Functional Training or Functionally Retarded?

About a year ago I met the owner of a local diner, let’s call him Marty. Marty trained with a friend who happened to be a personal trainer and Marty’s friend always brought up the fact—in an awkward and forced fashion—that he was NASM certified. We’ll call him Mr. Nasm. I can’t recount the number of times I watched Marty make a fool of himself performing the exercises prescribed by Mr. Nasm on a daily basis. When I asked Marty what the hell he was doing, he said, “It’s functional training.”

The other day, Marty and I stood talking and he said, “You know what? I didn’t feel like I was making any gains with Mr. Nasm, so I found another trainer. He told me I had poor functional strength.” Go figure, Marty. Mr. Nasm had told Marty it took time—years, in fact—to build decent functional strength, that Marty reacted slowly to the training. The problem was not Marty. The problem is Mr. Nasm and the hundreds of misguided, undereducated trainers like him. They teach a new kind of training I like to call functionally retarded.

Don’t get me wrong. Being functionally retarded looks cool and, to be honest, is not easy. Hell, I have an extrememly difficult time looking functionally retarded and am impressed by some of the functional retardation I witness. Let me show you how impressive it can look. Here are 50 functionally retarded exercises.

(Since AC/DC is playing in the background, this guy is obviously hardcore.)

So what the hell is functional training? The best definition available is from an NSCA Hot Topics paper (get the pdf here) that I came across:

Functional training involves movements that are specific—in terms of mechanics, coordination and energetics—to one’s activities of daily living (ADLs).

Simple definition, right? Functional training should enhance and strengthen the skills needed for one’s everyday life. These exercises may not look identical in form to a daily task but require the same mechanics, force and power production (e.g. a deadlift isn’t exactly how you’d pick a heavy object off the floor, but it requires the same force transfer, core activation and power development). Functional training also does not entail taking movements to functional exhaustion and—according to the research presented in the NSCA paper—actually increases the time needed to acquire good functional coordination. (Think about it, how often do you sit in a rolling office chair, stand, sit down, stand, repeatedly until your legs are fully exhausted? Would it therefore be functional to do this in the gym?)

Now you can see why the exercises above (all done with TRX bands) are functionally retarded and not functional training. How often do you squat down on one leg while leaning back, supporting yourself by your arms, performing the movement over and over again? An unsupported one-legged squat is functional…for an amputee. By definition, it would comprise an ADL for her or his day. I, however, have both legs. Now, jumping backward and forward, or side-to-side, landing softly on one leg, repeated several times, is functional—this simulates the skill, force production and landing mechanics of walking or running.

One of my favorite functionally retarded exercises is kneeling or standing on a physio ball. I don’t know many people, besides circus performers, who perform this activity on a daily basis, yet many respected trainers tell clients this is the pinnacle of functional training.

Who comes up with this stuff? And why is cluttering up the gym? Trainers purposefully set up a panoply of stability boards, physio balls, TRX bands and rubber bands in the middle of the gym for high visibility. Demonstrating their prowess to train humans like dogs, the on-lookers will ooh and aah and new business is generated for the trainer. There’s a problem. Those in the gym with real knowledge, personal experience and experience taking others to new levels of performance look quizzically at the trainer who appears, for lack of a better word, stupid. And believe me, those in the know make sure everyone else knows how stupid these trainers appear.

I am saddened, actually. Trainers with good intentions get hooked into fads and are unprepared by their gyms and certification programs to distinguish useful from useless. Sure, some of this new equipment may be fun, but, on the whole, it’s unnecessary. A good trainer makes the training enjoyable independent of the number of toys they use.

But I’m also pissed (a recurring theme in my rants) because these trainers think they become experts when they mimick fads. They take up ridiculous amounts of space to train a single client and often make, not one, but several pieces of equipment unusable for the purpose intended. The Gold’s where I train is an excellent example. Two trainers there are the epitomy of functionally retarded training. They continually find newer and less functional exercises that use more and more equipment, while providing fewer and fewer results and taking up more and more space. I am in the gym to train, not just to function, but to excel; so get the hell out of my way. Go practice getting out of a chair. For one, it’s functional, and two, you won’t waste your money paying someone to make you look and feel like an idiot.

You can’t kill this trend. You can’t even slow it down. You can only watch it morph (I purposely do not use the word evolve because that implies advancing). Functionally retarded training is here to stay. Whether it’s done with physio balls, TRX bands or kettlebells, you’ve just got to ride the wave, hope you sail by smoothly and don’t get crushed by the swelling stupidity. It’s human nature: monkey see; monkey do.

There is another possible explanation, one that goes beyond human nature and transcends ignorance and laziness: maybe trainers these days have a secret desire—an unfulfilled childhood dream—to train circus animals. They dream of dancing bears atop great, multi-colored balls and elephants with glittering headwear performing handstands, all under their expert control. I don’t know, but I did find this as suporting evidence of my hypothesis:

(When it’s over, they’ll throw Billy a raw fish.)