Recently I read Doug McGuff's book Body by Science and was subsequently fortunate enough to interview him.
One of the areas of his thinking that I found fascinating and challenging was his view of "functional training". He drew a sharp distinction between exercise - which would increase your strength - and skill training which would make you better at applying that strength. This idea was revisited in some further posts (for example here, here and here) and generated some interesting comments. Reading around the subject a bit more one of the people that I came across was Luke Carlson, CEO of DiscoverStrength. His website has an excellent discussion of this area, including a paragraph on why "functional" strength training is a fallacy! Keen to learn more about this whole area I contacted Luke and asked if I could interview him on this subject of "functional training". Graciously he agreed to answer my questions. This is a good interview - hope you enjoy it and learn from it as I did.
Luke, can you give my readers a little background on yourself? What is your background in fitness training?
I went to the University of Minnesota and studied Kinesiology. As a sophomore, I began working on the Minnesota Vikings Strength and Conditioning staff under Steve Wetzel; from that experience, a number of other opportunities came my way. A typical day during my sophomore year was training Viking players from 6:30am until 10:30am; going to class from noon to 3 or 4pm; driving over to a local college to run the football strength program until 5 or 6pm and then driving to a local personal training studio to train clients in the evening. By my Junior year I had accepted a job at one of Minnesota's largest high schools to run the strength and conditioning program; I did this and worked part-time with the Vikings until I graduated. Upon graduation, I immediately started a masters degree in exercise physiology at the the University of Minnesota under world-renowned physician and exercise scientist Arthur Leon MD. I also took a position as the strength and conditioning coach of a different large high school in Minnesota. I spent two years in that position and at the time, our program was considered the largest high school strength and conditioning program in the country. On a typical day in the summer over 500 athletes would go through closely supervised or 1-on-1 workouts. During this time period I also had the opportunity to co-author two books - "The Female Athlete: Train for Success" and "Mapping you Retirement" (I did a chapter on exercise). After two years in that position, I began the planning stages for a business venture. This was a two-year process that culminated with the founding of Discover Strength; a training facility dedicated to the implementation of evidence based resistance training programs. This May marks the 3rd anniversary of Discover Strength's opening. So over the last 10 years, I have had the opportunity to directly supervise the training of hundreds of individuals including NFL football players, college athletes, High School athletes of every sport, Olympic distance runners, professional dancers, body builders, power lifters, and a host of individuals (ages 10 to 94) seeking to reap the many benefits of proper strength training.
I recently came across your website and your discussion of “functional training”. I had interviewed Doug McGuff author of the recently published book “Body by Science” and one of the issues that we discussed was that of “functional training”. There is a lot of discussion now around primal movements and "evolutionary fitness". Doug’s comments really got me thinking and I was searching around the internet for similar views and I found your site. Could you summarise your view of “functional training”?
This can be answered or approached in one of two ways. In one sense, functional training is a fallacy; it simply does not exist. There is no strength training exercise that carries over to athletic or everyday movements. Motor learning principles and research clearly delineates this. In another sense, function training does exist; and it is exactly what we employ at Discover Strength. That is, we identify the function of a particular muscle or muscle group and place resistance on that muscle in accordance with it's joint function: This is truly functional training... training the function of the muscle. and make no mistake, muscle have specific and limited function. The pectoral is put on the body for a reason; when it contracts, it shortens and causes horizontal adduction of the upper arm. If you add resistance to this movement and overload the pectoral; it will become stronger - period. The pec's ability to contract and produce force has improved.
How did you arrive at this position?
This, like many issues in exercise science, falls into the category created by the combination of two important elements:
1. Peer-reviewed scientific research,
2. Possessing an accurate paradigm from which we few exercise training.
Specifically, I, like many other practitioners have been influenced by the likes of Arthur Jones, Dr. Ellington Darden, Matt Brzycki, Ken Mannie, Behm and Sale and others.
So “skill movements” jumping, punching, kicking, running, climbing etc are very specific such that the "motor skills" are unique to the movement. If you want to jump better you must jump…not snatch or clean?
If you want to get better at jumping, you need to strengthen the muscles involved in jumping according to their biomechanical and anatomical function. Secondly, you need to practice jumping. It is that simple. Of course, the strengthening portion is not "simple" - simple to understand, not simple to actually perform.
So excelling at kettlebell swings – for example – will not directly improve your “athletic skills”? It will make you a better swinger but not a better jumper?
Perfectly stated. And we all must ask ourselves, what is the value of becoming a better swinger? Swinging (like cleaning or snatching) is a DEMONSTRATION of strength; not a highly effective tool for DEVELOPING strength.
Would it be true to say that the prime benefit of the swings (or squats or lunges or whatever) is not in the “functional movement mimicking a real-life move” but in the fact that they are simply making you stronger and being stronger generally you will be better able to apply your skill?
Yes. But I'm not convinced that kettlebell swings are an effective means for developing strength. Strength exercises should systematically place tension on muscle tissue until the muscles is fatigued/overloaded.
