Function First was incorporated in 1994. I like to tell people that because the word “function” was not being used as every third word in a sentence in 1994 the way it is today. As important as this topic is to human performance and rehabilitation, we should be treating it with a little more respect.
One positive note is that we are moving away from the notion that squatting on a physio-ball is the pinnacle of function. So as an industry, we are heading back toward solid ground (pun intended).
Let’s start with semantics. Very important semantics. “Functional training” implies a mode of exercise, like resistance training or cardiovascular training. Training for function implies an objective. This is extremely important since function is ultimately determined by the individual, not the mode of exercise.
Those that believe that any exercise in and of itself can always be “functional” just by the nature of the movement are living the big lie. They are relying on generalized movement patterns and/or props that have been used to train for function for specific individuals, but are not by default “functional”.
You could ask 50 trainers in a room to name just one functional exercise. And inevitably you would get responses of lunges, squats, step ups, balance boards, etc. And these all could be functional exercises, but are not by default functional exercises. These trainers unknowing have bought into the big lie or are choosing to perpetuate it.
Before any answer to the question was given, every one of those 50 trainers should have responded with their own series of questions regarding a functional exercise:
Who is this exercise for? Is this a functional exercise for my 48 year old obese client with osteoarthritis of the knees? Or is this functional exercise for my 13 year old female with idiopathic scoliosis? Or is this functional exercise for my 28 year old NFL linebacker? The answer should be different for each one.
What is the functional goal? Is it to avoid surgery? Is it to better prepare them for surgery? Is it to improve their competitive performance? Is it to avoid boredom in their workout? Is it so they can mow their own lawn?
Where are they in their progression with you? Is their body demonstrating the necessary movement prerequisites for this exercise? Are they compensating to get it done versus getting it done right? Are they exhibiting any apprehension toward the movement?
The next consideration must then be can a “functional” exercise ever be dysfunctional? Absolutely. A lunge for example, can produce compensation, reinforce existing dysfunction and produce undesirable mechanical stress as much as any machine based exercise.
We must first understand our client. Then we must understand functional anatomy. And then we can understand what function for that client really is.