By Andrew Getzin, MD
Many athletes now specialize on a single sport at an early age. The days of unstructured play at the schoolyard is being replaced with an increased number of competitions year-round. Unfortunately, young athletes are often not physically prepared for this increase in volume and specialization. By concentrating on a single sport, athletes often develop the sport-specific skills they need but do not develop the required functional strength and fitness to excel and remain injury free.
Functional training involves whole body exercises that condition muscles to work together properly in a coordinated manner. This approach to training emphasizes appropriate body motions, and goes far beyond simply improving muscular strength. It helps to strengthen supporting muscles that are often not developed with early sports specialization. All young athletes and even older non-competitive adults can reap their benefit.
How does functional training enhance sports performance?
Functional training is excellent for sports preparation because it emphasizes multi-planar movement activities involving strength, power, and stability. It can help athletes improve their running, jumping, balance, and strength. Proper functional training focuses on quality body mechanics and the development of core strength.
Why is core strength important?
Core muscles consist of the deep abdominal, pelvic floor, lower back, shoulder girdle, and hip muscles. They act to stabilize the body during peripheral movement and are crucial to generating power, decreasing the risk of injuries, and improving performance.
Does functional training improve technique?
I liken functional training to my learning how to swim as an adult. Initially what felt correct to me in the pool was not efficient and certainly wasn’t pretty swimming. Trying to make corrections and develop proper technique felt very awkward. However, after practicing proper technique thousands of times the more appropriate muscle firing patterns felt more comfortable and made me a better swimmer.
In functional training, weight bars and machines have been replaced with stretch cords, medicine balls, and body weight exercises. Balance training is done first on a stable surface (the ground) and then progressed to unstable surfaces (stability balls and dyna discs). Plyometrics, where the body coils and uses its stored energy to recoil, builds power.
How does functional training work?
Exercises in functional training follow a progression. Once an exercise is done properly it can be modified to further challenge the individual. It can progress from two-legged activities to one-legged, from work on stable surfaces to unstable surfaces, from simple activities to complex movement patterns.
Why do some athletes get injured more frequently or severely than others?
Studies on the mechanisms of injuries demonstrate consistent patterns and body positions that increase the risk of specific injuries. By way of example, young female athletes are more prone to knee and ankle injuries than their male counterparts. In fact, the risk of tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of the knee (an injury that almost always requires surgery and six months of rehabilitation before returning to sports) is two to five times higher in girls than boys. Many girls tend to buckle their knees inward on landing from jumps. This inward position creates a shearing force on the ACL. Evidence shows that participation in functional training programs can decrease the risk of ACL and other knee and ankle injuries up to 75 percent by decreasing the amount of buckling in.
Functional training programs have existed around the country for 10 to 15 years. They have been shown to be effective with young athletes, older people, and even professional athletes ranging from soccer stars such as Mia Hamm to major league baseball players to NFL offensive lineman.
If you want more information about functional training in general, or how to enroll in a local functional training program, please call (607) 252-3500.
Dr. Getzin is on the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is board certified in sports medicine and family practice. He can be reached at Cayuga Sports Medicine at (607)252-3580.