Monday, March 16, 2009

The Value of Functional Training: Part I

Guest blogger: Dr. Jeremy Howell

Walk into a health club or gym these days and it will not be too long before you will see some person trying to stand on a Bosu Ball, shaking a Body Blade in one hand while holding a Bungee Cord in the other, one leg raised and one eye closed, working on their strength, coordination and balance. For fitness professionals and exercise enthusiasts alike, this image has too often become synonymous with something called ‘functional training.’ However, while it certainly looks like some form of exercise, it is hardly functional. Well, not according to Gary Gray anyway. Founder and President of the Gray Institute in Adrian, Michigan in the USA, Gary is without doubt one of the world’s leading pioneers and authorities in physical rehabilitation and training. Often referred to as ‘first in function’, Gary is sought out by top athletes, trainers and coaches from around the world. As an industry thought leader, he is the originator and developer of many internationally acclaimed educational programs, including the ‘Chain Reaction’ series of seminars, the ‘Functional Video Digest’ series, and the ‘Fast Function DVD’ series.

I recently had the opportunity to talk at length with him about the topic.

Dr. J: Gary, let’s start by having you tell us exactly what you mean by functional training.

G2: Well, it has indeed become somewhat of a confusing term out there. Functional training is training the body to do what it not only has to do but also wants to do. My body has to walk to get to work, bend and twist to pick up boxes, get on the ground and push up, and pull on things. My body needs to be healthy and functional enough to achieve things it has to do. Now I also might want to play golf. So my body needs to have the capability of getting through the motions of golf, having the balance, the skills of golf. So function for everyone is two different things. What you have to do as part of being a human being and the things you like to do.
Dr. J: Ok, so let’s apply that to the example of the person on the Bosu Ball.

G2: If you showed that to someone not familiar with health clubs and infomercials they would probably say they have never seen anyone doing that before. They’d say, “I’ve never seen them stand on something like that or hold exercise toys like that.” So exactly what function is that person training their body for? Is it something they have to do and what they need to do? Are they training for something they want to do?

Dr. J: So the function should be relatively apparent in the exercise itself?

G2: At the Gray Institute, when we do functional training, our first goal is to figure out what the required function is, then figure out how to do fundamental and foundational training for that function. Now the rule of thumb for us is that you try to make that training as pure and authentic as possible. So, for instance, if I am doing functional training to be a better short stop in baseball, immediately I’m looking at what a shortstop does. How far they lunge, how they reach to get a ball, how they balance, how they position themselves, how they need to stand at the plate and swing a bat, and how they react? I’m going to look at all the skill sets. Then we’ll immediately go into analyzing what we call the ‘…ing’s’, the action verbs that the body has to do at that short stop position: bending, twisting, flexing, reaching, balancing, throwing, swinging. So if I am a right-handed short stop, I certainly need to do a right lateral lunge with a right lateral reach at knee height. That is how I would catch a backhand going into third base. So we take the action verb that the body can do – that’s what function really is – and then we implement it in the sagittal, frontal and transverse plane of motion and at different heights – shoulder to overhead, wais to shoulder, knee to waist, etcetera.

Dr. J. OK, so let’s return to your shortstop example.

G2: Initially I would design a functional training program with no equipment. Remember, the best part of functional training is to make it as authentic as possible. I would do the lunge, flexibility and balance training, strength, speed and reactive training, coordination and agility training, using only those things that give me the foundational skill needed for that shortstop position. I’m just going to use gravity, ground, mass and momentum in all three planes of motion. As soon as I start adding an implement, a medicine ball, a bungee cord, a free weight, a Bosu ball, any of those pieces of functional equipment, I’m compromising the function.

Dr. J: You are saying that using functional equipment can actually compromise the function itself?

G2: Exactly. However, it can also enhance it. The problem is when you introduce equipment you are both compromising and enhancing function. You are doing both. It’s a paradox. It’s not pure function anymore. I’m taking you away from function but if I am a real good functional trainer, what I’m going to do is literally make you better at what you have to or want to do. So we go from foundational and fundamental exercise, we then three dimensionalize it to make sure it is part of the whole chain reaction, and then the next level is to ask “how may I enhance that?” So I may add a load, a little bit of instability, and a little resistance with a bungee cord, a tweak to make the foundations or fundamental exercises a little more difficult. But, here is where the divergence occurs. Sometimes I can be too cute. So you see folks doing things in the gym or in infomercials, and you have to ask yourself, are you sure what they are doing is going to make them a better short stop, a better golfer, allow them to run faster.

Dr. J: So this gets us back to the person with all the functional toys standing on the Bosu ball.

G2: This is where the divergence in the functional community occurs. People who understand function at a superficial level think you bring out all the toys and if you ask them why, they look at you as though they do not know the meaning of the question.

Dr. J: I few months back I visited you to work on a wonderful project that we both are developing called Free2Play. I joined you early one morning for a workout and noticed that you had the Perfect Pushup in your arsenal of functional toys. Let’s functionally talk about the push up.

Part II: The Perfect Pushup and Functional Training -- stay tuned!

If you would like to learn more about Gary Gray and his Chain Reaction’ series of seminars, the ‘Functional Video Digest’ series, and the ‘Fast Function DVD’ series, then visit the Gray Institute. If you would like to learn more about functional movement science at the University of San Francisco, particularly future live and online course offerings to working professionals, then feel free to contact Dr. Howell at

Jeremy Howell Biography

Chair of the Exercise and Sport Science department at the University of San Francisco, Jeremy has extensive exercise and sport industry experience having served as an advisor and consultant to a number of national and regional for-profit and non-profit organizations. He is also the 2007 recipient of University of San Francisco St Ignatius Award, given to the faculty person that best personifies the meaning of service to his community, profession and university.

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