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Functional Training - a new tool for fitness professionals

Hadyn Luke posted this on Friday 8th of March 2013 Hadyn Luke 08/03/2013

Tags: Training methods

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In one of our previous blogs we discussed the Results of the 2013 Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends released by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). This annual survey makes a distinction between “fads” and “trends” in the health and fitness industry and the subject of this blog, Functional Fitness, appeared at number eight on the list.

What is functional training?

Used by more and more personal trainers, functional training is designed to specifically enhance activities of daily living (ADL), whether for ordinary everyday life, recreational pursuits or sporting activities. The general concept is that a fitness professional will set an exercise that teaches a client’s nervous system and body how to perform a movement rather than focusing on working a specific muscle or muscle group.

So if a personal trainer asks a client to carry out a bench press, in functional training they are teaching them how to push rather than looking to train a particular muscle. Other functional exercises might include replicating the action of picking a box up and putting it on a shelf, as a client might do in everyday life when unpacking shopping bags. A fitness instructor would show a client how to carry out this specific movement in the gym, rather than teaching them a closed-chain exercise.

Using functional training in a gym environment

It would be up to the personal trainer to choose the exercise that most closely replicates the biomechanical, physiological and neuromuscular movement. This could relate to any or all of the following:

  • the range of movement at a joint
  • the type of contraction of the muscle
  • the velocity of muscle contraction
  • the amount of strength and force being applied during the movement
  • the repetitiveness of the movement (whether it’s a one-off or repeated movement)

Functional training comprises the integration of whole body exercises that produce a lot of globular (large) movements but also muscles that are responsible for the stabilisation of the spine as well as the scapular.

Analysing a client’s imbalances

When applying functional training, the first thing a fitness instructor will do is to analyse their client to assess if they have any muscular imbalances. One option is to ask the client to perform an overhead squat, which was discussed in a previous blog Overhead Squat Analysis.

The American College of Sports Medicine Journal (Vol 14/No 6, 2010) also cites the in-line lunge, hurdle step, shoulder reaching, straight leg raise, push-up and rotational stability as ways of assessing a client’s ability.

By applying these Functional Movement Screening (FMS) tests, an exercise professional can assess any muscular imbalances and design a programme to strengthen the client’s weaknesses but also to further improve their ability to perform the movements they are competent at.

Designing a functional training programme

Programme design will be based around all aspects of fitness, so not only strength, endurance and power, but also balance, flexibility and mobility, as well as anaerobic and aerobic fitness. This will give a holistic, full-body, balanced programme.

The exercises are very much movement based and are progressed on competency – the ability of the client to carry them out and the quality of their movement – based on a scale of one to three.

Such exercises might include:

  • unilateral movements (using one leg)
  • bilateral movements (using two legs)
  • contralateral movements (using opposite arm to leg)
  • rotational movements
  • asymmetrical movements

These all replicate everyday movements, from stepping off a bus to climbing stairs to carrying a bag over one shoulder.

A typical functional training exercise

Rather than using traditional fixed-path resistance machine exercises or free weight exercises such as the bench press or seated shoulder press, the personal trainer would ask the client to perform an exercise such as a asymmetrical dumbbell shoulder press while standing on one leg.

The aim of that exercise would be to strengthen the leg that the client is standing on and to develop balance and proprioception, while challenging them to hold their core with their spine in a neutral posture.

As they press the weight above their head on one side, that will further challenge the core as well as the whole body strength and their ability to transfer weight through the body. (add image in here?)

As our previous blog stated, functional training is becoming more prevalent in the health and fitness sector. However, it must be stated that functional training is just one of many tools available for the exercise professional and it’s not a quick fix all. As with other exercise variables, functional training should be applied to a client’s programme according to their level of fitness, ability and goals and should be used as one piece of an exercise professional’s tool kit to improve a client’s fitness and lifestyle.

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