Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Revisiting this idea of functional training

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.



Anonymous said...

Good interview. The last point - "exploding" into the movement near the point of failure - is a very interesting one. I don't think I've seen this elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

It always comes back to this for me: in my 30+ years of being in and around the strength and conditioning game, I've yet to run across a SS/HIT trained athlete who has made noticeable improvements using that type of a protocol. The science sounds great, and it looks good on paper, but...

Now maybe it's a failure of application or otherwise (lacking ability to begin with). I do think that SS/HIT has a legitimate place in the pantheon, I just think, though, that it serves a very narrow purpose.

Chris said...

Keith - I think what you say sums up why I keep chewing this stuff over and trying to learn more about this perspective. It sounds great and makes sense but why isn't it being used? It may just be the sort of logical problem that McGuff identifies in the book - athletes succeed in spite of their trainging.

I don't know

Dream said...

Awesome interview, easy to read and to the point.

Skyler said...

For those who worry about "high level athletes" training this way, namely Keith, check out the videos from this HIT gym. They used to have videos of college athletes getting drill this way in the summer, and I think some college football players are buried in the "squatfest" video:

Dave Tate uses HIT principles as part of his "Stong(er)" training routine (based on a recent interview).

Dan Riley, strength coach of the Houston Texans, also uses HIT principles.

And before I sound like such a homer, I'm currently using the "Westside for Skinny Bastards" template, which isn't HIT in any way shape or form.

Michael said...

great interview. however, i don't know if this approach to training provides the endurance benefits of other types of training, such as crossfit or met con.

if i recall, the body by science author's answer to endurance was a anecdote about walking up stairs. he essentially said that greater strenght means less need for aerobic capacity.

this issue concerns me. HIT training may be fine for strength gains alone, but it does not seem, to me, that these trainers are concerned as much with a person's ability to sustain effort over time. should HIT type training be combined with tabata and sprint training, then?

i'd appreciate any responses to this concern.

Anonymous said...

I dunno.... sounds just like any other HIT guy. Mantra: ballistics are demos of strength, not strengthening moves, therefore nix the cleans and snatches, do grinds instead.

Barry Ross, the sprinting coach, insists deadlifts, not cleans and other Oly lifts, increase sprinting speed if performed in a manner to not increase mass, only strength.

Luke's last paragraph got me scratching my head over the articles on T-mag by Chris Shugart and Chad Waterbury who write that lifting fast, or explosively, DOES recruit the very muscle fibers that Luke says can only be recruited, safely, by using explosive INTENT with heavy weights, (instead of lifting a 50 or 70% 1RM (or even 5RM) quickly.

Anecdotal 'evidence' from coaches usually support doing the Oly lifts. However, I think the Oly ballistic lifts destroy the joints. How many guys over 40 or 50 at your gym are doing snatches?

Finally, I would like to see more of what Luke writes regarding how machines DO use synergistic muscles and stabilizers... I have not seen that before.

Chris said...


McGuff's attitude to aerobics is a bit more complex than that - check out this video:


Relevant to this discussion is also the fact that the stuff on the Discover Strength site that got me interested was the fact that they had written all this material about applying appropriate strength training to distance running.

Despite what T nation says (and what they promote is of variable quality with lots of steroid freaks) the research I've seen doesn't indicate that you need to move explosively to hit the fast twitch fibres.

I've got Barry Ross' e book and think it is pretty good. Again he stresses basic strength and then applying it.

Anonymous said...

I would point out that Dan Riley was recently fired as the head S & C coach for the Houston Texans. Now, I'd put Dan right up there with Boyd Epley (formerly of the U of Nebraska)as the "founding fathers" of S & C, but he has long been criticized (and the reason, in fact, for why he was let go in Houston) for being associated with massive injury-reserve lists and under-performing athletes. Of course, many, many factors contribute to "injury" and "under-performance", however, the NFL offers a pretty unique case study for evaluating the effectiveness of various training protocols, as the division of talent (as are the inherent hazards) is, more or less, equitable team to team.

Again, I'm not a SS/HIT hater, as I do think this method has a legit place along side more traditional methods for developing strength. Strength, though, is only component of the overall objective of high-level training. I think Dave Tate's use of SS/HIT by the way, is totally appropriate for his pursuit of powerlifting gains. The demands of powerlifting, though, are a far cry from those of sports like rugby or football.

Al said...


Please go back and look up the stats on Dan Riley's days with the Redskins. He had one of the lowest injury rates in the NFL for close to two decades.

How can a program that kept athletes injury free for so long be responsible for a plethora of injuries all of the sudden? Short answer: it can't. The injuries of the Texans are likely unrelated to the strength training program.

People who say this sort of thing have obviously never been around the weight room of a pro sports team. Only about a third of the players actually have the ability to listen to instruction and are serious about what they do. Most would be SHOCKED at how little intensity some of those guys train with. It is all genetics and selection bias.

