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Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Thoughts on Functional Exercise

Over the years I've read more than my fair share of discussions that have prompted me to re-evaluate my ideas on "functional strength". This is a topic that gets discussed frequently in the strength training communities, and almost inevitably ends up in a pissing contest with all sides throwing out ridiculous arguments at each other. I will try to offer my definition of "functional strength" and "strength" in general; if you disagree, please observe the post description (the letters under the blog title).
I would like to state three things at the very start:
1) There are many, many exercises that target muscles in isolation for the purpose of bringing them up to the overall development level of the body, either in terms of strength or in terms of size. A good example would be the dumbbell concentration curl for the biceps. There is nothing wrong with the practicing of these exercises, and I encourage trainees to use them. Sure, some of them develop aesthetic aspects of the muscles worked with little increase in strength. Also, some people are more concerned with appearance than with strength. Some are not really concerned with strength at all, although it is impossible to develop a muscle without increasing its strength to at least some degree. Different people have different choices. I don't focus on the aesthetic part of exercising, although I try to maintain the size and shape that I have, but I have full support for people who do. their goal is just as valid as mine. To say that these exercises have no place in someone's training is an ignorant and narrow-minded standpoint to say the least. Unless you're a strength/conditioning/fitness trainer with some influence in the "game", you shouldn't really be bashing the way other people train. The best you can do is offer some advice based on personal experience.
2) There is no such thing as "dysfunctional exercise" (which, I guess, would be the opposite of "functional"). The function of a tricep kickback is the delopment of certain aspects of the tricep muscle. The tricep kickback, when performed properly and with appropriate muscle tension, can bring about this change in the tricep. Therefore, it is "functional", as it satisfies that particular function. The function of the barbell back squat is to develop strength in the legs and to some degree core and posterior chain, add mass to the lower body and, indirectly, upper body, even effect a testosterone release. For the listed tasks, the barbell back squat is "functional", whereas the tricep kickback is pretty useless. Using the barbell back squat for tricep development, on the other hand, is a waste of time. I'm sure you understand what I'm trying to say. You could argue that the tricep kickback has limited carryover to athletic performance (a vague term if there ever was any - who could be stupid, ignorant and superfluous enough to group ALL sports and activities in existence under the umbrella term "athletic performance" in this context?), but that has NOTHING to do with "functionality". After all, bodybuilding is an athletic endeavour too, right?
3) I believe in all kinds of strength, from max effort to endurance. One thing that particularly annoys me is the concept of "relative strength". You know, the old "if I weigh 100 lbs and lift 150 lbs I'm much stronger than the 200-lb guy lifting 270". Or even my favorite: "if I weight 100 lbs and can do 10 pushups, I'm just as strong as the 200-lb guy who can also do 10". I never really grasped the concept of "less is more" in this sense. Basic physiology will reveal that just because a man weighs 200 lbs., he doesn't have DOUBLE the factors that effect strength output. This idea ignores minor differences, like height, bone size, etc. Yes, my ego would soar at the idea of the 350 lbs. guy who squats 500 lbs. being weaker than myself, but it just isn't true.Okay, so what forms can this "functional strength" take? Strength can be expressed in the following forms:
Maximum dynamic effort - "grind" lifts: this is the basic idea behind the bench, squat, deadlift, bent-over row, curl, etc., etc. Sure, you need explosiveness to blast through the sticking points and the best powerlifters in the world work on this aspect extensively, but the bar moves slowly thoughout the movement, sometimes stalling. This type of strength is developed by training with heavy poundages for low-rep sets, sometimes even singles. For the big compound lifts, accessory work is usually done for assistant muscle groups (also with low-rep sets, moderately heavy to heavy weight). Speed work, necessary for overcoming the insufferable "sticking points" (i.e. weak portions of the lift), focuses also on low-rep sets performed as fast as possible. It is estimated that the heaviest weight a movement can be performed explosively with is around 60% of the "grind" one-rep max, although I'm sure this varies immensely across the board.Not all "grind" lifts are done with weights, though. This category would certainly include non-plyometric bodyweight exercises - one-armed pullups and pushups, one-leg squats and pistols, handstand pushups, as well as gymnastic exercises on the rings. It's not what you're exercising with, it's the type of effort that makes the difference - al these exercises require a lot of muscle working together in order to "muscle out" that max-effort rep.
Maximum dynamic effort - explosive lifts: these would be the Olympic lifting staples, like the clean and jerk and snatch, also to include variations: power clean, power snatch, various high pulls, etc. The idea is to move as much weight as possible using a "quick" lift, a superbly coordinated effort of several muscle groups that hoists the bar to a sufficient height for the athlete to be able to get under it and complete the lift. The clean and jerk consists of two separate rapid motions - the "clean" part, where the bar is brought to the "rack" position at shoulder height, and the "jerk" part, where the athlete dips beneath the bar and explodes it to an overhead lockout position. The snatch is probably one of the most marvellous displays of athleticism around, where the bar is brought from the ground overhead in a single explosion of strength and power. The same movements can be performed with dumbbells or kettlebells. These quick lifts can be combined with "grinds", resulting in the clean and strict press, probably the single most productive exercise around for overall strength and even size. The quick lifts are best trained with low-rep, multiple sets, as they are pretty demanding CNS-wise.
Bodyweight plyometrics would also be included here, although not those of the repetitive kind. Maximum depth jumps would qualify, as would the vault event in gymnastics.
