Less Function, More Art.

So, let’s get this down on paper first. I hate the word functional.

It’s not a problem with the word itself, it’s that like the words “natural”, “healthy” and “fitness” it has become virtually meaningless.

Every time someone uses the word functional, ask them the question “functional for what?”. Most of the time they won’t be able to answer, or you will get a garbled stream of nonsensical scientific sound and fury that signifies nothing.

There are several things that constantly get thrown into the functional movement category:

1. Anything where we add resistance to a sports specific movement, like swinging super heavy swords around or attaching a baseball to a resistance band and pitching it in the vague hope that this is not as silly as it looks. Loading a skilled sports specific movement does not make you better at that movement. In fact, it could make you worse. Save adding weight for the gym.

2. Any time we add a variability beyond the reasonable scope of what you encounter in your specific pursuit. Wanna get good at squatting? Why not squat while on an unstable surface with a weight over your head while singing yankee doodle? That sounds better than actually practicing the movement you want to improve. Stability training is fun, however, doing weighted lifts on a balance board or bosu ball will only mean you can lift less overall weight, and generally the only time most people will see any benefit will be if they participate in a sport that takes place on bosu balls.

3. Anything that arbitrarily strings a bunch of movements together for no reason other than to add unnecessary complexity, because for some reason people can’t distinguish “simple” from “easy”. Let’s take a fairly common example. I can overhead press a heavier dumbbell than I can curl. If I do a combo exercise where I curl and press the dumbbell, my overhead press is likely not going to get worked the way my curl is, and there’s no real way to do a combo exercise that will in this case.

This doesn’t mean that combo exercises don’t have a place but, in general, people use them (and coaches offer them) without realizing that they can severely limit the outcome.

My real dislike of functional fitness, however, is more of a philosophical problem. Do things because you enjoy them. Do things because they make you feel good about yourself. Do “fitness” because it makes you more able to do the things you care about. Not everything needs to be incredibly efficient to have value.

Ultimately, my job is teaching people to pick up heavy things and not take them anywhere. Yes, it has applications, and yes, I would even sometimes describe it as functional (when I can answer the functional for what? question). However at the end of the day, whether you do it with bars, kettlebells, bands, or body weight strength training is fun, and that is where the artistry lies.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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