The one thing that all masters of sports, crafts or skills have in common is that they make it look easy. Their movements just flow as if they were made to ride a bike, throw a ball, dance or weld a bicycle frame. No extra effort seems to be going even under high stress, speed until the finish line is crossed. In the case of sports, to be good for sure you have to be fit and when it comes to a good number of competitive activities, fast wins the game. As such when we look at our (sport) idols, the focus falls inevitably on the easily seen(output/result) – fit and fast, while the fundamental remains overlooked – you have to be functional first.
What does that even mean? I am glad you asked.
First though as mentioned above, it’s worth exploring the obvious while on the way to discover the true meaning/essence of functional
Fit and Fast
By definition, fit is adapted or suited – appropriate, as in fit to do the job. The Tour de France contender and the olympic weightlifter are both able to perform their tasks marvelously well, though both people could not have been greater polar opposites of each other. Fit is often used interchangeably with fitness – or in the case of our TdF – endurance or for the more number oriented of us – the ability to produce ~6W/kg of body weight in order to be able to climb the epic alpine peaks with the best/fastest. In the case of the weightlifter, fitness equals strength and power.
Fit is often times interchangeably used as fast. “He is fast,” though you cannot get a good impression about that person/athlete, let alone their abilities, form, or technique. A sprinter is fast, so is a distance runner. Fast compared to what? The competition, the rest of the world, the people at the bus stop? What does it take to take out the blocks like Usain Bolt or to run a 2:10 marathon or average 53+kph on a velodrome over an hour? If you are to attempt any of these feats, not caring about speed, you would most likely discover have a hard time just mimicking the motions of the best. Why?
Fit and fast provide an elusive and an incomplete definition – among many reasons it varies with activity. Yet, how can something variable be the one thing that makes all great athletes look at ease even under the pressures of competition at the highest level?
This is how we come to functional
We are all humans first. Though it might seem like stating the obvious, it all starts with the human machine/body. It can perform complex movements in multiple planes of motion, making various sporting activities possible. Unfortunately this amount of freedom can provide the possibility for unwanted/unnecessary motions that require additional tension and energy as well as creating problems of controlling the technique when fatigue sets in and/or speed, agility demands and even daily stress increase. You have probably seen the a cyclist getting dropped from the back of the main group during the final 3km of a race is struggling to pedal smoothly and slumped over the handlebars or the rower whose perfect posture has been replaced by collapsed spine when the pace and speed of the final sprint had taken their toll.
Not surprisingly, there is tremendous amount of variability even among world-class athletes, sometimes referred to as ‘style.’ Quite often an athlete maximizes his/her extremely well developed cardiovascular system to hide problems with running form or uses strength to ‘just muscle through it.’ Willpower is highly revered in today’s culture, though it as well is merely a facade, obscuring dysfunctions.
To the extent that ability increases, the need for conscious efforts of the will decreases. The effort required to increase ability provides sufficient and efficient exercise for our will power. If you consider the matter carefully you will discover that most people of strong will power (which they have trained for its own sake) are also people with relatively poor ability. People who know how to operate effectively do so without great preparation and without much fuss. Men of great will power tend to apply too much force instead of using moderate forces more effectively
-Moshe Feldenkrais, [amazon text=Awareness Through Movement&asin=0062503227]
“So what? you say, “they still won (by a huge margin!!!)” It is not important how they won, but how much more was possible if all systems were optimised. While they won, we are hardly aware of the cost of injuries they might had to pay in exchange for suboptimal technique. Functional anatomy is not a theory or an opinion, the body is designed to optimally move/produce force in a certain way and going against that leads to compensatory patterns and ultimately (overuse) injuries/muscle imbalances. Since it all starts with the body, whether it is a sport or life, there is a functional way of performing every activity – cycling, picking up a box off the floor, throwing a ball, punching your boss, etc. If you take a look around you, how many people do you see that ‘walk funny,’ have trouble keeping their balance doing simple tasks as sitting down on a low chair or just climbing up a short flight of stairs causes low back tension/pain. No discussion that our bodies can put up with a freakishly high amount of abuse and dysfunction, though one day that poor posture comes to haunt you. You cannot make basic lifestyle errors and expect perfect form when athletic performance comes into focus.
Therefore now we come to the fundamentals of all activity sporting or otherwise.
Fundamentals of Functionality
- Body Awareness
- Symmetry and Balance
Planes of motion
For simplicity and to set up the stage for some of the terms used in this series of articles, here is a graph of the planes of motion.
- The Sagittal Plane: moving forward and backwards, examples Nordic skiing, cycling and running (more detail later in the article)
- The Coronal Plane: moving side to side: examples any activites requiring moving ofthe limbs away from the body (ie gymnastics)
- The Transverse Plane: rotational plane: examples are golf swing, tennis forehand, kayaking
Taking a global look at the body each joint or series of joints has primary needs that can be either stability or mobility
If you do not have sufficient joint movement in one plane, your body will try to make up the difference by moving in another, usually unwanted plane. You need enough movement in all involved joints to perform your technique effectively.