Maximum static strength - overcoming isometrics: in this type of exercise, the athlete is attempting to lift or otherwise overcome a supramaximal resistance in a given position. Since the resistance is supramaximal, i.e. more than the maximal resistance he/she can overcome in that position, no movement occurs (but a whole load of muscular effort). The main disadvantage with this type of exercising is the relative nature of the effort. If you're doing maximal-effort pushing agaist a wall, how can you determine if you're pushing harder than in the previous session? This issue can be alleviated by using loaded barbells/dumbbells, but then progress can only be measured in exercises that resemble barbell/dumbbell exercises, while the greatest value of isometrics is that you can work muscles and joints from ALL angles. To resolve this issue, Pete Sisco and John Little, the authors of Power Factor Training, devised a machine that measures strength output in isometric overcoming holds. I have not used this device, so I cannot vouch for its effectiveness. The good old Bullworker is also convenient. Training protocols with isometrics usually quote the 3-6 second duration range as most effective for max efforts.
Maximum static strength - yielding isometrics: here the objective is to work against active resistance. Again, no movement occurs, but instead of you working against an immovable resistance, the resistance tries to move against your effort to stop this motion. Obviously, you have to have an active resistance to work against. The most commonly used solution are free weights - place a barbell loaded to a supramaximal weight in a power rack, get under it, lie on a bench, take it off the pins and hold for time. Make sure you have a very reliable power rack. The obvious disadvantage of this method is the fact that for max strength work you need equipment - weights, and a lot more than you usually use, as well as a strong power rack or some other support system.
Partial lifts - a combination of static and dynamic strength: supramaximal repetitions within a limited range of motion (shorter than that used for the "real" exercise) is a method that combines both static and dynamic training. This would include quarter-squats, push presses off the rack, overhead press lockouts bench press lockouts, below and above-the-knee deadlifts, etc. These are usually done in the strongest range of motion, as their purpose is to "skip" the weaker range (including the sticking point) and overload the muscle in a position where it is capable of more work. They also get the CNS accustomed to the "feel" of a much heavier weight.
Dynamic strength-endurance - repetition method: this includes high-repetition sets of barbell, dumbbell and/or bodyweight exercises with the primary purpose of developing work capacity in the areas being worked, but also for increasing the capacity of the cardiovascular system to perform work at a certain intensity. This kind of stamina is vital to competitors in all sports where repetitive moderate intensity effort is required for prolonged periods of time, such as rowing, grappling, boxing, etc. It is also great for fat loss "without the dishonor of running", to paraphrase a popular maxim. Strength-endurance is definitely a form of strength - even the powerlifter, the paradigm of one-rep "grind" effort, needs this type of strength, as a powerlifting meet can last an entire day and entail nine max-effort movements (or better) plus a ton of warmup and maintenance work. The exercises are usually performed explosively, with low to moderate weights.
Static strength-endurance - yielding and overcoming efforts for time: although some would argue that this type of training can even be counter-productive, many sports and athletic activities rely heavily on "isometric endurance". Think of the grip of a judoka on his opponent's lapel, or the stance of the karate practitioner. Definitely a must.
Carries for time or distance - combining static and dynamic strength-endurance: Dan John, the celebrated strength and athletics coach and former discus great, said that there are three ways of developing strength: lifting something overhead, lifting something off the ground, and carrying something for distance and/or time. And if he said it, you better believe he's right. Farmer and yoke carries are part of strongman competition now, and justly so. They have been building tremendous amounts of strength for centuries now.
Non-gravitational resistance - elastic resistance: ah, my pet cables. I love cable exercises not only for their convenience, but for the way they develop strength from any possible angle. Gravity is an excellent provider of resistance (and it's free and always available), but the cable creates its own direction of resistance depending upon the direction it's placed in. Cables also provide a way to work around the problem of diminishing muscular effort as the movement progresses, which is present with barbells: the further you stretch them, the more resistance you encounter, so you're effectively overloading the stronger part of the movement while remaining able to overcome the lower resistance at your sticking point.
Non-gravitational resistance - resistance of materials: this would include bending of iron and steel bars, nails, rebar and the like, ripping of telephone books and cards in halves and quarters, etc. In other words, it is not the weight of the object that provides the resistance - it is the properties of the material from which the object is made. One could argue that cable training falls into the same category, but I think they should be viewed separately. The resistance offered by an iron bar does not increase as it is bent, and you don't require the super-concentrated total-body effort required for bending and ripping to stretch cables (even heavy ones).
Human resistance: this is probably the most underrated form of strength training there is, and also one of the most effective. It is developed by pitting your strength directly against another human, as in wrestling and other grappling sports, and combines most of the expressions of strength described above, plus entails an element of technique too. In my grappling years I encountered a few guys who had immense "human throwing strength". They never lifted weights, or if they did used light poundages, and most of them definitely did not have the advantage of superior technique - their throw attempts were relatively slow and inefficient. Yet when you tried to force them into a disadvantageous position they seemed rooted to the ground. Their grip was vice-like, despite never doing grip-specific work apart from... grappling. I would advise all would-be strong guys and gals to give some form of grappling a go. It develops strength, endurance and a whole new outlook on sports and life in general.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. I would greatly appreciate if someone would think of something to add to this ramble. In conclusion, a person who wishes to be considered "strong" must train for all sorts of strength. Of course, if your strength training is taken up to "improve athletic performance", try to determine which of these expressions of strength suits your particular sport best, then work it into the ground.


