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Functional Strength

In commercial gyms and high school weight rooms all over America millions of people lift weights every day. They sit in different machines that are designed to ‘isolate’ muscles. We have all seen this before. They train back and biceps on one day and chest and triceps on the next day. In fact, the standard workout has not changed much at all since the 1960’s or 70’s. However, what else in our lives is like it was in the 1960’s or 70’s? Do we wear 60’s style clothes anymore? Do we make calls on rotary dial phones? No, instead we are wearing the latest Under Armour or Dryfit clothing and footwear. Half of it made from recycled plastic bottles. Our phones take pictures and surf the Internet and actually calling somebody with it is almost unheard of. These parts of our lives have changed because there is more functional technology available to us. There are also ways to make our strength training more functional as well.

At Athlete Strength and Performance (ASP), I have created an environment in which athletes can participate in functional strength training that is highly organized and performance oriented. Functional strength training can simply be defined as training that prepares an athlete to perform better. It is not about trying to lift heavy weights or building big arm muscles to have a showy physique. Enhanced appearance is a positive by product of training, not the end goal. The basic goals of functional strength training are to make the athletes faster & stronger and reduce the rate of injuries. Essentially, functional training will make the athlete better prepared for competition. To better understand what constitutes functional training we must ask ourselves what being an athlete really demands.

Far too many people still perform strength training exercises while seated. How many sports skills are performed sitting down? The only ones that come to mind are canoeing and kayaking. No athletic skills are performed seated! In fact, the sitting we do all day at school and work is a major contributor to low back pain.  Therefore, a good strength training program should be designed to get us out of a seated posture and counteract the negatives associated with it.

How many sports skills involve movement in only one joint? The answer to this question is zero. So why then do we ‘isolate’ muscles when training? Performing sports skills like skating, running, jumping, throwing, and striking require highly synchronized contractions of different muscles and muscle groups across multiple joints. Think of something as simple as swinging a golf club…what joint does not move?

How many sports are played in rigid, one-dimensional environments?   Again, the answer is zero. When an athlete is on a field, track, court, or ice sheet they must provide stability for themselves. This fact is the very downfall of machine based strength training programs. Bodyweight and free weight exercises are the most functional exercises.  Free weight and body weight exercises are multi dimensional and, for the most part, require the athlete to be weight bearing. barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, stability balls, TRX Suspension Trainers, and medicine balls are by far the most effective pieces of strength training equipment.

Functional strength training also incorporates small amounts of instability and single extremity exercises. By doing exercises on one foot or with one arm or on unstable surfaces the athletes will learn to quickly regain their stability when it has been lost. Therefore, the ability to create force and power during instability is the highest form of strength.

Too often athletes and coaches waste time and energy by lifting with 2 feet or 2 hands at the same time. This is ineffective because it is not the way our bodies are designed to function. Again, think of sports skills and how they are performed. Almost all sports skills are performed by using the left and right sides of the body separately from each other. When shooting a hockey puck or hitting a golf ball, one hip joint will internally rotate while the other externally rotates. A baseball can be thrown further with one hand than with two. In football, a field goal is kicked by planting one foot and striking the ball with the other foot.

Another major mistake often made by athletes and coaches is performing too many reps while lifting weights. The reality is that increases in strength are made when performing a relatively low number of reps. Basically; anything above 10 reps is not strength training at all. Strength and power are developed best when performing less than 10 reps. In fact; eight reps and fewer should make up the majority of sets performed in a good strength training program. At the ASP we spend over 80% of our time training at eight reps and fewer. In addition, we spend only around 1% of our time performing sets for more than 12 reps.