If your body does not have sufficient stability in one plane, it will permit unwanted movement in another plane. You need sufficient control of all involved joints.
-Joanne Elphinston, [amazon text=Stability, Sport and Performance Movement&asin=1905367422]
If you lose ankle mobility, you get knee pain
If you lose hip mobility, you get low back pain
This creates the two important paradigms – being functional relies on 2 things:
- Structure – muscles/joints/tissues
- Motor pattern – kinetic chain – your brain sending the right signals to the correct muscles; doing the right motions in the correct sequence.
You cannot just address one aspect. If you fix your tight hips and do not re-learn how to use them, the brain would predominantly keep sending the old (dysfunctional/compensatory) signals. If for example you do not address issues/activate with your gluteals (butt muscles) and go to the gym and start squatting you will be adding strength to dysfunction.
Why is that important and where to start?
Like all things a stable foundation allows for secure buildup of further elements. In simple terms ‘functional stability’ is the ability of your body to meet the weight and control demands of the required task – that task is daily activity first and further your sport.
I have to take an aside to address two points
- Core stability is often interchangeably used as core strength. Core strength might be useful in activities such as martial arts and/or contact sports where the ability to withstand a tackle or blow to the chest requires you to ‘tighten up.’ In general and for endurance activities such as cycling, it is the stability that allows you to maintain a neutral effective posture – the ability to use low energy requiring postural muscles to support optimal form over long periods.
- Functional training is not unstable surface training. Unstable training is a challenge. Once you get good at doing something, you have to find a challenge, that being speed, load (weight), under fatigue, etc in order to discover and address your limiters. If you do not know how to properly execute a movement on a stable surface (the ground) adding an extra level of difficulty because “if some is good, more is better for you” will cause more pronounced compensation/errors, rather that improvement.
All sports and activities require a control of the central longitudal axis (CLA) or in simple terms the spine. Why the spine? The spine is the connection/backbone between the pelvic and shoulder girdles – the primary power producing engines in the body. Both are designed to handle HUGE amounts of weight. Why? There is a both the skeleton (structure/anatomy) as well many muscles attachments to distribute and transfer the load and/or force coming from the limbs over a large structure. This stability is the foundation that eliminates unnecessary movement and activates postural muscles who are designed to work over long periods at low energy cost. (Please look at the graphs below, click to zoom).
This complexity has a downside that it allows for more than one way to achieve a movement, using muscles not suited for the task and ultimately affecting, speed, strength, power and a lot of times a free breathing pattern. And yes, I am talking about good posture or the technical term – neutral spine.
How do you go about achieving that?
“Shoulders back, head up, back straight, butt tight….” and so the story goes and it usually gets you nowhere and or in an awkward body orientation, that even with the best intentions you cannot hold without conscious effort. Straight posture is a misnomer since the spine is not a straight structure, but a one that has gentle curves. Therefore why are all those cues an ineffective way to describe neutral spine or good posture?
As you just read above the spine is responsible for organising the hips and shoulders, which in term are the parts of your body responsible for force production. I don’t have to tell you that if you have not braced your spine with your head aligned over the shoulders and the rib cage balanced over your pelvis, you lose tremendous amounts of stability, force and more often than not this is the best way to get injured (aka “Lift with your back straight!”). Why?
Nerves unlike muscles and tendons do not stretch. Once you create a ‘hinge’ or kink in your spine, your brain instinctively tightens the muscles to protect the nervous system, also why when you ‘throw your back out’ the muscle spasms are a rather painful experience. The musculature around the spine is designed to create stiffness and not to handle loaded positions. It’s that stiffness that allows for movement and force to be transmitted from your hips and shoulders. The best way I have found out to date is the one outline by Kelly Starrett in his brilliant book – [amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837]. He refers to it as the ‘Bracing Sequence.’ Outlined below. The best part it is that it causes you to be aware of where things are and your body’s reaction and gives a very good foundation on what is coming in the next paragraph – Generating Torque – which is paramount concept for any kind of functional movement.
The Bracing Sequence
It is important to feel what is happening.
- Screw your feet into the ground as if you are trying to spread a crack on the floor. The arches in your feet should un-collapse, you should feel the tension through your hips and knees.
- Squeeze your butt; that should roll your pelvis into a neutral position. This is a natural reflex.
- Take a deep breath through your diaphragm; ie expand your belly.
- Feel your ribcage balancing over your hips as you exhale and firm up your belly just a touch.
- Spread your chest and arms a bit with your palms facing the sky/ceiling. You should feel your shoulders roll into a neutral position naturally. While looking straight ahead let your head finds it’s natural position above your shoulders. Let your arms gently drop to your sides.
- You are in a neutral spine position.
