the weaker areas, creating poor movement patterns and even bigger weaknesses and imbalances.
In this aspect, you could argue that “functional training” may lead to you having a greater injury risk.
What You Need As A Player
This relates to your goals, which should in turn relate to your strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re small and weak, you may need to do a few isolation movements just to bring up some muscle and give yourself an easier route to getting stronger.
If you’re really strong already, the strength work could be just maintenance, but your power and speed work might need to form the bulk of your programme.
If you have really good stats in the gym but for some reason you can’t replicate it on the pitch, you may want to look at focusing on core work (to transfer strength onto the pitch) and rugby skills.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what is “functional”. Even if we ask “what is functional for rugby players?” the answer will vary from player to player.
A Better Way Of Looking At Things
To assess whether what you’re doing is functional, you need to ask yourself the following questions.
1. What are your goals for the current program?
2. What exercises and rep ranges are going to help you reach those goals?
That’s it, real simple. If what you’re doing for point 2 is helping reach point 1, what you’re doing is good and it is certainly functional.
Anything can be functional if it has a purpose. It’s as simple as that.
I will finish this article by pointing out that “functional exercises” should not be confused with “Special-Strength” exercises. Special-Strength are a different beast entirely, and they deserve their own article, which I’ll give you next week.
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