Saturday, April 19, 2008

Rethinking Functional Training...again.

In a previous entry, I mentioned I was going to rediscover my roots in exercise science. In reviewing many of my posts, I realized I hadn't posted much on the topic of training and exercise physiology. It's time for that to change!

Back in 1995 when I was just entering the world of exercise science, functional training was rapidly becoming the latest craze among fitness professionals and strength coaches. Before you could say "bosu ball", every strength coach and personal trainer had their clients standing one-legged on a foam roller juggling three medicine balls...blindfolded. Not to be outdone, physical therapists also jumped on the bandwagon.

Nearly fifteen years later, we've finally tempered enthusiasm for this "new" form of training with the realization that motor control strategies and functional training may not always be in sync with one another. For a time it seemed we were drifting into a dimension of training-to-train more than training for skill acquisition and enhancement. While "functional" activities such as destabilization training on physio balls and dynadiscs seemed to serve some purpose, their role in enhancing motor control strategies fell under justifiably intense scrutiny.

Steven Plisk, MS, CSCS recently wrote a NSCA Hot Topic article titled, appropriately enough, Functional Training. It is certainly worth reading and has very strong implications for what we do as both as strength coaches and physical therapists. Physical therapists in particular can be a trendy lot and I think articles such as Plisk's can offer some much needed perspective on physical training as it applies to clinical and athletic performance. In fact, Plisk notes the distinction between athletes and non-athletes may not be so clear cut.

"’s helpful to rethink the traditional distinction between athletic and nonathletic activities. Indeed, many sport movements (e.g. running, jumping) are simply high-powered ADLs where the issue is one of degree more so than fundamental difference. Furthermore, considering how recreationally active many “non-athletes” are, the role of functional training becomes even more apparent for overall quality of life and injury prevention."

Plisk goes on to deconstruct the principle of specificity in a way I found to be very eye-opening. He breaks specificity down into mechanistic, coordinated, and energetic fronts, helping the reader understand the need to give more than just lip service to this key training principle. He follows with a very interesting perspective on development of motor learning throughout the lifespan:

"Training should, therefore, be viewed as a long-term curriculum where acquisition of movement competencies precedes performance. Movement mechanics and techniques, as well as basic fitness qualities (i.e. “general preparation” tasks) are priorities early on. The intent is to progressively automate these so athletes can focus their attention capacity on tactics and strategies (i.e. special preparation”) as they advance through the syllabus."

Although a fairly brief treatment of the subject, Plisk does a very good job of connecting the dots between functional training, motor learning, and skill acquisition. He concludes that functional training modalities play an important role in training and skill development. However we should not sacrifice basic principles of motor learning at the altar of functional training. Great stuff Mr. Plisk!

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