Unknown said...

Great article. What initially caught my eye was the "Pete Sisco/John Little created a machine...." That is way of course. Pete has never developed a machine only SCT/PFT/ John and Pete co-authored books and John years ago parted ways with Pete. John did in fact design a monstrosity of a contraption which still requires using free weights. Pete for years endorsed EF equipment which was designed by a guy out of New Hampshire. The methodology of PFT/SCT has evolved into Measured Intensity Training (MIT). MIT was developed to measure the intensity of the isometric "hold". Because intensity is everything. MIT surpasses SCT in that it recruits more muscle fibers. In fact, MIT using the (1REP GYM) recruits MORE muscle fibers than ANY other form of strength training in existence today. I'm very passionate about this if you can't tell. I created Measured Intensity Training and a retired gentleman in Florida designed a machine for me he called the "isometric gym" I used it for several months and was blown away. I renamed th machine to '1 REP GYM". Functional strength in my opinion as a trainer, researcher, and developer of MIT (the world's fastest workout) is the strength one needs on a daily basis. The little old lady who needs to carry bags of groceries or take out the garbage. The high school athlete who needs more strength/endurance to end the game as well as he started. The baby boomer who just wants to have or maintain a high quality of life. I guess to me and my experience over the last several years these are what matter "most" to people. I would love to hear you opinions on th 1 REP GYM please check it out here that is the prototype machine and there are newer (sexier looking) machines available and the videos will be up soon.

Really enjoy your articles

All the best,

Fatman said...


I apologize for misplacing the "copyright" to the static contraction machine. I saw the website and this is pretty much what I had in mind - this resembles a machine that featured in one of Pete Sisco's books (so I assumed he was the creator). That one might have had chains and handles instead of a bar, but yes, it is the same concept.

As for isometric contractions and partial reps, I've used both in conjunction with full-ROM training. They are a valuable addition, and helped me set a few personal bests, most notably in the bench and the squat.

I would not use them (isos and partials) as a system unto themselves - I tried that and stopped making progress on the real lift, although I was making progress on the partial lifts. However, they are the best thing for blasting through sticking points. Your machine looks pretty awesome!