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In step with 'functional exercise'

The term "function" has become a buzzword in both the health club and rehabilitation settings.

In the sports medicine or physical therapy office, you may hear the term "functional rehab."

In health clubs it may be called "functional exercise."

Regardless of the name, the goal is the same: to design a program that allows you to return to, or enhance, a particular task. For many people, that task is an athletic activity.

I will try to shed some light on this trend of exercise, and how it may be beneficial to you. Let's first try to define function. It is the coming together of body movement that takes place in multiple directions, using multiple joints, and combining acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization.

Balance, or your body's ability to respond to changing ground forces (slippery surfaces, quick direction changes, someone making contact with you), must also be incorporated.

One example of a functional exercise would be using a medicine ball, and swinging it through different patterns, to strengthen the core (the area of the trunk to the hips). A more traditional (non-functional) approach to strengthening the core would be to lie on your back with your knees bent and performing an abdominal crunch or curl up.

The simple question to ask yourself about the crunch is: Does this resemble the activity that I want to enhance?

I can't think of too many sports that take place on your back, while curling up your trunk. The primary role of the trunk is to stabilize, decelerate and accelerate forces in all planes of movement. In short, these muscles help keep us upright, balanced, and moving while in an athletic posture (think of a basketball player's stance while on defense).

The isolated movement of the sit-up does not train us in that manner. Simply stated, a crunch makes you good at crunches. You are training the muscles in a pattern that is different from how they work when you use them to stand up.

Medicine ball swings allow you to more closely mimic the activity you are training for by allowing integration of body segments, and freedom of movement. Doing crunches on a physioball is not as functional as exercises done standing, but is better than a floor crunch. This may be a good progression exercise for someone trying to begin more functional core training.

The same is true for weight lifting that is done primarily using machines. Let's say that you do eight to 10 machine exercises, hitting all of your various body parts. Most of them are done sitting or lying down, the movements occur in one plane of motion and are usually isolated from other body segments, and they involve little or no balance.

By definition, this would not be functional training. The mistaken assumption is that training all your body segments in an isolated manner will benefit you when you ask your body to do an integrated movement pattern (like a golf swing). This would be like training the five members of a basketball team separately, and then throwing them together on game day, expecting them to play as a team.

You can certainly gain strength, size, and fitness benefits from non-functional training. However, this type of training alone will not be your best way of improving from injury, or enhancing performance.

This does not mean that you should stop all non-functional training. However, I think that it is important that you blend more functional activities into your workout. This could involve using medicine balls, free weights, physioballs, rubber tubing and balance drills.

Identify what the target of your training is, that will drive the type of functional exercises you need. Remember to train muscle patterns and not just isolated movements. I think you will find that adding functional exercises to your training will add some fun to your workout.

Michael Adesso is director of physical therapy and athletic training at University Sports Medicine's Youngs Road office. E-mail him at

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