Functional training mimics real-life movements and can help prevent injuries in daily life.
It does not seem that hard to stand on one leg on a bosu ball – an exercise device in the form of an inverted dome – with the other in the air. But more than 30 fitness trainers trying to land a job at a gym in Queen Street could not do it. Armed with fitness certifications, they breezed through the push-ups and chin-ups. But the founder of Functional Training Institute, Mr Nelson Chong, turned them all away because they failed the balance test.
Most people cannot stabilise their ankles, knees and hip joints to stay on the bosu ball, he said. And the ability to keep in balance is crucial – in sports as well as in daily life. Football players have to balance on one leg to kick a ball and many women have to keep their balance when they walk around on high heels.
To learn balance, one needs core strength and agility, both of which can be worked on through a variety of activities, including exercises specifically geared towards them. Four gyms here are reporting an increasing interest from people – both athletes and non-athletes – in such training, called functional training.
Since the Functional Training Institute opened in November 2009, its number of clients has doubled to 400. Another centre, Aspiring Goals Functional Training Centre, now has 15 clients passing through its doors each day, up from five in 2010. Crossfit Singapore now works with more than 100 athletes, up from two in May 2009 when it opened. It is an affiliate of the core strength and conditioning programme from the United States.
At Fitness First, functional training is conducted during personal-training sessions and daily group workouts on the gym floor. In the last two years, the gym chain has also been refurbishing its clubs to make room for areas dedicated to functional training, with equipment such as the TRX suspension trainer and a stick-like tool called the ViPR. Its new club at Marina Bay Financial Centre, which opens in August, will be the first to have group suspension training classes in the studio.
Exercises for real activities
While conventional workouts focus on cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength, functional training covers a broader range of movements and abilities. It mirrors everyday movement patterns, such as bending, twisting, pushing and pulling, movements a person needs to carry a heavy grocery bag, squat in the toilet or reach out for an item on a high shelf with ease. Exercises can be done with equipment such as weights or cable devices, or using one’s own weight. They include lunges, squats, planks and push-ups and can be adjusted to be done on fitness balls or with kettlebells for additional strength and balance training.
Assistant Professor Swarup Mukherjee, from the physical education and sports science academic group at the National Institute of Education, said functional training leads to improved muscle balance, better joint stability and enhanced movement control, all of which are beneficial to athletes and the general population. Perhaps without knowing it, many people are already engaged in exercises which benefit their general function.
Dr Mukherjee said: “A large number of Singaporeans of different age groups participate in pilates, martial arts, mixed martial arts, dance forms and gymnastics. “These activities involve force production (speeding up), force reduction (slowing down), stability, balance, posture control and position sense – all of which meet the criteria of functional training.” He also noted that functional training is a recent addition to athletic training. Its purview has always been in physiotherapy, where therapists use it to rehabilitate patients compromised by stroke or injury. In fact, functional training is “a physiotherapist’s forte”, said Ms Michelle Kwong, 32, principal physiotherapist from private physiotherapy centre Physioclinic.
With knowledge of anatomy, physiology and the biomechanics of how the body works, the physiotherapist helps improve the range of movement in joints, prevent muscles from tightening, and retrains a person’s gait. The aim is to reduce pain and regain function. In the initial phase of an injury, functional training is incorporated with other types of treatment such as stretching and massage, said Mr Leslie Ng, 35, a sports physiotherapist from sports injury clinic One Physiotherapy. Ms Pauline Leong, principal physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital, advises people with pain, or an elderly person with a history of falls, to seek a doctor’s advice first before approaching fitness trainers for help with their exercise regimen.
Strength, speed and agility
Outside the rehabilitation clinic, functional training is being discovered by healthy people wishing to improve strength and flexibility as they age. As practised in the gym, functional training works on the body’s “fast twitch” muscle fibres, which are the muscles needed to react to a split-second crisis such as a fall, said head coach at Crossfit Singapore, Mr Kevin Lim, 32. People who engage in most forms of cardiovascular exercise would rely on their “slow twitch” muscle fibres, which contract slowly over a prolonged period. Over time, said Mr Lim, even an athlete’s fast twitch muscle fibres can become rusty from lack of use.
Functional training tries to address these gaps in usage through its emphasis on training both sets of muscle fibres. In functional training, exercises are performed on three planes: frontal (side to side), saggital (forward or backward) and transverse (rotational). Rather than moving forward on a treadmill, for instance, clients may be taught to walk sideways on an inclined surface, said Mr Chong. This mimicks those occasions when one is required to side-step an obstacle or break a fall, which can occur in any direction, he added. Hand-eye coordination is also involved.
Unlike strength training, which focuses on building muscles alone, functional exercises train the person in performing movements applicable in real life. It emphasises integrated movement, rather than working on muscle groups in isolation. Athletes benefit from functional training because of its emphasis on strength, speed and agility, said personal trainer Hayati Nuffus, who owns functional-training gym AlphaFit. But more important than excelling in sports, functional training aims to keep an individual mobile throughout life.
To be healthy, each adult should put in 150 minutes of moderately intensive activity each week, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends. Functional training can be a part of this, along with other lifestyle, aerobic and strength activities, said Dr Robert Sloan, the centre head and chief exercise physiologist at the HPB’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence. He calls functional training “yet another sound method that can be part of a holistic physical activity programme”.
The effectiveness of functional training alone on younger and middle-aged people “has not been well established, but there is a likely benefit”, he said. But for older adults, functional training alone has been shown to benefit them. In fact, a specific functional training programme may be warranted for older people at high risk of falls due to a sedentary lifestyle, Dr Sloan added.
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