Should I be doing functional training, or will my bodybuilding workouts keep me in good condition for all my other activities?
The term "functional training" is one of the most popular buzzwords in fitness. It's also one of the most misused. The idea behind functional training is to use exercises that optimize your ability to carry out the activities of daily living, recreational pursuits, and/or sports performance. Proponents believe that multijoint free-weight exercises are better than single-joint and machine movements because they better approximate functional tasks. Bodybuilding-style workouts are often dismissed as "nonfunctional" by the functional training crowd.
The problem is, based on the evidence, that viewpoint is overly simplistic at best and in some cases completely misguided. In a seminal study on the functional transfer of training, nine frail, elderly nursing-home patients were recruited to perform 3 sets of leg extensions—considered one of the least functional exercises—with a load corresponding to 80 percent of their one-rep max. The subjects trained three times per week for eight weeks. During that time, their muscle strength increased an average of 174 percent, and their walking speed increased by 48 percent. Most impressively, two of the subjects were able to walk unassisted, without the use of their canes!
Really, what activity is more functional than the ability to move independently?
In an effort to test the functional fitness concept in younger individuals, our group compared the squat versus the leg press in a group of untrained college-aged men. The subjects were randomly chosen to perform either 6 sets of squats, 6 sets of leg presses, or 3 sets of squats and 3 sets of leg presses. They trained twice per week for 10 weeks, performing 8-12 reps per set. The results showed that squats had the greatest transfer to the vertical jump, followed by the squat/leg press combo, and then the leg press—although it's important to note that all three formats led to improvements in jumping ability over the course of the study. Interestingly, the leg press actually had the greatest effect on dynamic balance, while the squat group saw the least improvements there.
Sports Performance Gains
The functional benefits of single-joint exercises aren't limited to geriatric and untrained populations. Recently, I collaborated on a paper with my colleague Bret Contreras that discussed the potential benefits of single-joint exercises for enhancing sports performance. For example, squats involve the hamstrings in only a limited way, but leg curls are an excellent tool for developing the muscle fully and provide proper quad/ham balance for injury prevention.
Bottom line: We need to stop thinking in binary terms when it comes to exercise prescription. Virtually all exercises can be functional, depending on the context. Certainly, high-level athletes need a greater specificity of training to enhance sports performance, which generally means focusing on compound, free-weight movements, but there can still be a place in an athlete's program for single-joint and machine exercises. For the majority of the population, simply getting stronger, regardless of the exercise used, will enhance their functional capacity. Ultimately, some exercises have greater applicability than others based on individual goals and abilities, but most people can improve their functional capacity substantially by using a wide array of training approaches, and a standard bodybuilding-style program will fill the bill.
- Beckham, S. G., & Harper, M. (2010). Functional training: fad or here to stay?. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 14(6), 24-30.
- Fiatarone, M. A., Marks, E. C., Ryan, N. D., Meredith, C. N., Lipsitz, L. A., & Evans, W. J. (1990). High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians: effects on skeletal muscle. Jama, 263(22), 3029-3034.
- Rossi, F. E., Schoenfeld, B. J., Ocetnik, S., Young, J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., ... & Cholewa, J. (2016). Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 13.
- Schoenfeld, B., & Contreras, B. (2012). Do single-joint exercises enhance functional fitness?. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(1), 63-65.