Athletes performing "Functional Training" Exercises
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a post on the movement/exercise component of evolutionary health and fitness.

The main reason for this has been that over the past year or so, many of my long standing beliefs with regards to exercise/training/strength and conditioning (or whatever you want to call it) have been challenged, and I have been going through a period of research and experimentation to try and reformulate a new training philosophy.

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot of links to articles and videos featuring Erwan Le Corre and Doug McGuff recently.

Unsurprisingly, this is because these are the two key thinkers in the world of ancestral/evolutionary fitness that have been most influential in the formation of my new training philosophy.

At the time of opening the gym (November 2008), I’d say I was a big believer in “functional training”.

Crossfit (CF) had been my first introduction to the world of “functional training”. Up until this point I’d been following the conventional wisdom of performing plenty of steady state “cardio” and body part split 3 sets of ten style resistance training routines.

My first “WOD” was a rude awakening which made me realise I was neither fit, nor strong!

I soon found a number of issues with the “functionality” of main page CF, however.

1) The majority of movements are bilateral and in the sagital plane – Sports and real life activities tend to be unilateral and take place in multiple planes.

2) Training complex movements at high intensities invariably lead to bad form, which decreases movement efficiency, and increases injury risk.

3) The complete randomisation of workouts, and lack of progressive overload tends to work for people that are already strong and want to get fit, or complete beginners that have never lifted any weights, but for the intermediate lifter (probably the majority), CF is not effective at producing significant strength gains.

(I must point out that these criticisms are levelled at the standard main page CF programming, and I am sure there are loads of fantastic CF affiliates out there, that like me take elements of the CF philosophy and blend it with other influences to make something different and more effective).

Fortunately, it was through the Crossfit journal that I was introduced to Pavel, and in particular his book Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American

By switching from the totally randomised programming of crossfit to a more dedicated, progressive resistance program, I made more gains in strength in the period of a few weeks than I had doing crossfit for the best part of a year. Even better, my performance in the WODs improved also, despite performing them with lower frequency.

Pavel’s approach of treating strength as a skill, and getting stronger through practising your lifts and keeping perfect form dealt with issues 2 and 3, but I still had issue with the fact that most of his movements (deadlifts, swings, presses, etc) were performed on the spot, bilaterally and in the sagital plane.

In his Functional Strength Coach series Mike Boyle argues that as sports tend to be unilateral in nature, and involve movement in multiple planes, your training program should reflect this. This seemed to make sense, so using an amalgamation of the three training paradigms I arrived at Primal Fitness 1.0:

1-3 Days per week of Progressive Strength Training, treating strength as a skill, but incorporating plenty of unilateral exercises, anti-rotational core work and movements in multiple planes.

1-3 Days per week of High Intensity Interval Training, but avoiding complex, bilateral movements such as Olympic lifts which had little crossover to sport/life and high injury risk, and including movements such as carrying, dragging, crawling, climbing and jumping.

Undoubtedly, this formula gets results. We’ve seen them for ourselves, and all the amazing feedback we had at the leaving do has left no doubt in our minds that Primal Fitness 1.0 has made lots of people stronger, leaner, faster and fitter, helped them bust through plateaus and achieve new P.Bs, and transform their bodies and build confidence, all whilst having fun and making friends.

So, you may ask, “If it ‘aint broke, why fix it?”

When I am unfortunate enough to go back into a conventional gym, or see other outdoor fitness boot camps going on in the park it invariably makes me want to pull my hair out.

It boggles my mind to see instructors still making their clients do stomach crunches, chronic cardio and contra-indicated stretches. All movements that have been shown to be both ineffective and dangerous decades ago.

Why are these instructors still doing this? Because they figure “If it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it!”. Their clients are probably getting results, and enjoying themselves, therefore why keep looking for new and different ways to train?

Personally, however, I can’t help but ask myself – Is there a better way? Whilst your current method may get results, could another method get better results/could you get the same results more efficiently? Also, what are the long term effects of your method?

Perhaps the clients of the stomach crunch loving boot camp instructor all have great abs, but this will be of little consolation to them in a few decades time when they are all crippled with back pain!

So, what have I learned over the last 3 years?

Functional Training is a Myth.

