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What is functional training?

This time of year we are all trying to muster enough enthusiasm to function day to day, let alone feel energetic about New Year resolutions. When the weather and the light are still against us, I believe in keeping training low key, simple and attainable.

Think, reassess and prepare for achievable goals, instead of throwing yourself in head first. The winter is a good time to start, revisit or review your exercise program and (perhaps) you might want to consider how ‘functional’ your training is.

There are lots of different definitions, views and opinions. Dr Andreo Spina from Functional Anatomy Seminars sums things up nicely…. ‘train the body for what you want it to do’.

In other words, training is ‘functional’ when it is geared towards what the individual needs and what our bodies are intended for.

If, in 2016, you wish to improve your performance in running, or ease the niggling back pain from sitting or you wish to dead lift 200kg, or master a handstand in yoga, learn to surf or compete in a cross fit challenge, you will first need to think about what is required from your body to achieve your goal, without taking shortcuts and chancing injury.

You need to ask – is your body prepared for the task ahead? Is your body functional?

1. Square pegs, round holes

The most common issue I see in clinic is when someone’s joints have been forced to go where they cannot, or not encouraged to go where they should.

Force like foot impact during running, creates a momentum of motion through the body, if the movement doesn’t ‘fit’ into the indented joints or tissues, it will be compensated for elsewhere.

For example if you squat 100kg when you don’t have the required hip or ankle movement, your lower back or your knees will often compensate, frequently leading to inappropriate load through the wrong body parts and to a good chance of injury.

On the other hand if you sit down most of the day and don’t regularly use your joints as they are intended (which is moving them in all the directions they are devised for) – anticipate pain or discomfort.
The use it or lose it concept is something all of us know well.

Always mobilise first.

2. The magic isn’t in the mirror

Training just to look good is not a crime; it is a perfectly reasonable goal. However, what you see in the mirror should not be your primary guide in your training.

The muscles that are most ‘functional’ and important are the ones that don’t ripple in the mirror – they are beneath the muscles that you see. The serratus anterior (shoulder stabilizer) and the transverse abdominis (torso stabilizer) are important muscles that help stabilise the body, so we can get the best out of each movement without injury.

This means that you have better control over what you are doing – whether that is running, swimming or squatting.

Training hard without training the stabilising muscles first is like throwing a javelin whilst standing in a canoe.

Mobilise, and then stabilize.

3. Do what feels right

Whatever the goal, there is no escaping the truth about the human body – it will only perform for what it is prepared for. If you stick to what the human body has been evolved to do, you will remain ‘functional’ and that means less injury and better performance. Movement should feel good when it is right, even when it is challenging.

Whether you run, swim, weight train, Morris dance, cross train or do yoga; really think about what you are expecting from your body? Does it feel right? Are you forcing or are you encouraging motion? Even competent athletes compensate for poor technique – it might take an expert or even a friend to video you exercising to see where you can make improvements.

A tweak here and there, can make all the difference, helping you move better in your daily life and improve your performance.

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