The term functional training has been circulating in the fitness industry for quite a few years now and seems to be surging in popularity as a training concept. The common denominator in functional training is mechanical specificity. Simply put, mechanical specificity refers to “the kinetic and kinematic associations between an exercise and physical performance” (Chandler & Brown 2008). It strips down movement and examines what needs to stabilize, move and fire for correct and healthy movement.
The true benefit and functionality of Pilates have been questioned in some fitness circles. This article examines the rationale for choosing Pilates training when functionality is the main priority.
One goal of functional training is to help people perform activities of daily living with ease and without pain. Our most mundane movements are actually quite complex and require the harmonious integration of movement forces, joint stability and firing patterns. The body longs for total integration—posture, joint stability and prime-mover support. All these elements are required for proper biomechanical functionality.
Pilates is brilliant because it teaches exercise as movements, not as bits of movement. The traditional roll-up is a perfect example of full-body integration. In an elementary analysis, the roll-up looks like a simple spinal flexion exercise, but when you apply proper technique, it becomes much more than that. Sure, the roll-up conditions the rectus abdominis and obliques to create spinal flexion. It also lengthens the spinal extensors. But examine the full-body effects as well: It lengthens shortened hamstrings, activates and strengthens the internal/external rotators of the femurs, and challenges scapular stability, which helps create proper humeral and cervical spinal function (when performed correctly).
Can you think of the many ways this full-body integration crosses over into daily life?
Frequently, clients who have experience with traditional weight training ask me why Pilates doesn’t require multiple sets of the same exercise. While the goal of traditional weight training is to build muscle through muscle hypertrophy, the focus of traditional and contemporary Pilates training is different.
Pilates philosophy extols continually challenging the body through an array of movements. As a student improves, he learns new exercises, thereby gaining a wider spectrum of movement. You can argue that this movement philosophy mimics functional fitness in a uniquely beneficial way because Pilates adds variety of movement rather than simply repeating multiple sets of the same exercise.
Consider the functional movements required in your daily life. Do you push doors open with 50–200 pounds of pressure? Do you press 70 pounds of dog food into your highest kitchen cabinet? When was the last time you dead-lifted your 150-pound desk to pick up a piece of paper? It’s not likely you do any of these things on a regular basis, if at all! Why, then, are so many functional programs powercentric?
Realistically, people need to sit at their desks with good posture and have their spines, arms and shoulders properly supported. They may need to be able to lift, carry and press 5–20 pounds (whether it is a baby, a dog, a computer bag or a bag of groceries). They may also need to be able to bend and pick up an item from the floor without putting undue force and load on spinal disks.
These activities do not require the production of force in the large muscles; instead, they require the ability to maintain proper mechanical alignment via joint stability. Proper joint stability is achieved not by gross force production in large, powerful muscles, but rather by deeper support from structural and postural muscles that activate and fire on cue (Lee 2011). This point is one main reason why Pilates is functional. In leg-pull front, for example, the challenge lies not in overloading the gluteus maximus for hip extension, but rather in maintaining proper alignment throughout the exercise. The dynamic stabilizing system needs to be conditioned for proper daily alignment and movement.
Balancing Stability and Mobility
When lecturing, I love asking people to demonstrate a functional exercise. An overwhelming number demonstrate variations of the standing squat and lunge. Some hype the benefits of muscular training while stabilizing the pelvis and spine. This is true; however, it would be erroneous to think that functional training requires us only to stand on a weight machine. Functional training isn’t exclusive to pelvic and spinal stability exercises. Doing 20 versions of a plank is not a complete functional fitness program.
Again, bring to mind activities of daily living—of which there are too many to list here. Do you walk around with a stiff, erect and stable spine? No; you flex, extend, twist and bend. Besides dynamic stability, spinal mobility is a vital requirement for biomechanical health. When examining functional fitness programs, it is important to acknowledge the need for spinal mobility in all planes of motion. This is where Pilates training shines. A well-balanced Pilates program moves the spine in multiple planes.
Further Evolution of Functional Pilates
Joseph Pilates created an amazing body of work. If we compare his method to other modern arts and sciences, we can conclude that Pilates may always be growing and evolving. I invite the Pilates and functional fitness communities to study the past and to keep exploring and sharing. In this way, we can continue to train and challenge our clients to move, mobilize and stabilize properly and with ease in all daily activities.
Chandler, J., & Brown, L. 2008. Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance. Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
Lee, D. 2011. The Pelvic Girdle: An Approach to the Examination and Treatment of the Lumbopelvic-Hip Region. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone.