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REVIEW article

Front. Sports Act. Living, 13 January 2022
Sec. Elite Sports and Performance Enhancement
https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.803366

Is There Any Non-functional Training? A Conceptual Review

Bernardo N. Ide1, Amanda P. Silvatti2, Moacir Marocolo3, Clarcson P. C. Santos4, Bruno V. C. Silva5, Dustin J. Oranchuk6 and Gustavo R. Mota1*
  • 1Exercise Science, Health and Human Performance Research Group, Department of Sport Sciences, Institute of Health Sciences, Federal University of Triângulo Mineiro, Uberaba, Brazil
  • 2Department of Physical Education, Federal University of Viçosa, Viçosa, Brazil
  • 3Physiology and Human Performance Research Group, Department of Physiology, Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Juiz de Fora, Brazil
  • 4Research Group on Metabolic Diseases, Physical Exercise and Health Technologies, Bahiana School of Medicine and Public Health, Salvador, Brazil
  • 5Department of Sport Sciences, University Center of Belo Horizonte, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
  • 6Acumen Sport and Shoulder Clinic, Calgary, AB, Canada

This conceptual review investigates whether functional training (FT) is a different approach from traditional strength, power, flexibility, and endurance (aerobic or cardiorespiratory) training already adopted in the physical training plan of professional, recreational athletes, healthy, and older adults. The 20 most recent papers published involving FT were searched in the PubMed/Medline database. Definition, concepts, benefits, and the exercises employed in FT programs were analyzed. The main results were: (a) there is no agreement about a universal definition for FT; (b) FT programs aim at developing the same benefits already induced by traditional training programs; (c) exercises employed are also the same. The inability to define FT makes the differentiation from traditional training programs difficult. Physical training programs can be easily described and classified as strength, power, flexibility, endurance, and the specific exercises employed (e.g., traditional resistance training, ballistic exercises, plyometrics and Olympic-style weightlifting, continuous and high-intensity interval training). This apt description and classification may provide consistent and clear communication between students, coaches, athletes, and sports scientists. Based on the current evidence and to avoid confusion and misconceptions, we recommend that the terms FT, high-intensity FT, and functional fitness training no longer describe any physical training program.

Introduction

Strength, power, endurance and flexibility are well-defined concepts within exercise prescription and muscle performance (Cormie et al., 2011a; Granata et al., 2018; Nuzzo, 2020), nutritional requirements (Baar, 2014) and the study of specific neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic adaptations (Cormie et al., 2011b; Egan and Zierath, 2013; Granata et al., 2018). Strength and power training encompass short-duration activities performed at high- or near maximal intensities, increasing the capacity to perform high-force, and high-velocity efforts (Nader, 2006; Cormie et al., 2011b). Exercises employed in these programs involve traditional resistance training, ballistic exercises, plyometrics and Olympic-style weightlifting (Cormie et al., 2011a). On the other hand, endurance training (aerobic or cardiorespiratory) encompasses activities performed at various intensities, lasting for several minutes up to hours (Åstrand, 2000), increasing the capacity to sustain repetitive high and low-intensity efforts (Granata et al., 2018), encompassing the application of both continuous and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) (Buchheit and Laursen, 2013; Granata et al., 2018).

Otherwise, despite these well-consolidated characterizations of sports physical demand, training programs designs and adaptations, an increasing number of articles introduce apparently “new” physical training programs. Nowadays, it is common to hear from students, coaches, and athletes: “I'm working with functional training (FT),” “I'm engaged on a high-intensity FT program,” “I'm investigating the neuromuscular responses to functional training.” These statements caught our attention and have been previously criticized (Wirth et al., 2017; Ide et al., 2021). Recently we have raised issues regarding the concepts and definition of FT (Ide et al., 2021). Unfortunately, we found inconsistencies and misconceptions on the FT definition, cited references that do not support the statements, and no differences regarding benefits and training methods already used in sports training (Ide et al., 2021).

The dissemination of inconsistent and inaccurate concepts and definitions can induce irreparable professional conduct. Therefore, the present conceptual review aimed to investigate whether FT programs are different from strength, power, flexibility, and endurance training programs already adopted in the physical training of professional and recreational athletes, healthy adults, and geriatric populations. Based on our recent article about the inconsistencies in the concepts and characteristics of FT (Ide et al., 2021), we hypothesized that FT has no universal definition and that FT programs aim to induce the same neuromuscular adaptations as strength, power, flexibility, and endurance training programs. FT exercises are also already employed in athletes' training programs.

Methods

To attend to the purposes of the conceptual review study, we performed a non-exhaustive search for the 20 most recent papers published about FT present in PubMed/Medline database. During the study design and initial search, we learned that, in 2020, some researchers on the topic (i.e., functional training) published a conceptual update (Silva-Grigoletto et al., 2020). Therefore, our criteria for choosing the twenty most recent papers aimed at considering the latest updates to the concept (i.e., functional training). Bearing this in mind and making our article unique, we felt unnecessary and outdated to perform a review going behind 2020 (i.e., older papers). The formal search was completed in April 2021. The article's reference list was consulted for additional definitions. The heterogeneity of the studies was considerable (e.g., exercise protocols, fitness level of the participants, variables measured). Thus, we have decided not to evaluate the studies from a statistical point of view. Instead, we performed a qualitative analysis, focusing on the FT definitions, exercises employed, and neuromuscular adaptations reported by the authors. All co-authors read this qualitative analysis carefully, and edits have been incorporated.

For this study, the term traditional training programs was considered to reference strength, power, flexibility, and endurance training (aerobic or cardiorespiratory) already adopted as a part of physical training plan of professional, recreational athletes, healthy, and older adults. Strength and power exercises used in these programs are the traditional resistance training performed both in machines or with free weights, ballistic exercises, plyometrics, and Olympic-style weightlifting (Cormie et al., 2011a). Endurance training (aerobic or cardiorespiratory) exercises used in these programs encompass the application of both continuous and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) (Buchheit and Laursen, 2013; Granata et al., 2018).

Results

Examining the search results, we found additional FT “variations” (e.g., high-intensity FT, and functional fitness) included in the analysis of definitions, neuromuscular adaptations, and exercises employed. In addition to the articles, three textbooks were included (Boyle, 2004, 2016; Fleck and Kraemer, 2014).

Definitions of Functional Training

Tables 13 present the FT, high-intensity FT (HIFT), and functional fitness (FF) definitions, respectively.

TABLE 1
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Table 1. Definitions of functional training.

TABLE 2
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Table 2. Definitions of high-intensity functional training.

TABLE 3
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Table 3. Definitions of functional fitness.

Neuromuscular Adaptations to Functional Training

The neuromuscular adaptations proposed by each training program were extracted from the definitions and additional descriptions presented in the articles. Tables 46 present neuromuscular adaptations to FT, HIFT, and FF training programs.

TABLE 4
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Table 4. Neuromuscular adaptations provided by functional training programs.

TABLE 5
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Table 5. Neuromuscular adaptations to high-intensity functional training programs.

TABLE 6
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Table 6. Neuromuscular adaptations to functional fitness training programs.

Exercises Employed in Functional Training Programs

The description of exercises employed in FT programs was extracted from the definitions presented and consulting the training protocols described in the methods section. Tables 79 present the FT, HIFT, and FF exercises employed.

TABLE 7
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Table 7. Type of exercises employed in functional training programs.

TABLE 8
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Table 8. Type of exercises employed in functional training programs in high-intensity functional training programs.

TABLE 9
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Table 9. Type of exercises employed in functional fitness training programs.

Discussion

The objective of this study was to investigate whether FT is different from traditional training programs. The main results were: (a) there is no agreement about a universal definition for FT (see Table 1); (b) FT programs aim at inducing the same neuromuscular adaptations to traditional strength, power, and aerobic endurance training programs (see Tables 46); (c) exercises employed are also the same (see Tables 79). Our main finding is that the FT is not different from traditional strength, power, and aerobic endurance training, therefore, corroborating our hypothesis.

