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Functional training requires functional anatomy

This is an excerpt from Functional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr & Mary Kate Feit.

The body has evolved to develop a great many interconnected systems that allow people to move dynamically throughout daily life. An athlete’s ability to run, jump, and throw can be attributed to the body’s amazing network of bones, muscles, tendons, and fasciae that allow them to flex, extend, and rotate as an integrated unit and produce force with a single coordinated outcome.

Although people are traditionally taught strength training and anatomy in isolation, single-muscle functions and single-joint exercise do not accurately represent real-life movement. Nothing in the body occurs in a silo. The body functions as an interconnected unit, all pieces interdependent on one another, constantly adjusting function to carry out the desired task. In designing functional training programs, one must take into consideration not just the anatomy of the human body but also how anatomy functions in an integrated way in specific sporting environments.

Consider the function of the hamstring muscles during running. Traditionally one is taught that the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus muscles function primarily as knee flexors—and in an isolated setting, such as on a leg curl machine, they would.

However, when you consider the function of a hamstring when you are on your feet, standing, running, or walking, the functionality of the hamstring is much different. A biarticular muscle group, crossing both the hip and knee, the hamstring muscles must carry out numerous actions during the gait cycle in conjunction with the obliques and glutes (see figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3 The gait cycle in running highlights the functions of the hamstrings, glutes, and obliques: (a) initial contact, (b) stance phase, (c) takeoff, and (d) forward swing phase.
Figure 1.3 The gait cycle in running highlights the functions of the hamstrings, glutes, and obliques: (a) initial contact, (b) stance phase, (c) takeoff, and (d) forward swing phase.

Functionally, the hamstrings serve in the following ways:

  • As concentric hip extensors assisting the glutes during the takeoff phase of running
  • As isometric stabilizers of pelvis assisting the obliques to maintain posterior pelvic tilt
  • As eccentric decelerators of knee extension at the end of the forward swing phase

Understanding functional anatomy as it relates to sport can help you select exercises that improve performance and reduce injury. In this specific instance, you would want to select hamstring exercises that train the hamstring as a hip extensor, pelvic stabilizer, and eccentric knee extender rather than primarily as a concentric knee flexor. A great exercise choice would be the single-leg deadlift or the sliding leg curl from chapter 7 rather than a traditional machine-based hamstring curl.

Traditional Training Versus Functional Training

Traditional performance programs that have been strongly influenced by bodybuilding and powerlifting often place a large emphasis on bilateral and machine-based strength exercises. And although many bilateral exercises like goblet squats and trap bar deadlifts (both in chapter 7) are valuable and should be used in a functional training program, you should look to prioritize developing strength unilaterally, in an attempt to represent the way the body moves in everyday life as well as in sporting activities.

Machine-based training often focuses on isolated movements that do not require the body to create stability authentically and that fail to accurately represent the stressors of real-life movement. While this approach may be valuable for targeted hypertrophy (muscle growth), it should be avoided in the development of a functional training program.

Traditional bilateral-based lifts like the squat, bench press, and deadlift can be valuable tools to develop fundamental sagittal plane strength and stability. However, after achieving entry-level competency, you should progress, using a complete functional program, from classic powerlifting- and bodybuilding-influenced lifts to unilateral exercises that challenge stability in the frontal and transverse planes.

More Excerpts From Functional Training Anatomy