The simple fact is, regardless of whether you are an international elite level athlete or someone who plays Sunday league football and smokes a cigarette at half time (more common than you might expect); if you want to improve your physical performance, you should be doing functional training in some form. Yes, sadly (actually excitingly) that does mean a few less bicep curls and lateral dumbbell raises and a few more squats and deadlifts. If, however, all you are interested in is getting a great body to show off during the summer (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then this article may not be for you. Then again, you may find it interesting and learn something…
What Actually is “Functional Training”?
Excellent question. Functional movements mirror those which are performed in everyday life or in athletic situations and when trained correctly over time, can confer improvements in quality of life and/or performance in athletic situations. For example, the squat is functional because it is essentially the same as standing up from a seated position and the deadlift is essentially the same as picking something up from the floor. While these simple everyday tasks may not be an issue for young healthy populations, they are particularly pertinent to older populations who perhaps don’t have such good movement and coordination. Hence if we can get our immobile and weaker grandparents on an appropriately designed resistance training programme, inclusive of functional movements, we would be able to help them improve their everyday quality of life and hopefully keep them out of a wheelchair for longer. So that’s the clinical side of the discussion.
Now we’ll move onto athletic performance. Functional training is inclusive of an incredibly broad range of lifts, gymnastics and plyometric/ballistic drills which are too great to cover in their entirety for the scope of this article. However, we can certainly discuss the basic fundamentals. Squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and jerks, the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk) and their derivatives are incredibly effective in their ability to enhance strength and power when performed correctly, correlating to improved performance in sports ranging from intermittent sports such as rugby and football to endurance sports such as running and cycling [1, 2]. Oranchuk and colleagues  found that the “hang high pull” (an Olympic lifting derivative) and “trap bar deadlift jump” performed as part of 10-week training programmes improved jump height and explosive/ballistic strength. This has significance in sports such as football where jumping to win the ball in the air may be the difference in scoring or conceding a goal. So that’s a good example of where lifting is beneficial.
Even less utilised than functional lifts, are plyometric/ballistic drills and these are undoubtedly some of the most important for athletic development, particularly where speed is concerned. Examples include box jumps, drop jumps and rotating medicine ball slams. As already mentioned, these are primarily aimed at developing speed through increased ballistic rate of force development (RFD) at the neuromuscular level. Read on to find out the significance of this…
Explosive/ballistic Strength Has Come Up a Few Times - It Must Be Important?
It is. RFD is essentially a measurement of explosive/ballistic strength i.e. the ability to produce high amounts of force in a small amount of time – greater RFD equals more force produced in less time. Ground contact time in sprinting is thought to be approximately 100 milliseconds (ms) , while time to reach peak force in sustained maximum voluntary contractions (MVC) is thought to be ³250ms . Therefore, to be good at sprinting, an advantage in multiple sports, we need to be able to produce a lot of force in 100ms or less i.e. have good RFD. We can improve our muscles RFD through the plyometric drills previously mentioned such as box jumps and drop jumps, among many others. Is the “functional training” message getting through? The main point to take away here is that explosive strength is strongly suggested to be more functionally relevant to athletic performance than maximum strength in a considerable number of sports. Put simply, one’s ability to drop to the ground from a given height and rapidly explode back up is likely more important than their one rep-max bench press (in several but not all athletic situations) and if you’ve ever performed a one rep-max bench press you’ll know it’s generally not a fast contraction.
In addition to performance enhancement, we need to consider injury prevention. Most anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) ruptures occur £50ms after contact with the ground . This happens when the ligament is unable to withstand the force put through it upon landing. If we are able to produce high force quickly in order to support the ligament on landing, we can decrease the risk of it rupturing and this principle spreads to multiple muscles and connective tissue.
What’s the Difference Between Training for Maximum Strength and Training for Explosive Strength?
Another great question. Just to be clear, explosive strength is the ability to rapidly produce a high amount of force from a low or resting level, whereas maximum strength is the absolute highest amount of force that can be generated [5, 7, 8] Therefore, training for explosive strength means performing short duration, ballistic contractions such as a squat jump, whereas training for maximum strength involves longer duration contractions such that might be seen during a heavy set of deadlifts or bench press. It is noteworthy that longer duration contractions have also been shown to confer superior hypertrophic (muscle growth) benefits  and this is a training methodology typically utilised by bodybuilders for precisely that reason.
The most important factor to consider when developing a strength and conditioning/fitness training programme for athletic performance is the demands of the sport/recreation in question. Understanding which physiological factor (i.e. speed or strength or agility etc.) is the most relevant, provides a solid base from which to choose and incorporate certain modalities into your training. First, master the fundamentals (squat, deadlift, overhead presses) and then learn how to do new and exciting movements such as the Olympic lifts. Throw some basic gymnastics (pull ups, handstand press ups, muscle ups etc.) in there as well as the all so important plyometric/ballistic drills we’ve discussed, and you’ve got yourself a beautifully varied, fun and exciting training programme to follow. Oh, and by the way, this will still give you bigger muscles (gains)…
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