Although muscle strength, power, flexibility, and muscular endurance are well-defined concepts used in exercise prescription (Knuttgen and Komi, 2003; Winter and Fowler, 2009; Cormie et al., 2011a,b; Granata et al., 2018; Suchomel et al., 2018), FT, HIFT and FF problems arise in several domains. Regarding definitions, some studies stated that FT involves resistance training (La Scala Teixeira et al., 2017), and that FF has been defined as a trend toward using strength training (La Scala Teixeira et al., 2017; Thompson, 2021). Thus, both could be easily described as a strength training program. In addition, FT was related to developing different physical capacities in an “integrated and balanced manner” (La Scala Teixeira et al., 2017). Although, strength exercises combined with endurance exercises could be described as “combined,” or “concurrent training.” Therefore, there is no need to “create” new terminology (i.e., FT) containing inconsistencies (Ide et al., 2021).

HIFT was defined as typically involving high-volume and high-intensity exercises, with short rest intervals using multi-joint exercises (Knapik, 2015). This definition consists of a basic description of a strength, power and endurance session adopted as a part of the preparation of elite athletes in specific phases of periodization (Haff and Nimphius, 2012; Haff and Stone, 2015; Suchomel et al., 2018). FF was stated to be also known as HIFT (Tibana et al., 2019). Thus, FF is HIFT, and the difference found between FT and HIFT programs is inconsistent. In addition, since exercise intensity is a training variable and not an exercise type, it would be expected that FT and HIFT were defined as the same training program performed with different intensities only. It was surprising that they are considered separate entities.

Another inconsistency in the FF definition was the use of the expression extreme conditioning program (Tibana et al., 2019). If the adjective “extreme” is employed to classify these programs, what kind of adjective should we use to classify the physical training programs performed by elite or professional athletes? We are conscious that physical training programs promoted by some fitness companies (e.g., CrossFit®, Insanity®, Gym Jones®, and P90X®) were previously classified as extreme conditioning programs (Knapik, 2015). They are defined as typically involving high-volume and high-intensity exercises, with short rest intervals and multi-joint exercises (Knapik, 2015). Some include Olympic-style weightlifting and high-intensity interval training, plyometrics, and ballistic exercises (Knapik, 2015). Nevertheless, this training configuration is not exclusive, as it has already been adopted as a part of training programs of elite athletes in specific phases of periodization (Suchomel et al., 2018). Additionally, High global performance cited as an objective of FF program (Tibana et al., 2019) represents a highly vague and inconsistent adaptation.

Regarding neuromuscular adaptations, the studies claim that FT programs aim to increase efficiency and safety during activities related to daily living, work, and sports (La Scala Teixeira et al., 2017). Nevertheless, all these benefits are already well-related to the practice of traditional training programs (Cormie et al., 2011a,b; Buchheit and Laursen, 2013; Egan and Zierath, 2013; Baar, 2014; Hughes et al., 2018). Thus, it is not an exclusive or differentiating characteristic of FT programs per se (Ide et al., 2021).

Some of the FT problems stated above were previously highlighted (Ide et al., 2021), but we considered them pertinent to highlight again. Muscular fitness is composed of the functional parameters of strength, endurance, and power, and each improves consequence to an appropriately designed resistance training regimen (Garber et al., 2011). The definition of physical fitness implies an optimal combination of physical, physiological, biochemical, biomechanical and psychological characteristics that contribute to competitive success in sports (Shephard, 2000). Physical fitness is specific to competition level (Shephard, 2000) and fitness component (e.g., cardiorespiratory, muscular strength and endurance, body composition, flexibility, and neuromotor fitness) (Garber et al., 2011). Also, the two FF definitions we found (Tibana et al., 2019; Thompson, 2021) do not align with the American College of Sports Medicine position stand (Garber et al., 2011). The ACSM position stand states that FF training incorporates motor skills such as balance, coordination, gait, agility, and proprioception, with physical activities such as tai ji (tai chi), qigong, and yoga (Garber et al., 2011).

