By Michael Krueger
A few years ago, functional training was all the rage. As always seems to happen with new, hot trends, the entrepreneurs saw this as a money-making opportunity and jumped in with equipment, CDs, and dedicated fitness studios. The truth behind functional training fell into the background and it became a joke. Soon it became a cluttered mess consisting of goofy and occasionally dangerous “circus tricks” and useless toys.
So, what is functional training really?
All humans share a basic functionality. We need to walk, squat, step up and down, push and pull, turn left and right, and move backward and forward among a few other movements. Unfortunately, quite a few people have trouble doing one or more of these seemingly natural movements.
Some of these people lost the ability to easily move freely because of illness, accidents, or injuries. This population works very hard every day to maintain their independence through physical therapy and training.
Then there is a population that has lost mobility because of obesity and long-term disuse. These people are often content to live a diminished life ending in long-term nursing care. This is not the population I’m addressing here.
I’m talking here about people who can, for the most part, get around fine and function day to day–people like you. It’s easy to plateau at this level, but plateaus are tricky things; they often lead to a gradual downhill slide. The best way to avoid this fate is to look toward the movements that are critical to your chosen profession (or sport) and work to improve on them. Occupational or sport-specific movements and the functional movements related to them vary greatly among the normal population. To address these needs, you must first understand what you do all day.
What is functional for you may not be functional for me; this is where I feel that most of these programs miss the boat. You are not a gymnast or a power lifter or a football player; you are a firefighter, and you have specific functional needs based on the movements and skill sets that define your job. Someone else who works in an office all day has a totally different set of needs based on what they do. To try to lump the functional training of these groups together just doesn’t pass the efficacy smell test.
Many of the functional moves that permeated the workouts of the past were gleaned from rehab exercises. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these exercises, but they are designed to address a particular problem rather that than to build usable–i.e., functional—strength, which was what functional training was supposed to be all about. In the gym, some of these movements had a steep learning curve and took a lot of time to perform, thereby cutting into more basic and traditional weight training activities. They frequently required specialized equipment that ate into the budgets of gyms as well as individuals. Rather than investing in equipment that served multiple purposes, they had a room full of blades, balls, bands, wobble boards, and complex single-use pulley machines that are now, for the most part, gathering dust.
The Functional Movement Screen is a seven-movement test that has shown some effectiveness as a way to identify movement problems and to make recommendations for exercises to aid in correcting them. If your department offers functional movement screening, by all means take advantage of it; it can alert you to a wide range of possible deficiencies.
A number of departments that use this tool have decreased injuries dramatically. Whether it was a direct result of the interventions because of information obtained from the screening or just because of a commitment to fitness through well-designed and supervised workouts is difficult to say. The bottom line is that they achieved some very positive results, and nitpicking about exactly why doesn’t make any difference in the real world; we can leave that to the academics to work out.
Firefighting requires a wide range of movements, many of which are done while carrying a significant amount of additional weight and with your range of motion additionally limited by protective gear. These facts have occasionally been used by some firefighters to explain or justify poor performance and injuries rather than to inspire them to find ways to train to be as physically prepared as possible for those conditions.
So what types of movements do you need to be able to do? More specifically, what movements do you need to be able to do functionally–in a way that allows you to repeat the movement over and over effectively and without undue stress or injury?
I’ve spoken about basic strength, flexibility, and endurance needs in previous articles. Everyone needs to be able to have strength in all the normal planes of movement. Training regularly with full body workouts will provide you the base strength needed to progress to more job specific training; so that level of fitness is assumed as we move forward.
Even if you don’t have access to a functional movement screen, you can get a reasonably good idea of how you are doing with a few simple exercises/evaluations. Try doing these in full turnout gear including SCBA for a further firefighter specific functional challenge.
To start, you need to be able to do a full squat without falling over or rising up on your toes. It demonstrates that your core, leg, and back strength are in proportion to your weight as well as that you have adequate balance and flexibility.
After the squat, try stepping over an 18- inch-high barrier. Watch how you move as you do this. Do you raise your knee straight up, or do you twist and sidestep? Do you maintain your balance? If this movement is a problem for you, it indicates that you have some work to do on strength, balance, flexibility, and stability.
Try walking the length of a two-by-four toe to heel. Now try doing a complete lunge on that same board. Once again, note whether you fell forward or had to twist, turn, and flail your arms to stay on the board; same deal here–strength, balance, flexibility, and stability.
Are your shoulders adequately mobile? Can you reach behind your back or directly overhead without twisting? Can you do a dead hang pull up or a full parallel bar dip? Do you possess good hamstring flexibility and hip mobility? Is your core strong–can you hold a plank for three minutes without arching or sagging?
The above are an abbreviated and simplified version of the functional movement screen. I like to think of it as a self-assessment wake-up for firefighters. If you find these movements difficult, it would be a good idea to have a full evaluation and a specific exercise prescription (including a visit to a physical therapist if this appears warranted) to address your weaknesses.
The activities discussed above are basic movements that everyone should be able to easily do, but the reality is that most people can’t. For the average person, it just means that they will grow old, have many aches and pains, be unable to participate fully in life, fall and break something and not be able to take care of themselves, move into a nursing home, and die.
For a firefighter, not being able to do these movements could mean that someone else in addition to you may die. It means that you may find yourself injured or trapped and be unable to free yourself. It means that one of your fellow fighters may die because you couldn’t provide the necessary aid during an emergency.
Not being able to move properly means that you can’t do your job properly. If you can’t pull your own body weight, how can you recover if you fall through a ceiling and are hanging by your armpits? If you can’t high step or squat or lunge and still maintain usable strength and stability, how can you lift and carry a victim? How can you work with your arms extended overhead if you have inadequate shoulder strength and mobility? How can you, in good conscience, report as “fit for duty” if, in actuality, you aren’t?
Whether you pass a functional screen test is not the real point here. The crux of the matter is whether you are fully able to perform your duties as a firefighter. Can you do the job so that at the end of a shift you can look back knowing that you did the very best you could and that no one suffered from any lack of skill or preparedness on your part or on the part of your department?
It is up to you and no one else. Put in the effort needed to be the person you desire to be. Accept nothing less than the best from yourself. Then you can stand proud and call yourself a firefighter.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.