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Fitness Corner: Functional Training

Texans strength and conditioning coach **Dan Riley** is back for another installment of his Fitness Corner column.


Riley and assistant strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright will continue to post selected answers to your questions throughout the year. Join in by shooting over an e-mail to

Here is an archive of past columns. Dan and Ray have also made the club's strength and conditioning manual available. Click here to download it. And here is an abridged one for the fitness enthusiast.

Here's Dan…

I work in a gym and I am currently trying to become a personal trainer. I have been exposed to many pieces of "functional" training equipment (i.e. body balls, medicine balls,  balance boards, etc.). Some of this equipment can be useful, but I think some people overuse it in many different ways. In fact, I have had a number of people ask me to show them how to do squats on a body ball. What is "functional" about doing that? I was wondering where you stand on the functional training movement and if you utilize any of this equipment to train your players?
*-- David Falconer, Vancouver, British Columbia

Words used to define "functional" include the following: useful, handy, purposeful, efficient, and well-designed. The antonym of the word functional is "worthless," which describes my opinion of squatting on a ball. I advocate variety, but performing squats on a ball is over the edge. I would not recommend this to our players or anyone else.

During my thirty-two year career as a strength coach, I have had the opportunity to observe many changes within the fitness industry. Many of these changes are for the better, and in my opinion some are not. Injuries cannot be tolerated in the weight room. I cannot see how squatting on a ball can be considered a safe or productive activity for any athlete or fitness enthusiast.

The skill to balance on a stability ball or a balance board is very specific. Different patterns and amounts of abilities change as the exercise changes. There is no general ability to balance.

Motor Learning expert Dr. Richard Schmidt states, "Even within a broad category of skills (e.g., balancing), do not expect performance on one skill to indicate ability to perform well on a different skill." The skill and balance developed to perform a specific exercise on a ball or core board will not transfer to another skill.

The skill and balance needed to walk the balance beam is different from the skill and balance used to perform a handstand. Each requires a specific pattern of abilities. One does not transfer to the other. The skill and balance to perform an exercise on a ball are specific and will not transfer to any specific skill performed on the field, court, or diamond.

Schmidt states, "Coaches often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability, eye movement exercises to improve vision, and many others. Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work." He states, "There is no general ability to be quick, to balance, or to use vision."

Use a stability ball to create variety in your workouts. It is a versatile and useful tool. It is very helpful during rehabilitation, and very beneficial in supporting the lumbar while strengthening the abdominal and lower back muscles. However, I do not recommend using a ball to generate maximum gains in strength.

Our goal in the weight room is to activate every motorneuron available and ultimately every muscle fiber attached to it. In my opinion, instability, or lack of confidence while performing an exercise, will inhibit the ability of the brain to activate all of the motor units available, and ultimately prevent maximum strength gains.

Let me share a true story told to me by our quarterback David Carr. Last year he visited Hawaii for a few days.

While in Hawaii David visited a health club to work out. He was not there long before a personal trainer introduced himself to David. The personal trainer was working with a client who appeared to be in his early 40's. The man was attempting to perform seated dumbbell lateral raises on a stability ball.

The trainer tried convincing David why he should be doing some of his exercises on the ball. David is a physical education major and had a course in Motor Learning while at Fresno State. The topic of stability balls was discussed in his class so David is quite knowledgeable regarding the facts vs. the anecdotal information regarding exercising on a ball. David graciously thanked the personal trainer for the offer but politely declined.

During this entire conversation the personal trainer had his back to his client. David had full view of the man struggling to perform the exercise. In a split second the man lost his balance and fell off the ball. He lay on the floor bleeding with a cut on his head. Emergency medical technicians were called immediately.

Is it possible for most people to safely perform lateral raises on a ball? Absolutely. Is it necessary to use a ball to perform lateral raises to generate maximum gains in the middle deltoid? The answer is absolutely not.

The need to concentrate on balancing on the ball can detract from an athlete using as much weight, as he should use to generate maximum strength gains.

Is it necessary for any athlete to risk injury squatting on a ball? My answer is a resounding no.

I do not use balls with our players but remember we have a well-equipped facility. I am a big fan of creating variety in an exercise program. I have already mentioned the balls are quite versatile. My advice is using them if you have them but do not oversell the value.

I do not advise using the ball as a bench or platform while lifting meaningful weights with the purpose of stimulating maximum strength gains. I prefer the opposite. I want a very stable foundation to allow our players to focus on the act of performing the exercise without any external inhibitors that might limit the amount of weight they use and ultimately the potential strength gains to be made in the muscles we are trying to target.

It is my philosophy to not compromise the potential benefits of an exercise designed to generate maximum gains in one area of the body, to gain minimal benefits in another area.