Flexion and Overextension
The Neutral Spine position should be the baseline for all activities athletic or not. It is not uncommon when sitting down for extended period of time to start to slouch causing spine flexion and then to “sit up straight” causing overextension. Both positions are unstable for the spine. Therefore it is best to stand up and re-organize and be wary of flexion and overextension in your daily activities because any king along ANY part of the spine results in loss of stability/strength in order to protect the spinal cord from damage. ([amazon text=Image Source&asin=1628600837]).
In order to create safe and stable positions for your joints as well as preserve a braced neutral spinal position, you have to create tension in your hips and shoulders and, by extension, your elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles. You do so by generating torque, which is expressed through external rotation (rotating your limb away from your body) and internal rotation (rotating your limb toward the center of your body).
-Kelly Starrett, [amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837]
In simple terms, you are activating the muscles that support the joints (taking up the slack within hip, shoulder capsules, etc). When you fail to do that you are hanging on by the tendons and ligaments and you create an instability. Our bodies are smarter than that and will resort to a bad position (knees turned in, collapsed arches). Below are diagrams to help illustrate the principle.
Commonly in gyms you would hear any of the following. While those cues do (sometimes) get you in a safe stable position, you still do not know what goes on with your body biomechanically and as such if you are not aware, you can’t replicate or control it. You need to start with good position in order to finish in a good one and avoid injuring yourself.
Cues for creating a stable hip position
- Push your knees out
- Spread the floor, etc.
Cues for creating a stable shoulder position
- Bend the bar(bell)
- Elbows in, etc.
Getting the job done, no matter the cost.
If a person/athlete has deficiencies in a certain aspect (balance, strength, flexibility, coordination, etc.) they will, often unconsciously, try to find a way to accomplish the task at hand. Our bodies are hardwired for survival and as such will, sometimes literally, not let us hanging, so they go to second order systems in order to ‘get the job done.’ While this initially might seem like a good thing, in the long term this is the reason behind overuse injuries (98% of all injuries), muscle imbalances (tight back, etc) and/or athletic performance plateaus.
If you bike/run with poor form on an ill-fitting bike or you wear restrictively tight running shoes for 1h a week, maybe you have some nagging soreness until the next Sunday when you do it again. You enjoyed the progress and the new energy it gave you, so you bump it up to 2h and the next day you are nursing a hamstring injury and tight lower back. The demands upon your body have overcome your ability to compensate. Masking faults and deficiencies is also seen among great athletes, hence why Steve Hogg refers to them as “supercompensators;” they can get so good at it that it takes some careful evaluation to see the problems. It is my personal opinion that one of the big reasons why a lot of athletes have difficulties when they ‘go big/PRO/etc., is that they never fixed the bad (movement) habits they had and the now increased pressures of top level competition took their toll. And no, I do not believe that “competitive sports begins where healthy sport ends.”
It’s Never Too Late
Bad habits or not, more functional or less so, it is never too late to relearn to move properly. This functional series is my personal journey in becoming functional all over again. Sedentary job or not, athlete or weekend warrior, we are all humans and there is a way how mother nature designed us to use or joints and muscles. As this is the first part that gives a general overview of what it means to be functional, later episodes would focus on the anatomy as well as assessing, evaluating and correcting any problems you might have.
What you can start doing today is just begin by getting into the neutral spine position and try “loading your hips” when you squat and bend over to pick something up. Most likely you will discover that your old habit is to just bend your back and it requires a conscious thought to change. Therefore try ‘resetting’ your spine every time you stand up and have to perform an activity. If you like me, will likely discover some bad habits, that’s ok, once you are aware of them, you can start changing them.
Without a doubt great champions make the difficult look easy. The many sports and activities are feasible a direct result of the amazing movement possibilities of the human body. Unfortunately with that great freedom, comes the possibilities to perform motions incorrectly. In addition with the advances of civilisation we as humans have to a great degree adopted a less mobile lifestyle. In parallel we seem to put great value in high athletic performance and yet we use imperfect words such as “fit and/or fast” to describe the qualities of the great athletes. While the real question should be
Are you functional?
It’s a combination of motor pattern, strength and awareness – moving like mother nature intended us to.
I like hearing what is your take on this articles is please post any comments below as well as share it and visit the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page.
This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.
All images are copyright to their respective owners, I do not own any of them.
Sources: [amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837]
- Part 1: Fit, Fast, but Are You Functional?
- Part 2: The Parts That Make you Functional – Functional Anatomy
- Part 3: Muscle Imbalances – How, Why and What to do About Them
- Part 4: The Amazing Foot
- Part 5: Mobilis in mobilis – Functional Assessment and Mobilisations
- Part 6: Strength Training (for Endurance Sports)
This article is the culmination of the work of some great people, make sure to check them out!
[amazon text=Stability, Sport and Performance Movement&asin=1905367422] – Joanne Elphinston
[amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837] – Kelly Starrett
[amazon text=Advances in Functional Training &asin=1931046018] – Michael Boyle