The main confusion about all these “new” training programs (i.e., FT, HIFT and FF) is that they often overlap with traditional strength, power, endurance, and flexibility programs (see Tables 46). Functional movements/exercises/activities are often cited as training stimuli, but the non-functional movements are not defined. To the best of our knowledge, there is also no concise definition of functional movements as well. By the way, is there any non-functional movement performed by skeletal muscles?

A particular concern was placed in Chodzko-Zajko et al. (2009) study, where gait, balance, and FT were considered as different training interventions. In their study (McLaughlin et al., 2020), an overview of systematic reviews examined the effect of Balance and FT on health outcomes in adults aged 18 years or older. The authors concluded that balance and FT reduced the rate of falls and improved physical function in healthy community-dwelling adults aged 65 years and older (McLaughlin et al., 2020). This separation observed of training interventions to improve gait and balance from FT reinforces FT definitions' confusions, inconsistencies, and weaknesses.

FT, HIFT, and FF training programs present several similarities to those already used for elite athletes for several decades (Chodzko-Zajko et al., 2009; Cormie et al., 2011a; Garber et al., 2011; Haff and Nimphius, 2012; Haff and Stone, 2015). Among them were high-volume and high-intensity exercises, with short rest intervals using multiple joint exercises (Knapik, 2015) and variations of the Olympic-style weightlifting, high-intensity interval training, plyometrics and ballistic exercises (Knapik, 2015). These training parameters are also employed by professional athletes and recommended for developing and maintaining the cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromuscular function of healthy adults and older adults (Chodzko-Zajko et al., 2009; Cormie et al., 2011a; Garber et al., 2011; Haff and Nimphius, 2012; Haff and Stone, 2015). One of the definitions states that FT uses strength exercises aimed at improving core stability (La Scala Teixeira et al., 2017). Curiously, a systematic review concluded that free weight exercises (squat and deadlift) are optimal to achieve this core stability and that abdominal-specific activities or adding balls/devices appear unnecessary (Martuscello et al., 2013). The systematic review results (Martuscello et al., 2013) reinforce that if one of the objectives of FT is to improve core stability, traditional strength and power exercises are the most efficient.

Curiously, one paper provides an equivocal separation of traditional resistance training and FT (Da Silva-Grigoletto et al., 2019). Traditional resistance training was considered a conservative training method using machines with linear progressive loading (Stenger, 2018). Conversely, FT combined multi-planar, coordinated, and multi-articular movements prescribed via block periodization (Da Silva-Grigoletto et al., 2019). Considering that all these exercises are often employed in athletes' strength and power training, there is no rationality in separating traditional from FT programs.

Indeed, the term FT originated in sports medicine and, more specifically, in rehabilitation clinics (Stenger, 2018). Early definitions focused on rehabilitation to enhance or develop the skills associated with activities of daily living and, frequently, involving older adults (Stenger, 2018). In this context, the desired outcome is to restore (or rehabilitate) neuromuscular function. Guidelines and arguments for implementing FT for back pain prevention are essentially the same for back pain rehabilitation (Wirth et al., 2017). This is because the “functional” status of rehabilitation exercises is related to the activities and functions of the body and contextual factors such as environmental and personal factors (World Health Organization, 2013). Although, strength and conditioning professionals are constantly working to improve a specific neuromuscular function. Therefore, the term FT becomes redundant and confusing (Ide et al., 2021).

Fleck and Kraemer (Fleck and Kraemer, 2014) proposed that the general definition of FT is the training that is meant to increase performance in some functional tasks, such as activities of daily living or tests related to athletic performance (Fleck and Kraemer, 2014). Thus, FT could refer to virtually any training meant to increase motor performance (Fleck and Kraemer, 2014). Considering that in exercise physiology, muscle strength, power, flexibility, and endurance are often regarded as functional aspects of the neuromuscular system, this general definition presented by Fleck and Kraemer (Fleck and Kraemer, 2014) appears to be the most rational.