Functional training is a term that has evolved in recent years. When it comes to strengthening a muscle (or group of muscles) I rely upon my classes in exercise physiology. I learned that a muscle contracts concentrically when it shortens (positive work or lifting the weight), and eccentrically when it lengthens (negative work or lowering the weight).

To develop any muscle through its' full range of motion select an exercise (and ideally a piece of equipment) that provides resistance from the starting stretched position to the muscles fully contracted position. If adequate overload is provided, and reasonably good form is used, most of the available motor units (to include motor neurons and muscle fibers attached) will be strengthened.

We cannot recreate the thousands of different movement patterns used to play the game while performing any exercise in the weight room. Strengthen a muscle in the weight room and turn a player loose on the field court, or diamond, to develop the skills used to play their sport.

Variations in an exercise will force the insertion point of a muscle to pull on the moving bone at different angles, but the bottom line is, the muscle must be shortened and lengthened through it's fullest range of motion with resistance applied at the appropriate angles. Certain exercises take a muscle through a greater range of motion than others. Some exercise equipment is better designed to provide full range exercise.

Functional training for me is to have our players strengthen all of their muscles through a full range of motion in the weight room, and then have our players practice and refine the skills used to play football on the field.

Medicine balls have also become increasingly popular. I like medicine balls because they are versatile and inexpensive. When I first arrived at West Point in 1973 we used leather medicine balls. My how times have changed.

In some situations a medicine ball may be all that is available. When performing any single joint exercise, rotary and direct resistance is necessary to develop a muscle through its' full range. A medicine ball only provides resistance in a straight line (perpendicular to the floor). Resistance is applied at some points (not necessarily at the right angle) and little to none at others.

     A medicine ball like any other exercise tool has some structural assets and limitations. I personally do not use medicine balls with our players. Ray will periodically use them to create some abdominal variety.

      My name is George Thomas and I'm from Vienna, Austria. I am twenty-years old and play linebacker. I am very interested in Human Kinetics and especially in gym programs for football players. I have several questions for you. Do your players perform all their exercises on machines? I always heard you should not use a machine because a lack of muscle synergism and using a free weight is more equal to the football movement on the field. Finally, I did not see any explosive stuff like cleans.

     In your first question, you asked if our players perform all of their exercises on machines. Some machines are designed to imitate and improve upon exercises performed (or exercises that cannot be performed) with a barbell or dumbbell. Our players have access to machines, barbells, and dumbbells, and we use them all.

     There was a period in my life where I refused to use anything but "free weights." I'm old enough that the only equipment we had available when I first started training was a barbell and dumbbell. I never saw a Universal Gym until I went to graduate school at Indiana University.

     I developed a very strong bias for only using a barbell or a dumbbell. I had used these tools for many years and experienced a moderate degree of success with a barbell and dumbbell.

     In the early 1970's, Universal Gym, Nautilus, Mini-Gym, and Cybex, became major players in the production of strength training machines. At the time I was the Director of Strength Training at West Point. I was the resident expert in the area of strength training, yet I knew nothing about these machines.

     A new football coach was hired and wanted some of these new machines. I resisted. It was easier to discredit the equipment than to admit I did not know how to use it. In spite of my protests, the Academy purchased a large number of Universal Gyms and Nautilus machines. 

      It was a hard lesson to learn, and it took many years to accept, but I realize now that football players (and most athletes) can use any equipment they prefer to develop strength.

     The only exercises our players currently perform with a barbell include the bench press and incline press. With dumbbells our players perform the bench press, the incline press, and the seated (overhead) press.

     Realize there is no machine, barbell, or dumbbell, which can effectively imitate any rehearsed or unrehearsed movement performed on a football field. I have discussed skill transfer many times in past installations of the Fitness Corner. The skill to perform any exercise in the weight room, whether it is performed with a barbell, dumbbell, or machine, will not transfer to any skill performed on the field.

     In my younger days I extolled the virtues of using only a barbell or dumbbell. I preached that antagonistic muscles were needed to help control and balance the bar or dumbbell. I believed this would have an impact on strength gains. Time and experience have altered my view.

     At a clinic early in my career I was telling coaches how important it was to use "free weights," primarily a barbell. I preached the value of having to balance the bar while performing an exercise.

    I told coaches that a barbell bench press was one of the best exercises their athletes could perform. It was much better than performing the same exercise on a machine because athletes had to balance the bar. More skill was needed to use the barbell.

     One coach in the audience raised his hand and asked, "If balance and skill was important while performing an exercise, why not perform the bench press with dumbbells, instead of a barbell?"

      I had all the answers, so I immediately replied, "You can use more weight with a barbell which in return will generate better strength gains. It is harder to use dumbbells because it requires more balance to control two dumbbells compared to one barbell."

     I believed you could make better strength gains using a barbell because you did not have to be as concerned about balance as much.