You may have heard the saying “Strength is a Skill”. This is something that I am sure that crossfit, Pavel and Mike Boyle would all be in agreement with, as would Erwan Le Corre and Doug McGouff, who I mentioned are my more recent influences.

Where Le Corre and McGouff would disagree with Crossfit, Pavel and Boyle however, is the degree to which that skill of strength is transferable from one task to another.

The ability to perform any physical task requires two things – The raw physical tissue (i.e. muscle, tendons, mitochondria etc), and the neuromuscular patterning to coordinate that tissue in an effective and efficient manner.

A good analogy would be a computer – The physical body is like the hardware, the skill set is like the software. A powerful PC is great, but not much use if it doesn’t have the particular piece of software on it that you need!

Crossfit, Pavel and Boyle all recommend skill based “functional” exercises such as kettlebell swings, Olympic Lifts, split squats etc.

The problem with these movements though, is that the adaptations your body will make are predominantly neuromuscular – That is, they load more software onto your system, but don’t make much of an impact on your hardware.

Take the example of Olympic Lifting. People always turn to these lifts if they want to “become more explosive”, and give examples of famous Olympic lifters and how muscular they are, or how high they can jump.

The problem is, that in reality, practising O-Lifting will really only make you better at O-Lifting. Accomplished O-Lifters may be muscular and explosive, but you have to ask yourself two questions:

1) Could it be that successful O-Lifters have good genetics, which makes them naturally muscular and explosive, and it is these genetic attributes which in turn make them drawn to, and successful at O-Lifting, rather than the other way around?

2) Had said O-Lifter practised a different form of resistance training, and specifically practised jumping, could they now be even more muscular, and able to jump even higher?

I’ve long been against O-Lifting as a tool for sports conditioning due to the length of time necessary to learn the lifts, the high injury risk, and the lack of transferability to other sports, but now I see that the same arguments can be applied to almost all free weights exercises!

Take for example the squat – Generally considered to be the king of exercises in the Strength and Conditioning world. Whether you want to run faster, jump higher or simply build muscle, the majority of S&C coaches would recommend that you increase your squat.

There are a number of problems with this recommendation however:

1) A large proportion of the adaptations to the squat training are neurological, which will have little to no impact on other activities.

2) It takes a long time to learn to squat properly – Time which could be devoted to actually practising your chosen sport or activity, or just doing something else more productive instead.

2) The limiting factor to how much you can squat invariably tends to be the core, therefore the legs do not get the maximum stimulus necessary to produce maximum muscle growth.

3) There is a lot of evidence that the body is not well adapted to bear repeated heavy loads via the upper back, and squatting is a relatively high risk activity which can lead to numerous back and shoulder issues (this is even when performed with perfect technique).

Though Mike Boyle’s solution of performing single leg squats may go some way to addressing issues 2 and 3, the balance and instability factor increases the amount of skill required to perform the exercise and also the potential for injury.

Regardless of whether you opt for squats or split squats, you’re going to have to devote a considerable amount of time to practising these exercises – Even if you just do one session per week or 2 x warm up sets followed by 3 work sets you’re looking at a minimum of 10 mins per week. Most individuals following a traditional S&C program would also be performing exercises for the upper body and core, and I would say it’s pretty typical for the average coach to prescribe 2-3 x 45+ min sessions per week.

Time is precious. That’s over 2 hours per week that could either be spent practising your chosen sport or activity, or doing something completely different instead such as relaxing, spending time with family, reading or whatever else floats your boat. Its also time spent putting your body under stress and risking injury which could otherwise be avoided.

The alternative? My current thinking is that a better option to the squat or split squat would be a leg press machine (or alternatively a belt squat or stabilised bodyweight single leg movement), performed very slowly with a low weight for one set to complete muscular failure. I’ve come to this conclusion for the following reasons:

1) There is little to no coaching needed, and the movements can be performed with maximum intensity from the get go, with no need to start with sub-maximal loads while the technique is mastered.

2) The adaptations made are predominantly in the tissues, rather than neurological.

3) High volume and frequency are necessary for building strength with free-weights due to the skill factor only, by removing this skill factor and training to muscular failure you can produce an adaptation response from just one 60-90 second set, this way of training is therefore much more time efficient.