PROPER HIT requires attention to detail and usually requires someone with a slightly higher than average IQ. This is the advantage of funtional training as minimal equipment is required, the movements are "fun" and entertaining which lessons the need for a high level of detail. I'm not really refering to Crossfit. Even though I don't agree with many of the things they do, I can't say they don't work there asses off. Just take a quick look through Mark Ripptoe's books. Incredibly detailed and thourough.


Skyler said...


If they NFL works as a case study, then the oly lifts the Lions are doing imply they make athletes awful. Right? Right? I know you weren't running this far, but this is how correlation suddenly becomes causation.

Use of HIT for the sake of adding muscle tissue during certain portions of a grander training scheme would be helpful for an athlete. Bigger muscle = stronger muscle (generally), but if you've just come out of an intense season, are frazzled and have lost muscle mass,why the hell not? Less volume, more muscle. It has its place for an athlete.

RE: Crossfit; T-nation just posted a great article taking the piss out of crossfit. Only when you're drinking that kool-aid do you think that doing technically poor oly lifts for high reps while metabolically destroyed is a good idea.

Chris - fitnessfail.com said...

Re: Crossfit. I thought the t-nation article was actually a pretty even handed and fair presentation of Crossfit.

The issue of high rep O-lifts comes up often, and I think it really depends on what the athlete's goals are. Certainly if they want to excel as an o-lifter this is a bad idea, since you'll be ingraining sloppy form and the like.

For people who are only using the lifts as a means to an end, I'm less convinced it's a problem. Certainly dangerous form (back rounding, knee buckling, etc..) needs to be stopped at once. But form that is safe, but merely not idea (say, early arm bend) won't diminish the metabolic demand of the workout, and does not endanger the athlete.

It (like everything else in training) comes to do the question of "what are your goals"?

Bryce said...

As usual thanks for an awesome post!

Wait ... on second thought, damn you for challenging my beliefs that functional/explosive training is necessary! j/k. I will say that this piece, along with a lot of other stuff I've read recently, has definitely made me question why I train the movements I do. It seems the more specified and technical a movement, the more I have to decide if I really want to be good at it. So far, I haven't removed much from my routine, because I do want to be good at things like hand balancing, pistols, muscle ups on bars/rings/etc, and deadlifting/cleaning. But that's as much because they are impressive skills to be able to bust out, as it is because I notice their carry over to other areas.

I will say that one area where functional movement trumps the machine for me, personally, is withoverhead lifting. When I added the standing barbell press (or heavy double KB press) to my routine, I noticed the development of abdominal musculature that I'd never noticed in years of seated presses, or presses on machines (or any amount crunches/situps/ab work for that matter). Load overhead, while standing, challenges your body's ability to apply power/stabilization from the ground up.

You might be able to replicate this with a simply more complicated machine, but I just feel that the thing that makes the trunk activate in a barbell press is the fact that the weight wants to move in odd directions. If the weight doesn't try to do that, the trunk won't be activated in the same way, even though the shoulders might be significantly strengthened. So the machine would have to replicated the weight's desire to fall/shift, but at this point, wouldn't a barbell more easily accomplish this?

Keith frequently discusses the notion that always moving slowly trains the muscles to contract slowly, and that training explosively teaches the muscles to contract more quickly. Isn't there research to support this? I feel that long slow distance makes me a worse sprinter, and sprinting makes me a better sprinter and jumper. Am I wrong?

If somebody more knowledgeable than me could offer some insight (especially backed by research), I'd so greatly appreciate it!

Thanks always for the great blog,


Anonymous said...

...which brings me back to what I've always preached -- train the specified weakness, in the context of current circumstance, via the most appropriate methodology available in order to reach your defined goal. What's the best tool at the moment? Oly lifts? SS/HIT? CrossFit? Kettlebells? What energy system do we want to emphasize? The truth of the matter is, it depends. Unfortunately, guys like Dan Riley rarely have access to the time, resources (or, as AL pointed out) the trainee dedication to successfully pull this off w/in a diverse group. Football players might as well be 4 or 5 completely different groups of athletes, based on the requirements of their positions. I hate to lay out a shameless plug here, but I've got a post that ought to go up this evening covering this very topic.

Skyler said...

"Keith frequently discusses the notion that always moving slowly trains the muscles to contract slowly, and that training explosively teaches the muscles to contract more quickly. Isn't there research to support this? I feel that long slow distance makes me a worse sprinter, and sprinting makes me a better sprinter and jumper. Am I wrong?"

Totally different, as distance running is low intensity for extended periods of time, not necessarily a "slow movement" as the elite distance runners provide evidence of.

One could train superslow and superheavy, averaging TUL's in the 40 to 60 second range and trying like hell to explode the movement but being unable to because the weight is just too heavy. Look at a powerlifter doing max singles/doubles/triples: they're not moving fast but they're trying like hell to do so.

