Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. Functional training is the latest craze in the fitness and sports performance industries, but its blatant lack of “functional” carry over based on the science makes it one hell of a misleading hoax.

2. Just because a functional training exercise may look or even feel like the specific task you are training for doesn’t mean it will actually produce the results you are looking for. The science actually says the contrary.

3. While functional training tries to mimic function, foundational strength development can actually cause physiological adaptations that transfer to function. There’s no faking the SAID principle when used properly.

4. If you want to make specific gains in a task over the long term, forget about functional training and emphasize whole body strength training while also spending some time practicing the task.

Is There Such a Thing as Task-Specific Strength Training?

I have been professionally pondering the same question for decades; what the hell is functional training, and why are people still transfixed on it when it comes to strength, performance and rehabilitation?

As a university professor, don’t get me wrong, I spend my fair share of time reviewing and originating research, but when it comes to “functional training” there has been some great stuff to hit the fitness industry. I recently re-read these two blog posts HERE  and HERE regarding functional training. The former is from fellow Canadian post-rehab badass Dean Somerset and the latter from my fellow hybrid physical therapist/strength coach, Erik Meira. Incidentally; I always have a (hopefully) not too creepy pro-crush on people like Dean and Erik (and John Rusin, for that matter!) who advocate for loading in rehab/post-rehab. If you’ve never heard of pro-crush, it’s basically a real word I just made up to describe a professional bro-crush without the gender bias.

That beside the point, these articles really struck a chord with me in helping to explain my love for general strength training in rehabilitation. It amazes me how much resistance there is to the idea that when someone comes to a physical therapist for a specific injury or illness, getting that person generally stronger will greatly impact their overall rehabilitation and daily life. There is this expectation that we, as physical therapists or post-rehab personal trainers and strength coaches, have to find and fix a very specific biomechanical or movement related issue, and then “functional” the shit out of it. I really don’t know if that expectation is self-perpetuated or reflects that of the client who heard what physical therapists do from their buddy’s lame experience.

In Erik’s post he says, “The most functional task an athlete can perform is the sport itself.” This is a variation of similar statements I’ve heard many times, but they are always in the context of sport or returning an athlete to sport.

Another example is from Stu McMillan, “There is no such thing as sport-specific strength training. The only sport-specific training is the sport itself.”

So with all that being said so eloquently, I’m going to make the argument that this statement applies to clinical and general populations as well, and might even be more important. Therefore, you can add me to the multitude of these quotes me saying,

The most functional task a person can perform is the task itself. There is no such thing as task-specific strength training. Therefore, strength training exercises should be selected such that they have the most functional transfer across tasks, not the most specificity to an isolated task.

How Does Functional Training Relate To Exercise Prescription?

There is a tendency to confuse training to enhance whole body strength with training to enhance a specific movement pattern. A common example of this is training to avoid excessive knee valgus (or hip adduction and internal rotation) during various tasks. An excellent synopsis of this issue was written by Chris Beardsley at his Strength and Conditioning Research Blog. Chris summarized the research on the differences in outcomes between general strength training and motor pattern-specific training. While there may be some subtle differences between the outcomes of each type of training, both can be effective in achieving gains in the specific task.

Other research HEREHERE, and HERE, for example, comparing functional to general strength training gives some similar results in that there is very little difference in changing motor patterns or in outcomes of function or pain between functional training and strength training over the short term. In fact, over the short term, some research suggests that functional or motor control training may superior to strength training for the functional task measured.

I do question the methodology of some of the studies, for example in training to control knee valgus motion, where feedback, coaching, and movement patterning AREN’T incorporated into strength training.

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I really think this highlights a point I always make that what I consider to be strength training necessitates feedback, movement patterning, and coaching – as opposed to simply getting ‘stronger’ (muscular-wise). Having said that, when you train for a specific outcome using specific methods, you can often optimize immediate results more so than a more general approach to training. No wonder we get confused by the research!

The comparison of these types of training in rehabilitation is very much like the periodization of sports performance model, where general physical preparation (GPP) is the acquisition of general strength and energy system capacity, whereas sports specific physical preparation (SPP) is training that more closely mimics the sport skill.

Proponents of this model cite the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) that suggests that as preparation nears competition, the athlete should train to enhance the skills most applicable to their sport. This would need to occur after a period of refining and enhancing general strength. This makes sense in sport. In general population rehabilitation, however, the need is quite different. While there may be a specific task (ie. avoiding knee valgus), most of this population really just needs an extended GPP period to get much stronger. This increased strength will transfer to better functional task performance in that specific task, but will also develop resilience in all other movements/tasks as well.

As such, specificity in rehabilitation training isn’t about mimicking function; it’s about providing specific activities/exercises that will cause adaptations that transfer to function. The SAID principle, therefore, applies just as much to GPP as it does to SPP.

My take is that you can (perhaps should) use strength training to address important movement related concerns and thus, strength is a progression of movement control, rather than an entity of itself. Having said that, you can take this too far and suggest that your training has to exactly mimic the movement pattern that you want to change. In the knee valgus example, a simple combination of progressively loaded bilateral and unilateral squat variations (with movement patterning, coaching, and feedback, of course) will do 99% of what you’re trying to do. I would LOVE to see some original research on this point exactly, though.

Do We Want Task-Specific or Task-Transferable Training in Rehab?

functional training and strength

Consider the diagram above which shows the outer circle as being our potential for long term adaptation. The bigger the circle, the greater the potential. The typical functional/SPP model in rehabilitation follows the left side. There is a good focus on developing baseline movement patterns (inner orange circle), which is usually followed by training some of the various qualities expressed in the yellow circle, leading to the adaptations in function expressed in the outer light blue circle.

There is often neglect for general strength (dark blue circle). The problem is that the methods and qualities on which we often focus have a definitive top end. That is, their potential for improvement often plateaus with short periods of training, which then limits the potential for long term improvement in that skill. In contrast, an emphasis on the development of whole body strength (on a foundation of good movement patterns) can unlimitedly increase your potential. While it is possible to become Too Strong, this would only happen at the expense of good movement, and not what I am recommending.

If you want to make specific gains in a task over the long term, emphasize whole body strength training and also spend some time practicing the task.

Functional Training vs. Training That Actually Produces Results

If you limit your intervention to 6-12 weeks, task-specificity makes some sense, but is really short-sighted. Adding strength training may take longer and result in less short term improvements, but it is the best longer term methodology for progressive training in general health and fitness.

We need to stop chasing specificity and “functional training”, and look more to transferability across tasks. In regards to general fitness, health, and rehabilitation, the idea that functional or task-specific training is equivalent or even superior to generalized strength training is short term thinking at best, and at worst, limits the potential of ours or our clients.

The ‘ideal’ program for each client does include some task-specific work, but this should be separated from general strength work to avoid the trap of falling down the functional specificity training rabbit hole, at the exclusion of good, old fashioned, strength training.

About The Author

Scotty Butcher

Dr. Scotty Butcher, BScPT, PhD, ACSM-RCEP is an Associate Professor in Physical Therapy at the University of Saskatchewan, co-founder of Strength Rebels, and consultant at Synergy Strength and Conditioning in Saskatoon, SK, Canada. Formerly certified as a CSCS and currently training as a powerlifter and part time CrossFitter, he has a passion for strength training and translates this to promoting quality exercise training and rehabilitation practices for clinicians and students. His focus in research, teaching, and clinical work is on the hybrid rehabilitation/strength training approach, and shares his views through blogging and vlogging. Connect with Scotty on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.


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