Conclusions

Exercise adaptations are highly dependent on the specific training stimulus (Nader, 2006; Egan and Zierath, 2013; Hughes et al., 2018). Therefore, an apt description of physical training programs is essential for planning neuromuscular, cardiovascular, metabolic, and functional exercise performance and recovery enhancements. The current study data show that FT has no consistent and universal definition. FT programs and exercises are not different from those already used in sports training, and the claimed neuromuscular adaptations are also the same. In other words: There is no “non-functional” or “traditional training.” Therefore, there is no rationale in classifying exercise training programs as FT. Insisting to use this term (i.e., FT) is a classic case of needlessly reinventing the wheel (Ide et al., 2021). The rational statement is that FT is redundant and should have no place in scientific literature. On the other hand, we agree that, as everyday jargon in practice, the term FT may help coach cues and informal communication between athletes and coaches.

Future Recommendations

Based on the current results, we recommend that the terms FT, HIFT, and FF no longer describe any physical training program. These can be easily classified as strength, power, endurance, flexibility, and described according to the specific exercises employed (e.g., traditional resistance training, ballistic exercises, continuous and high-intensity interval training).

Sports activities may be broadly classified into events that require great expressions of strength and power (e.g., Olympic-style weightlifting, powerlifting, and throwing events in track and field) and endurance (e.g., marathon run and triathlon) (Nader, 2006). In addition, many activities like middle-distance sprint running and team and combat sports, which are characterized by intermittent efforts, require combinations of high levels of strength and power, combined with a well-developed aerobic capacity for peak performance (Nader, 2006). Table 10 summarizes the skeletal muscle functional proprieties definition and exercises used for their development.

TABLE 10
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Table 10. Skeletal muscle adaptations and exercises employed in strength, power, endurance (aerobic or cardiorespiratory), and flexibility training programs.

In addition to physical training, literature presents several adaptations and health benefits to endurance, strength and power training that may also be used in the proper classification of training stimulus (Egan and Zierath, 2013). Our intention with this article was not to disqualify the studies, physical training programs, and the practice of the physical activities but to provide the correct definitions of terms and concepts to allow proper communication between students, coaches, athletes, and sports scientists.

Author Contributions

BI conceived the idea, performed the initial data collection, wrote the first draft, worked on all drafts, and formatted the manuscript for submission. AS, MM, CS, BS, DO, and GM helped to develop the main idea and draft the paper. All authors read and approved the last version of the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: core training, exercises, flexibility, fitness, periodization

Citation: Ide BN, Silvatti AP, Marocolo M, Santos CPC, Silva BVC, Oranchuk DJ and Mota GR (2022) Is There Any Non-functional Training? A Conceptual Review. Front. Sports Act. Living 3:803366. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2021.803366

Received: 27 October 2021; Accepted: 13 December 2021;
Published: 13 January 2022.

Edited by:

Anthony Nicholas Turner, Middlesex University, United Kingdom

Reviewed by:

Helmi Chaabene, University of Potsdam, Germany
Will Hopkins, Victoria University, Australia

Copyright © 2022 Ide, Silvatti, Marocolo, Santos, Silva, Oranchuk and Mota. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Gustavo R. Mota, grmotta@gmail.com

ORCID: Bernardo N. Ide orcid.org/0000-0003-4057-0051
Amanda P. Silvatti orcid.org/0000-0001-8781-8558
Moacir Marocolo orcid.org/0000-0002-7715-2534
Clarcson P. C. Santos orcid.org/0000-0001-7598-3775
Bruno V. C. Silva orcid.org/0000-0002-4509-937X
Dustin J. Oranchuk orcid.org/0000-0003-4489-9022
Gustavo R. Mota orcid.org/0000-0002-6109-0658

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