4) By removing the load from the spine, and training with low weights at a slow speed, the risk of injury is significantly reduced, and the legs can be targeted specifically.

When people criticise the leg press machine, they typically argue that using machines gives you “fake muscles”, and that this strength does not translate into “real world strength”.

I would not disagree with this statement. Building big legs on a machine will not make you jump higher or sprint faster. But neither will squatting with a barbell.

Those bigger legs, however, will have more potential for strength and power than they would have had otherwise, and as it only takes 90 seconds out of your week, and there’s practically no risk for injury, you’ll still have plenty of time to practice sprinting and jumping in order to “program” the muscle to function in the way you require.

In Body by Science, Doug McGuff argues that performing just one 60-90 second set of resistance training for each muscle group (3-5 movements), once every 7-10 days is sufficient to promote an adaptation response in the tissue and thereby increase your lean muscle mass. This equates to around 12 minutes per week of total exercise.

Of course, one could also question as to whether even this 12 minutes per week is necessary or useful, particularly as by the time you factor in travelling to the gym, getting changed, waiting for equipment etc you are actually looking at 30-45 mins at least, and the cost of a gym membership.

Erwan LeCorre would argue that all strength and conditioning should be developed through skill based practice. Using the computer analogy again; what is the point in having a super powerful PC that uses a lot of energy and resources, if you only use a couple of light-weight pieces of software? Would you not be better off with an iPad?

If you are a climber, endurance athlete, or compete in a sport that has weight categories, is there any benefit to building extra muscle tissue through supplemental resistance training, or is it better to let it develop naturally through the demands of your practice?

My current thinking is that pretty much everyone can benefit from some degree of HIT resistance training, though of course the volume and frequency will vary depending on the individual’s goals and genetics.

If an individual simply wants to build muscle for the aesthetic and/or metabolic advantages, or plays a strength/power sport such as rugby where weight is not an issue then I would say 1-2 sessions per week of machine based HIT would definitely be the way to go.

If someone wants to be a generalist athlete – be able to run, jump, climb, swim, throw, lift, carry, etc, plus look good on the beach (and let’s face it who doesn’t), then I believe one session a week of HIT, either with machines or using bodyweight could be a highly beneficial, safe and time efficient supplement to your weekly schedule.

Also, I think that even those for whom keeping bodyweight low is an issue could benefit from more infrequent bouts of HIT for its anti-catabolic properties – Maintaining a reasonable amount of lean tissue has significant benefits for injury prevention and metabolic health.

Before you delete this blog from your RSS feed, however, rest assured I have by no means become an HIT zealot. Though I believe it can form a useful part of a comprehensive training routine, it is by no means necessary or integral, and performing McGuff’s big 5 alone would certainly not make anyone “Primal Fit”!

The main aim of Part I of this series of articles was to stress that “functional exercise” – I.e. Barbell Squats, Snatches, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, Standing Single Arm Cable Presses, and the like, are probably at best a waste of your time and money, at worst potential injuries waiting to happen.

In the following three parts of this series, I’m going to outline what I now believe are the best uses you could be making of your time in order to achieve the ultimate physique, optimum health and top performance, and also why you shouldn’t throw away your barbells or kettlebells just yet!

Coming soon:

Part II – From Functional to Practical: Free Weights still Rock!

Part III – To Bench or Not to Bench – The Benefits of Un-Functional Training?

Part IV – Would you do anything for another HIIT?

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

5 comments

    1. Hi Glenn,

      I’ve not written a post about plyometrics specifically, but the same theory would apply:

      S.A.I.D principle – The body adapts very specifically to whatever you do, so chances are you will mostly just get better at the plyometric drills. If you were playing basket ball for example, I feel it would be more useful to spend more time practising slam dunks say, than repeatedly dropping off a box (more fun too!)

      Injury Risk – Plyometrics carry extremely high injury risk. The original Russian texts that actually advocate them, only do so for extremely high level, well conditioned athletes. There are many S&C coaches out there dishing them out to everyone that walks through their doors, regardless of goals and experience, mainly because the exercises seem interesting/new/unusual – This is just going to end in disaster!

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