Why ‘functional’ training does my tits in

The rise in fitness facilities or gyms promoting ‘strength’ or ‘functional’ classes to build strength and ‘functionality’ is a contentious issue for strength and conditioning facilities. In this article, Matt Ham (Hammer Athletic director) shares his view from the perspective of a business owner and professional strength and conditioning coach and offers valuable guidelines for structuring strength classes.

I have noticed of late a flood of fitness facilities promoting ‘strength’ or ‘functional’ classes in a timed format to build strength and ‘functionality’ (as opposed to non-functionality?). I am not going to get into the absurdness of the word ‘functional’ when applied to strength training, but if you really want to light my wick, mention the word to me and then just step back and enjoy the rant.

For the life of me I cannot understand how anyone can do ‘strength classes’ in a timed format, with random exercise selection and all the while not knowing which client is attending. Call me old-fashioned but when was the skill of being a coach and more significantly, the appreciation of the inherent duty of care owed by a coach, completely removed from of the profession? I can appreciate the attractiveness of the business model, but I believe that there are elements of the profession for which that you cannot implement production line processes.

When strength programming, as a minimum you must consider the following factors:

  • Know your client. You cannot conduct strength training techniques on an individual without prior screening of their competency, strength, imbalances, previous injury and/or illness history;
  • To strength train you must hit certain intensities. That is, you must hit percentages of 80% RM and above consistently (RM = repetition maximum);
  • Adequate recovery. In order to properly strength train, a period of rest ranging from 3 – 5+ minutes is required between sets of exercise on the same body part. Otherwise, the nervous system is unable to recover in time for an acceptable repeat set; and
  • You must have a structured and periodised program. The program must be complemented with appropriate accessory exercises and must include a considered selection of exercises so as to avoid interference with each other, which would otherwise be counterproductive. You cannot constantly vary the program and expect strength gains, and this extends beyond the immediate session and includes exercise selection for the impending weeks/month ahead.

Considering the above I cannot see how these specific parameters can be achieved in a transient class format. From the outside looking in, it appears that facilities use barbells in their classes then market it as ‘strength’ work, which to me is downright misleading.

The reason we get so pissed about this is because at Hammer, we have offered Group Strength sessions since our inception over 3 and half years ago and at no point have we offered it all and sundry, randomly and without consideration of the above points.

Admittedly, our model wasn’t perfect, but we constantly held the above key points front of mind when we conducted our Group Strength sessions. With the benefit of time, we have tinkered and adapted our focus to a point where we think we have it as close to perfect as we can get it.

We now have Strength and Conditioning subscriptions that allow our clients to attend three strength sessions per week, incorporating all aspects of strength and conditioning. These programs are carefully constructed to complement each other in order to attain the ultimate outcome of being stronger, more powerful, fitter and leaner. More importantly, our programs:

  • Are based on the uniqueness of our clients, all of which have been properly screened on their imbalances, gym experience, mobility and strength capacity;
  • Consider who is coming to our classes and allows for alterations or regressions of exercises if individually required;
  • Ensure proper supervision of all complex exercises by our clients, with a healthy ratio of no more than 6 clients to 1 coach;
  • Are designed locally by our properly qualified coaches; and
  • Always incorporate a testing regimen, performed every six weeks to ascertain whether the program worked as planned (program design) and to provide clients with results so that they can track their progress.

This is paramount for us, as it typifies the Hammer ideology that ‘consistency is key to any improvement’. Testing, planning and participation are the hallmarks of any success let alone just strength and fitness, so why f**k with it.

The rise of popularity of these so called “strength classes” should be seen as gimmicks, unsafe and unsustainable. In my eyes, it’s just another variation of the early CrossFit days, where client welfare took a back seat to numbers, money and work capacity.

Below are the statistics from our group strength clients starting February to present day. It is important to remember that these are regular people who have been training their arse off consistently while at the same time living their normal lives without crazy calorie restrictions or fad diets. While they have been educated on what’s good and bad to eat with the emphasis that moderation is key, they all still have their vices and temptations and yet they have still achieved consistent reductions in fat, improvements in strength, power and conditioning. Which I don’t know…makes them pretty f**ing “FUNCTIONAL”!

Average (mm) lost per participant per phase

  • German Volume
  • Strength Phase 1

Subcutaneous fat lost Feb 5th to May 21st

7.25
Avg. mm

This is a phenomenal considering this is from people who like a bevy on the weekends, to people who have been away on holidays, to people who have been on point with there nutrition. To still get an average 7mm reduction across 30 subjects and above is quite a significant result.

Coming off our first strength phase, our group strength clients (n=34) also improved significantly in many other physical characteristics. As mentioned above our focus isn’t just on the aesthetic side of this industry, we measure power, strength and fitness in conjunction with the above-mentioned skinfolds.

Group strength average % increase Phase 1 2018

Squat
9.90%
Bench Press
9.37%
Vertical Jump (lower body power)
6.81%
Fitness (O'Neil Test)
3.00%

In summary Strength sessions are more than just using barbells. It’s about structure, planning, client screening, coaching and performing better on all platforms instead of just aesthetics. Our biggest take home message here at Hammer is ‘consistency is key.’ If we are consistently on the gym floor, doing your conditioning and consistent with your eating (healthy of course) then you cannot go wrong.

That’s why it is so important to test more than just skinfolds because if we are stronger, more powerful and fitter the less likely we are going to get injured, be fatigued, or be incapable of moving efficiently meaning we are consistently working out which results in our skinnies going down and our love handles disappearing.




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