Given this position, how do you account for the recent surge in popularity of “functional training”? The internet is full of “bootcamp” sites, people tossing sandbags around to mimic the movements of their sport or bounding round in plyometrics.
Exercise practitioners have never been known for implementing scientifically-based approaches to exercise. In exercise, it seems that essentially "anything goes." The exercise community at large is driven by fads, not by science.
What do you make of Crossfit? They say:
CrossFit is a broad based and general fitness program built upon constantly varied *functional movement *executed at high intensity. It is measured by increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. There is no distinction in the “types” of physical skills required by Navy SEALs and housewives. There is only a difference in degree with which required adaptation is warranted. Everyone deadlifts, presses, and cleans, they generally just don’t realize it. It is due to the nature of life that we train and it is to meet and exceed the maximum demands on our systems that we push so hard.
Would you argue that it is simply not true that everyone deadlifts, presses and cleans?
It is entertaining to me that the three movements that all humans allegedly engage in just happen to be historically popular Olympic and Power lifts! I think a more accurate vanish point is that everyone extends, flexes, rotates, adducts, abducts, etc, etc.
Given that we all do move in everyday life – squatting, pushing, pulling, lunging and twisting in lots of different ways – how can we train to make ourselves more effective at this moves, more resilient and resistant to injury?
We simply must strengthen the muscles involved in these movement according to their function. Period!
For fun I train Krav Maga. Punching is predominantly a rotary action, a twist through the hips. While I see that I need to train the specific motor skill to improve it, how would I strengthen the associated muscles? Rarely in “High Intensity” workouts go I see much twisting or rotation.
The vast majority, if not every HIT advocate that I know utilizes twisting/rotational movements. We use the MedX Core Torso Rotation machine - a $7,000 machine that targets the muscles involved in rotation of the trunk. This exercise is included in the working scripts for all of our clients.
One of the most well presented discussions of this debate that I’ve come across has been from Ellington Darden in Chapter 10 of his book “The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results”. He explains that there are three ways in which training can impact on your athletic skills: positively, negatively or indifferently. The worrying one is negative transfer. He says that practising similar but slightly different moves can actually erode your athletic ability in the skill that you really want to improve – it confuses your motor patterns. Do you think that athletes are actually getting worse through functional training?
I wouldn't think they are getting worse; but i would say they are wasting time... or at best, not using training time wisely. One of the problems with evaluating exercise/physical activity is this: Essentially all exercise/physical activity is beneficial. Doing something is better then doing nothing. Along these lines, performing any type of strength training will produce results to a degree. These results serve to reinforce that the training approach was prudent. However, the goal should always be to look for the most effective form of exercise; not simply a form of exercise that works. A horse and carriage and an automobile are both reliable forms of transportation; but clearly, the automobile is MORE effective/efficient.
The proponents of functional training often talk about the fact that training such moves helps the synergists – the supportive musculature - in a way that can never be achieved through sitting in machines. How do you respond?
Firstly, the research does suggest that synergists are not used while training on machines (they are in fact). Secondly, in terms of improving body composition (via changing RMR), enhancing speed/explosiveness/power, and preventing injury, strengthening the "major" muscle compartments are far more important. In fact, machines are a great way to target much of this "supportive" musculature: anterior tibialis, neck musculature come to mind, posterior deltoid, rotator cuff, hip adductor/abductor, come to mind.
Proprioception. Another issue that is often brought up is balance. Is this another specific motor skill such that if I practice standing on one leg each day that will not improve my balance at walking over rocky terrain?
The research also suggests that balance is task specific. A person can improve at one balance drill but it does not transfer to another balance context.
A last question – what about explosive training? This is another tactic that often comes up – “train explosively to improve speed and power”. So we see people doing Olympic lifts, bounding, doing depth jumps. Is this just a waste of energy or is there any real benefit?
I think every athlete should train explosively; but this does not mean they should perform Olympic lifts, depth jumps, etc. Improvements in "explosiveness" are stimulated by the INTENT to move explosively; the outward demonstration of fast movement is not important (or desirable). For example, if a trainee is performing the barbell bench press, he/she should perform the initial repetitions in a slow and controlled manner. This minimizes momentum and maximizes muscle tension; muscle tension is the most important element in muscle fiber recruitment. As the lifter begins to fatigue, he/she can in fact attempt to lift the weight as fast as possible - attempt to "explode" through the weight. However, the weight will not move fast because the trainee is fatigued and the weight is heavy. However, from a motor unit/muscle fiber standpoint, the "explosive" stimulus has been provided. This approach can and should be applied to all exercises/muscle groups. If the weight actually moves fast during strength training, momentum is introduced and muscle tension is reduced (as the musculature is essentially unloaded); this is the exact opposite of the goal of strength training and the requirement for muscle fiber recruitment.
Luke, thanks for answering those questions, I really appreciate the time you have taken and the effort that you put into answering so clearly. I've learned a lot and what you say does make sense.