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How Controversy Played a Part in Functional Training’s Rise to Prominence

According to Michael Boyle, the reason behind the explosive growth and rapid acceptance of functional training is simple. Boyle, who has served as the strength and conditioning coach to the Boston Red Sox, Boston Bruins, and U.S. women’s Olympic soccer and ice hockey teams, says that functional training makes sense to coaches and athletes and is verified from their experience in the training room and on the court, track, or field. However, the initial growth period of functional training was not without controversy and detractors, which resulted from misperceptions based on lack of information and limited exposure


In New Functional Training for Sports, Boyle says a faction of proponents of functional training wanted to deliver a clear message that functional training should be done without machines, should be done standing, and should be multijoint. While much of this seemed like common sense and difficult to argue with, many coaches viewed the training as a move away from bilateral lifting and toward athletes and clients lifting light weights on balance boards and balls. Surprisingly, some coaches who have embraced functional training espouse concepts that, in the initial analysis, appear nonfunctional. This use of apparently nonfunctional exercises by supposed proponents of functional training caused confusion in the field.


“The reasoning behind this apparent contradiction is actually simple,” Boyle points out. “Function varies from joint to joint. Exercises that promote the function of joints that require stabilization are different from exercises that promote the function of joints that strive for mobility.” The primary function of certain muscles and muscle groups is stabilization, and functional training for those muscles involves training them to be better stabilizers, often by performing simple exercises through small ranges of motion. Boyle says that in many cases, in the effort to make everything functional, coaches and athletes ended up neglecting the important stabilizing functions of certain muscle groups.


Many coaches began to label exercises for these areas as rehabilitative or prehabilitative. However, Boyle argues these exercises are just another form of functional training. For instance, function at the ankle, knee, and hip is maximized when the hip displays great stability. At certain times, certain muscle groups—notably the deep abdominals, hip abductors, and scapular stabilizers—need to be isolated to improve their function. For this reason, some apparently nonfunctional single-joint exercises may in fact improve function of the entire lower extremity. This is one of the paradoxes of functional training.


“The key to developing a truly functional training program is not to go too far in any particular direction,” says Boyle, whose Boston-based gym has been named one of America’s 10 Best Gyms by Men’s Health magazine. He continues, “The majority of exercises should be done standing and should be multijoint, but at the same time, attention should be paid to development of the key stabilizer groups in the hips core, and posterior shoulder.”


A second functional paradox revolves around multiplanar activity done in a sport-specific position. Advocates of this style of functional training espouse loaded exercises, or those done with a dumbbell or weight vest, in a flexed posture and using foot positions that some strength and conditioning coaches would consider less than desirable. “Although athletes find themselves in compromised positions in competitive situations, coaches need to evaluate how far they are willing to go in loading athletes in positions of spinal flexion,” stresses Boyle. As an example, although a baseball player often squats to field a ground ball with a flexed spine, weighted squatting movements with the spine in a flexed position may not be wise. When athletes train for strength, coaches should never compromise back safety to make the body position of the exercise more specific.


“Many athletes have neglected strength training because they do not fully understand the performance-enhancing value of strength in sports such as baseball, tennis, or soccer,” Boyle concludes. “The key from the athlete’s standpoint is for the training to make sense. The key from the coach’s standpoint is to make the training make sense to the athlete. A training program built around actions that do not occur in sport simply does not make sense.” He says the key is to design programs that truly prepare athletes for their sports. This can be done only by using exercises that train the muscles the same way they are used in sport—in other words, through functional training.


In New Functional Training for Sports, Second Edition, Boyle offers trainers and athletes the best exercises for improving speed, strength, and power during sport performance while also reducing the incidence of injury. The book includes online access to video demonstrations, commentary, and analysis of key exercises.