One of the biggest things that has made me a better coach over time is trying to think about what people REALLY mean when they ask the question, or make a statement. It is too easy nowadays to get upset when people question what you are doing, rather than taking a step back and taking a time to get what people want to actually know or are thinking. Functional training can throw people for such a loop that it isn’t always easy to get people to think differently.
A great example is when fitness expert, Alwyn Cosgrove recently posted this Ultimate Sandbag exercise. The comments were fantastic in the way people thought this was TOO much functional training and questioned if this was actually strength training. There was quite a discussion about this being too complex and just making training overly complicated.
Alwyn did a great job trying to break down what was happening because this is what people were REALLY saying about this functional training drill……..
“I don’t get what muscles this works”
“How do we get strong if we don’t use big weights?”
“Is this a row or lunge, I don’t get which one?”
Whenever functional training makes people think differently about training we have to be willing to break down what the purpose and benefits are to doing something that they may be very unfamiliar with. So, let’s answer these questions/statements.
The heavy influence of bodybuilding even among functional training based coaches has us thinking about training still largely in “what muscle does this work?” The whole purpose of functional training is to help us realize the body doesn’t work in individual parts. We know that the body works in different chains. If we look below, we can see how what is the Spiral Line, Poster/Anterior Oblique, and Lateral Systems all come together in this exercise (not to mention other chains you can see in these descriptions of such chains).
Is this any ONE muscle? Not really, these are how the muscles connect to make complex movement appear seamless. Walking and running is far more complex than squatting or deadlifting (which also don’t rely on any one muscle) and yet we never wonder how could our muscles coordinate to perform such an action.
I’ll be the first to admit, it is a MAJOR mind shift to go from thinking about muscles to how our body actually is designed for movement. Yet, it is what makes functional training so unique. For example, the row actually isn’t to get a jacked back. The row is more to create integration of the lats with the core and opposing glute (like we do when we actually move in life). People often misunderstand rows like this, just like in a push-up row the goal is not to train the back either. In fact, such an exercise is more about the pushing than the pulling as I break down here.
The balance step emphasizes full hip extension and really challenges the lateral system which is where we are often weakest. Even spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill points to weakness in the lateral chain being the reason we typically see issues in those that are really strong on the more popular lifts.
“Consider a 340 pound NFL lineman, who is strength trained in the weight room on Olympic lifts and power cleans. His coaches believe he is well trained. Yet the athlete has back pain that limits training. Measuring his cutting speed – the ability to take 5 fast strides forward, plant a foot and cut to the right reveals his great weakness and strength imbalance. The pelvis drops on the swing leg side and the spine bends laterally. He reports a twinge of pain. All of his strength training has been performed with two legs on the ground. All of the pulls, lifts and presses never trained the core in 3-dimensions. The weak link is limiting his performance and causing stress and pain. Addressing this with loaded carrying exercises produced more lateral spine stiffness in his core. His pelvis and spine produce appropriate proximal stiffness (proximal to the hip joint) so that more velocity of all of the muscles that cross the hip joint works on the distal side of the joint resulting in faster leg speed. Further, the spine does not bend, the stress concentration at the joint is eliminated and the pain is gone. This example demonstrates that the hip muscles were limited by a weaker lateral core.”
The Ultimate Sandbag on the shoulder stresses both that lateral system more and at the same time allows us to create tension against the weight to integrate the other lat into the core to help have stability during the movement. Yea, functional training is really different and forces us to understand how our body really works. How about the last question though? Can I get actually strong from all this?
DVRT UK Master, Greg Perlaki shows the right intent in how we can actually can strength from this movement. It is predominately a lower body based drill, but understand what the row is bringing to the movement.
What people really mean is “how can a small load make me strong?” For one, the goal IS to add more load as we gain proficiency in the movement. However, there are many sources for load here. The actual load we see in the row and the Ultimate Sandbag, but additionally the loads we have to resist to maintain the seamless movement and the forces we are driving into the ground. It is like saying single leg exercises can’t make me strong as two legged exercises studies like this one shows that we can get MORE muscle activity from a bodyweight lunge to that of a loaded squat.
How? Because we can’t see the forces we have to resist as we produce force. This doesn’t mean we won’t build to heavier loads as we gain proficiency in the exercise. However, at the same time, it is incredibly misleading to think that the only way to see how our body is stressed is through physical loading. If that was true, then we would regress back to machine training where the more stable we are the more load we can use. We confuse that for strength, because we miss how many more muscles have to be used to create movement and once we challenge more sophisticated functional training we can’t simply rely on a bodybuilding mentality.
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