Chris said...

Thinking through these comments I still don't think that people fully get what this guy is saying.

There is no strength training exercise that carries over to athletic or everyday movements.That is radical stuff. If true ( and I keep getting told that the science says it is) then that should have profound implications for training.

I think perhaps people are forgetting that the principle is that you still need to train your athletic movements, e.g in rugby you need to practice tacking, kicking, lineouts, scrums, sprints, sidesteps etc. And you need to practice a lot.

However as I understand it the appropriate strength training for rugby is to efficiently strengthen the involved muscles. jump squats with weight will not directly make you better in the line out. you need to get stronger in the legs/posterior chain and then practice your line out skills.

Rannoch Donald said...

Wow! Great stuff. There is no strength training exercise that carries over to athletic or everyday movements? Really? We can choose to isolate the individual functions of muscles in the body but it happens at the expense of moving as a complete unit.

Human movement is greater than the sum of the parts. Whilst I would not advocate punching with dumbells for example, I would recommend swings. Why? Because the kinetic chain "reflects" the same power generation required to strike.

Most people lose physical sophistication over time. Our sedentary, desk sitting makes sure of that. Challenging training using a variety of stimuli is key.

Mobility followed by bodyweight followed by load based actvities, all in an effort to create a complete practice.

Whilst athletes may operate at the edges average people don't. We need to integrate our conditoining, our activities and our sports training.

Chris said...

Thanks Rannoch. Good stuff.

I'm still chewing this stuff over

Anonymous said...

I believe that the deadlift, due to its incredible capacity to strengthen the 'involved muscles' for everything, DOES carry over to athletic and everyday movements. With the exception of the pectorals, I can't think of a major muscle that isn't strengthened by performing heavy deadlifts.

Jeff said...

Hey Chris,

Great post. The comments are at least as useful as the article itself.

Unfortunately I am at least as confused as I was before. Everyone supposedly has "science" on their side yet most are either for something or against it. I don't get it and it leaves me as it always does on other things. Try it out myself and see if it works.

Without being called upon to prove the negative it would be nice to get a closer look at the science behind methods other than SS/HIT and to have those folks blow holes in their theory without resorting to anecdote.


Rannoch Donald said...

Science is our attempt to make sense of nature. Nature does not confrom. So what we see as cause and effect can be entriely unrelated.

We all want to "understand" but my personal experience will always trump your analysis. But just because it's right for me doesn't mean it's right for you. Science looks for definitions that require a predictable outcome from a particular input. Nature does not conform.

Mike T Nelson said...

I just put a comment in


to try to clear up some stuff; so check it out there.

It is my view, that sports performance is WAY more than just strength translated. It has to do with
1) visual info
2) proprioceptive info (from joints)
3) vestibular (inner ear "balance")
4) cognitive
5) strength

Rock on
Mike T Nelson
PhD(c), CSCS

Chris said...

Mike, Rannoch

thanks for some great comments

Anonymous said...

"Human movement is greater than the sum of the parts. Whilst I would not advocate punching with dumbells for example, I would recommend swings. Why? Because the kinetic chain "reflects" the same power generation required to strike."

Imagine a runner running with a pack on -the runner believes he is making the run harder which will make him run faster without his pack but running is a very specific skill (as is punching) and when he runs with the pack on he changes his stride pattern & body movements to accommodate this which retrains his running skills so when he returns to running without the pack his motor skills , body movements, pacing, stride pattern are all askew which hinders his performance. Attempting a skill transfer from something that isn't the skill itself has only a negative transfer.
It's very simple if you want to be a good 400m runner run 400m as fast as you can and strengthen the muscles used in this movement. In the 1970s Project Total Conditioning at West Point Academy provided great improvements in running(as well as cardiovascular ability, flexibility and of course strength) with only strength training:


Chris said...

Thanks for that pdf link - great stuff, really helpful.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this interview. Now I have realized that sports is scientific. I am coaching grade school basketball players and we give a lot of stuff to the players that made them tired instead of making them fruitful and good in basketball. I hope you will send me some research-based articles so i can guide more our players. This is a good education for and and I will really apply this new trend or approach to the players so they will may slowly become productive.

Anonymous said...

Good interview. For the record, Dan Riley was let go by the Houston Texans. Thanks

Vitamins Canada said...

It's really good to know the idea of functional training. Thanks a lot for sharing that information.

Dwayne Wimmer said...

It is a shame when presented with the facts people still fall back on what they believe rather then simple honest truths. Functional training and many of the newest "fitness" fads and routines are money making schemes that someone adopted and then tried to put science behind it. If one takes away all the fluff and all the whistles and bells that help sell some of these activities and take a look at the results they are creating or not creating. One can surly see that most things in the "fitness" industry are very ineffective, have a very low return on investment of time and many are just dangerous. We should be exercising to enhance life, not doing things that create injury and take so much time that we don't have time to do other things we enjoy.