If you go to the gym, be it regularly or once in a blue moon, you’ve probably noticed the way it’s changed. Long gone are those days when gyms were full of cardio machines and then, on the other side, with free weights and fixed weights machines. Instead, an average gym nowadays will have the third section, filled with strange balance trainers, TRX bands and Swiss balls. This section is dedicated to what your local fitness instructor would call ’functional exercise.
But what is functional exercise, exactly? Well, the term itself originated from physical therapy and rehabilitation. Functional exercise is originally intended to serve the purpose of recovering patients who have a specific problem that prevents them from performing certain movements. The function of the exercise the physiotherapist prescribes to each individual patient is to return their ability to perform that movement. Hence, everything that helps a patient perform a movement is a functional exercise. Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific group of exercises that fall into the ’functional’ category.
It all depends on the injury. For someone who has Achilles tendonitis, there isn’t much use in doing wrist extensions; by the same token, someone who has trouble with a tennis elbow will have little use of calf extensions. Each of those exercises can be functional, it’s all just a matter of context.
Functional exercise and the fitness craze
As soon as the fitness world hears of a word that sounds ’buzzy’, it’s going to make it into a new fitness trend that you simply have to try. People crave incorporating more and more exercises into their routines, hoping they’ll achieve their fitness goals faster and, possibly, easier.
You have probably seen self-proclaimed fitness gurus on Instagram and Facebook do a squat exercise with the use of a BOSU ball and calling that a functional workout. But if you ask them what function exactly does the exercise serve, most wouldn’t know how to answer that question.
It makes sense for Lebron James to pass the medicine ball while balancing on not one, but two BOSU balls. For him, that’s a functional exercise because its purpose is to prepare his legs with balancing and strengthen the smallest of muscles so that whatever way he lands on the ground after a jump, he won’t end up injured. To Lebron, this exercise is functional, but to your average recreational athlete that goes to the gym three times a week, doing this would just be silly.
However, a lot of fitness instructors jumped on the functional bandwagon without realizing they need extensive knowledge in rehabilitation medicine to be able to really know which exercise to prescribe for which problem, in order to make it really functional. Instead, functional exercise has been linked to certain equipment, rather than to a specific issue it needs to address. If you were to ask an average fitness trainer without rehab experience if a bicep curl is a functional exercise, the answer would probably be a resounding ’no’, even though it can very well be a functional exercise, if the patient had trouble with everyday movements such as lifting the groceries.
This lack of knowledge and education in the subject represents a huge issue in the fitness world, and not only from an ethical perspective – as long as the professionals in the industry do not understand what functional exercise is, there is also a danger of causing unintentional injury to the clients. By forcing people to do the ’functional’ exercise on a Swiss ball, many trainers are actually increasing the chance of their clients getting hurt for no obvious reason.
Does ’functional’ equal ’better’?
The short answer is no. Whether or not you have a physical therapist’s education regarding functional exercise and understanding all that it entails, it’s important to know that doing exercises that are popularly perceived as ’functional’ is in no way superior to doing regular exercises people have been doing for centuries.
There is no obvious advantage to doing a squat on a BOSU, except if you have balancing issues. If you have trouble standing straight because of weak glutes, it’s better to just perform a traditional squat with your feet firmly on the ground. That way, you’ll address the issue at hand in a truly functional way.
The fitness industry will try to make anything into a product for you to consume, and that is exactly what has happened to functional exercise. Nowadays, everything that includes elastic straps is called a functional exercise; it has become a carte blanche for the fitness industry to call everything and anything functional and sell it.
If you are experiencing issues with certain movements or positions which cause you discomfort when doing your everyday activities, the best thing you could do is approach an experienced physical therapist. They will address your issues adequately and prescribe a set of exercises that will be functional for you. And who knows, maybe your functional exercise will be as simple as a bodyweight squat.