Functional Training vs. Traditional Strength Training

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Most athletes understand the importance of building muscle strength, but they may not know that adding functional training to their workout can enhance performance on the track, links or gridiron.

"If you don't do functional training as an athlete, you're missing the boat," says physical therapist Benjamin Geletka, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, who competes in triathlons.

"Most of what we do in the weight room doesn't translate to your sport because there's nothing you can do in the weight room to mimic the field, court, pool or race course," he says.

But functional fitness training translates to much more than other athletic activities. These holistic exercises make everyday activities like hauling in groceries and tackling a big flight of stairs more manageable while decreasing your risk of injury.

Muscle Groups vs. Large Body Movement

Traditional strength training focuses on building strength in one muscle group at a time. An example would be performing bicep curls with hand weights to strengthen the upper arms, Dr. Geletka says.

Functional training, on the other hand, focuses on large body movements that stabilize specific muscle groups and move others to mimic activities of daily life, he says. An example of a functional exercise would be a jump squat, which requires just about every muscle in your legs to lower yourself, thrust upward into a jump and maintain balance throughout the entire exercise.

In everyday terms, functional training can help a landscaper dig holes or rip out bushes while minimizing the chance of injury. For athletes, functional training can enhance the ability to throw a baseball from the outfield to home plate without ending up on the disabled list.

Dr. Geletka says that other benefits of functional training for athletes include:

  • Receiving a full-body regimen with exercises that work several muscle groups simultaneously, which also takes less time than a traditional strength training session.
  • Moves that require stabilizing and activating your core, which is necessary across all sports.
  • Dynamic exercises that combine agility, balance and jumping. Moves may include lifting, pushing, pulling, bending, twisting, turning, standing, starting, stopping, climbing or lunging.
  • Exercising on several planes instead of a single plane.
  • Training with equipment like kettle bells, cable columns, resistance bands or dumbbells, or with only your body.
  • Ability to work out at home.

"Repetitive practice of movements increases neuromuscular control and, with that, can increase an athlete's ability to perform multiple tasks while focusing on something like catching a ball and eluding a defender, making a quick cut on the court or field while safely preventing ligamentous injury, transitioning during a triathlon, or decreasing fatigue and improving muscular endurance in a road race," Dr. Geletka says.

Before Starting a Functional Training Program

Whether you're an athlete or someone who's just searching for new exercise programs to enhance your quality of life, it's a good idea to schedule a few sessions with a physical therapist or certified athletic trainer to learn proper functional training techniques. Once you've determined your baseline and grown comfortable with the movements, Dr. Geletka says it's important to follow these guidelines:

  • Incorporate functional training into your exercise regimen two to three times a week for about 30 minutes per session.
  • If doing functional training and traditional strength training on the same day, perform the functional moves first.
  • Stick to three or four functional exercises that incorporate upper and lower body movement and are done while standing.
  • Ease into functional training. To avoid injury, especially to the back and shoulders, start with lighter weights and perform fewer reps, then progress to heavier weights and more reps in subsequent sessions.
  • Pay attention to form, especially with core (mainly abdomen and hips) and shoulder stability.
  • Remember the same best practices that apply to other exercises pertain to functional training, too. That means doing five minutes of active warm up (jogging, jumping jacks, elliptical, etc.) before training and several minutes of static stretching after. Refuel with a carbohydrate and protein within an hour of finishing your cool down. And be sure to drink plenty of fluids during and after your workout.

"Most people will benefit from a combination of traditional strength training and functional training," Dr. Geletka says.

Benjamin Geletka, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, is a physical therapist at University Hospitals Rehabilitation Services at University Hospitals Avon Health Center. You can request an appointment with Geletka or any other University Hospitals health care provider online.

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