Where Functional Fitness Can Miss the Mark

In functional fitness we love to talk about all the ways we are superior, don’t we? However, we have to be careful not to get too caught up in our own press clippings because there are some ways we can easily miss the mark when it comes to building balanced structure. We as a gym have been guilty of these in the past, will probably be again on some level in the future, and we recommend you pay close attention to the following potential pitfalls.

Too Much Testing, Not Enough Training
With so many focused on high percentage lifting, timed workouts, and performance measurables, it’s very easy to forgot that we can never develop those peak outputs if we constantly test them. You have to study for the test. Never test something unless you’ve put into the work preparing for it. It makes little sense to find a 1R max back squat if you haven’t been training or building up for it.

Member Fix: Do not see every 4×5 or 4×2 day as an opportunity to go as heavy as possible. Your sets should be repeatable and consistent, and your monthly wins should be small. If you are missing at rate on par with your makes, you are testing way too much.

Rushing into Strength
We could write a book filled with strategy for this (wait, we just finished that), but we will just summarize it with this. You have to own a movement pattern before you load it, and you have to own a loaded movement pattern before you train it. Tossing beginners into a scenario where they squat at 75%+ their first few months is like entering a dunk contest when you can’t even grab rim. Develop the movement pattern (motor learning), build the connective tissue (structure), and only then, begin to think about loading it with strength work. (For more on deliberate development.)

Member Fix: Make sure you be patient with your Phase 1 Development, and understand that you will get stronger as a result of better patterning and motor learning, to start. You don’t need to rush into percentage strength training.

Forgotten Muscle Groups
It would be a mistake to think that all you need are compound lifts like squats, presses, hinges, and pulls. Those are a great foundation, but sooner or later, people need to target a bit of specificity. If your quads tend to take over on everything, continuing to perform those movements will never address that. If your traps are over dominant, you have to turn on the muscles around them. Muscles like the rear delts, inner hamstrings and adductors, abductors, middle and lower traps, and obliques are among the most commonly neglected muscle group. (For more on forgotten muscle groups: shoulders, scapular musclesmiddle traps, adductors,

Member Fix: Take the superset movements in Tier 1 seriously (hollow holds, MB crushes, band work, etc). Supplement it in your open gym just like you would the highlight reel lifts.

Multi-Plane Movement
You’re not really an athlete if you can’t move laterally, be comfortable jumping and exploding off of one leg, and moving with power in three dimensions. Right? Most of us get so focused on the big lifts, we become a robot in the sagittal plane. So many of us cherry pick in the gym and avoid movements that make us feel awkward, like rotation and lateral movement. There is more to human movement than flexion and extension. In fact, exploring outside of those actions is where we find the good stuff. (For more on multi-plane movement.)

Member Fix: Get cozy with ropes, landmines, and the plyo skaters you all avoid.

Barbell Over-Reliance
For a variety of reasons, not everyone is going to be best suited for barbell training. Mobility, strength, previous injury, plateau busting. The barbell is a great tool that makes up our program foundation, but alone it is incomplete. When is the last time you applied focus in something that didn’t entail a perfectly balanced, perfectly positioned barbell? A focus on heavier one-arm swings? Heavier double bell front squats, or single-arm dumbbell presses? Building strong ass Bulgarian single-leg squats?

Member Fix: Embrace challenge that isn’t as exciting from a numbers perspective. Going from 45# to 60# on a DB snatch doesn’t sound as cool as going from 135# to 150# on a barbell, but it’s just as if not more functionally beneficial for you.

Bilateral Dominance
We don’t broad jump around town, we usually don’t deadlift cars off of injured motorists, but we do walk and move everyday. Bilateral movements are fun and it’s where we build strength on the absolute end of the spectrum, we also need unilateral movements to create balance and function.

Member Fix: Lunges, single-arm DB snatches, step-ups, etc. are all smart inclusions to continue to challenge anti-rotation and improve healthy movement. 

Fear of Disturbing the Status Quo
Whether it’s a lack of knowledge or fear of athlete rejection, we seem to be petrified to implement that which is new. Landmines, ropes, and upcoming sandbag training are all highly effective and should be a part of everyone’s fitness on some level. It goes hand-in-hand with the previous point about multi-planar work. We’re humans, people. Humans!

Member Fix: Challenge yourself with how you view your fitness. What’s working? What isn’t?

Too Anaerobic
In an industry that is so concerned with being anaerobic as fuck, we have nearly lost the ability to not pass out on a twenty minute run. Being bad at cardio isn’t cool, nor is it functional or athletic. Aerobic base building is crucial to keep expanding progress, and it’s far healthier for Gen Pop members than anaerobic skewed training. Do not buy into the fallacy that peak output everyday will get you better, or that productivity is measured by how out of breath or sore you are. (For more on the difference between aerobic and anaerobic work.)

Member Fix: Listen to the whiteboard. When it tells you to go at a moderate intensity, go at a moderate intensity. Don’t skip days that feature longer conditioning bouts just because you don’t prefer them. You probably don’t prefer going to work everyday, but my guess is you do it.

Neglecting Structure Work
Strength is where we hit PRs, and where we get the biggest achievement dopamine release. However, we cannot build strength without structure, and we cannot keep adding to strength without also addressing structure in an ongoing manner. Remember the Jenga analogy. If you don’t establish a base, you will fall over. (Fore more on why structure is the single most important thing you can build.)

Member Fix: New members should take your time in Phase 1. It’s not a punishment, it’s for your benefit to make you successful. Veteran members should never be afraid to mix in some Phase 1 programming. Ultimately, it’s all structure building and we all need it.

Muscle Dominance
If we program movements in a non-balanced format, we will see athlete develop in a non-balanced way. If you cherry pick workouts, the same will happen. That’s simple cause and effect. For example, too much weightlifting has the potential to develop overactive traps. Too much strength training can develop overactive prime movers and muted stabilizers. This is not limited to any one particular modality, and can occur in many different ways. Ensure that your program is balanced. (For more on creating thoracic balance.)

Member Fix: Focus hard on your goals, just not at the cost of healthy movement.

Lazy Core Training
The main function of our core muscles is to protect our spine. As such, our anterior core muscles are not prime movers, they are stabilizers. Yet, most of the core training in functional fitness involves training them as movers (sit-ups, crunches, etc). It’s not to say you can’t train flexion in that manner, but the core is best trained by resisting movement, not creating it. Movements that force us to resist extension, flexion, and lateral flexion are all going to be superior choices with more transfer to your goals. Movements like renegade rows, pull-throughs, roll-outs, planks, etc. (Fore more on better core training.)

Member Fix: Nothing really. We got you.

There is deep irony in the fact that working complete systems is incomplete. You must work in specificity, you must work in different planes of movement, and you must work in maintenance training. Resist the temptation to always play the greatest hits. Give the B-sides some airtime and enjoy longer, more productive fitness success.

-Dave Thomas