The “functional” training delusion

Macgregor McNair Training Philosophies 0 Comments

Over the last couple of decades, the fitness industry has seen an endless wave of fads, trends and gimmicks which can serve little purpose other than to line the pockets of those peddling them. Everything from fancy gadgets like altitude training masks, questionable techniques like occlusion training, controversial dieting strategies like intermittent fasting, all the way through to excessive fatigue-inducing methodologies like Crossfit.

For the record, in my humble opinion, none of the above has any place in intelligent strength and conditioning training for fight athletes - these may have a place in the training year for some people somewhere, but not for any of the fight athletes I work with. Please note, I mean no disrespect to Crossfitters, some of the most gifted and ballsy athletes I have ever known are Crossfitters - I am speaking here strictly in relevance to training for fight athletes.

“Functional training” has got to be one of the most misunderstood, misused and contemptuous phrases the health & fitness industry has ever seen. Because it’s actual meaning is so unclear, fitness practitioners and coaches have had the freedom to reinterpret the word “functional” to suit whatever training protocols they like. Any standard training methods that were rebranded as “functional” could be almost guaranteed to see an immediate upturn in sales.

Allow me to draw a couple of very clear lines in the sand right now, firstly, for the general population or fitness enthusiasts, “functional” training classes at the local gym are a great idea because they simply represent an attractive reason to do exercise - I have no problem with that. With the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, any form of exercise serves as a method for the general population to move away from sickness and towards health. “Functional” training has a very useful role in this context, as does any marketing strategy which makes physical exercise attractive to those unaccustomed to it.

Secondly, when you are talking about strength and conditioning training for fight athletes, the word “functional’ must have a clearly defined purpose with which to correspond. If the purpose is to function more efficiently in the combat sports, then a very specific set of principles and protocols must be applied to the training strategies - not simply throwing a bunch of random shit together and calling it a “functional” training session. A general fitness, kettlebell or ‘circuit’ class rebranded as a ‘functional strength’ or ‘functional fitness’ class has become the norm for a lot of local gyms - it is my intention here to make a clear definition between this marketing trick and what true, sport specific functionality in training is.

In the context of strength and conditioning for fighters, “Sport specific” training is really what you should be chasing, not “functional” training. I’ll take this one step further and suggest that the concept most relevant here is called “specificity” in training. Before we continue, let it be clear that in the context of strength training with barbells, true specificity can really only be achieved by Powerlifters and Weightlifters. Unless you are competing with a barbell in your hands, as Powerlifters and Weightlifters do, all strength training occurs somewhere on a spectrum of specificity - truly specific training needs to match the competition environment as closely as possible.
For fighters, truly specific training occurs in the cage/mat/ring, all else happens somewhere on the spectrum of specificity. In order to gauge the degree of specificity, you might consider familiarising yourself with Verkoshansky’s principle of “dynamic correspondence”. What this concept refers to is the degree of ‘functionality’ an exercise has in relation to the sport, measured by the following specific similarities:
* The plane or direction of movement
* The region of force output
* The duration of force output
* The intensity of force output
* The speed of force output
* The regime of muscular work

Verkoshansky’s principle states that, for an exercise to be truly ‘functional’ and useful for developing specific athletic qualities for the combat sports, it must correlate to the above criteria. What I am about to suggest is a very basic system for evaluating and categorising the exercises you have access to, in relation to their dynamic correspondence or specificity to the combat sports. This is something I have been doing for years using my own loose, spreadsheet-based system, until I came across the following.

In his “Chaos training manual”, the great James “Smitty” Smith popularised a concept called “accumulation of progressive functionality” (APF) as a system for rating and categorising exercises based on their degree of dynamic correspondence to a given sport. Basically, you map out every single exercise you use (or could potentially use) in developing athletic qualities in a fight athlete, and rate them in order of degree of specificity corresponding to the most basic and fundamental movement patterns to the sport.

Once you have laid the foundations of strength and force production in the more general physical preparedness (GPP) phases, categorise each exercise and rate them in order of specificity to:
* Lower body pushing/hip extension
* Jumping/kicking
* Throwing/punching
* Grappling/Grip strength

This will give you a framework for periodising your training phases from general/least specificity, to the highest degree of dynamic correspondence/specificity as the athlete draws closer to competition.

If your goal is to create training programs that are truly ‘functional’ to combat sports, your periodisation strategies must have the purpose of creating a high degree of specificity and dynamic correspondence to the combat sports - provided you have laid the foundations of strength, force generation, athletic qualities and motor pattern efficiency.

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