     The same coach then asked, "If less balance is needed to use a barbell compared to balancing two dumbbells, and that is an advantage, why don't you just use a machine to bench press and eliminate the need for balance altogether?" You could hear the murmur in the audience because I did not know how to respond.

     Performing most exercises with a barbell or dumbbell is a gross motor skill and can be mastered in a short period of time. The more experienced the lifter, the easier it is to balance and control the bar, and the fewer opposing muscle fibers needed. The differences between using a barbell, a dumbbell, or a machine, are virtually negligible. There are neurological nuances to each, but not enough to make a difference in how you perform as a football player.

     When performing straight-line exercises (squat, bench press, incline press, seated or overhead press), it really does not matter what type of equipment you use. If you prefer using a barbell, I strongly urge you to use a barbell. Ditto with dumbbells or machines. 

     The barbell and dumbbell are very versatile tools. However, there are some exercises a football player cannot execute with a barbell or dumbbell. There are also some exercises that can be more effectively performed with a machine (neck flexion, neck extension, lateral neck flexion, leg curls, leg extensions, hip adduction, hip abduction, and hip flexion).

     Dumbbells provide resistance in a straight line (perpendicular to the floor) and when performing an isolation exercise (lateral raise, rear delt, rotator cuff, pec flyes, pullovers) are not nearly as effective as when performed on equipment structurally designed to provide direct and rotary resistance.

     George, my advice is to use any equipment you prefer, or have access to. I can assure you after thirty-two years of training football players, the equipment you use will not have an impact on your ability to play the game of football. Your effort to develop maximum gains and willingness to work your hardest during the season, will have the most impact on your ability as a football player.

     I strongly endorse and promote variety in organizing a strength program, to include the type of equipment you use. I am amused when I hear someone claim, "I'm a free weight guy," yet more than half the exercises they perform are with a machine. I find it amusing because I said the same thing when I was younger.

     My advice is do not develop a bias for, or against, any type of equipment. If you have access to a wide variety of equipment, use it all.

     I have discussed "explosive lifts" and cleans in past articles of the Fitness Corner. Most strength coaches employ these exercises because that is their background and preference. I have never included any type of clean during my thirty-two year career. I have trained some players that have never performed a power clean.

     Momentum is encouraged when performing cleans and snatches. We discourage our players from using momentum while raising the weight. Remember, the heavier a weight gets, the slower it will move. We teach our players it is the "neurological intent" to raise a weight fast that develops explosiveness. The intent is to raise the weight fast. However the weight is heavy enough and the form strict enough to make it impossible to move the weight fast.

     Observe a Power Lifter in competition. The rules of their competition prohibit the use of momentum to help raise the weight. Power lifters try there hardest to raise the weight as fast as possible, but the weight moves in a very smooth and deliberate manner.

     While performing some exercises we encourage our players to try and raise the weight as fast as possible. We literally tell them to "explode, jerk it, throw it, yank it." This would not include exercises for the neck, groin, low back, hamstrings, or any movement where potential orthopedic or soft tissue trauma could occur suddenly, or over time.

     If you observed one of our players performing an exercise you would see a smooth transition between the lowering of the weight to the raising of the weight (no bouncing, no sudden jerk, no cheating movements).

     For example, when performing an exercise like the bench press our players would lower the weight to the chest, and without bouncing, try and raise the weight as fast as possible. It moves in a very smooth and deliberate manner. The weight is heavy enough that our players cannot move it very fast, yet there intent is to try and move the weight as fast as possible.

     I truly believe an athletes' potential explosiveness is primarily determined by neurological traits inherited at conception, not the exercises he performs in the weight room.  

     All exercises have the potential of increasing an athletes' explosiveness if meaningful overload is used.

     Must you perform cleans or any of the "quick lifts" to play in the National Football League, or at any level of competition? The answer is no.

     George, my advice to you is perform power cleans if you like them and if you believe they make you more explosive. However, I would not recommend cleans if you have had, or have, any type of back problem.

     Also, it is during the season that you need to be your strongest and most explosive. I have had players that performed cleans in the past tell me that once the season begins, they have a difficult time performing cleans with meaningful weights, or they stop performing them altogether.

     Remember you are a football player, not a weightlifter. The time to be your strongest is during the season, from the first day of training camp until the last game of the season. It lacks logic to perform cleans, or any exercise or activity in the off-season, and then stop performing them once the season begins. You will lose significant strength (power, explosiveness) if you significantly decrease the amount of weight used during the season.

My advice? Develop total body strength. Your neck muscles and traps must be your number one priority. Muscles that cross and protect the shoulder capsule must also have a high priority. Utilize the equipment you prefer, but realize total body development is a necessity for a football player.

*    My name is Jon Ritchie. I am a 14-year-old boy. I have recently been working out with my friend about 2-3 times a week and I am just as strong as him. My question is, why am I so much skinnier than him, but yet just as strong?
    There are many factors that can contribute to this phenomenon. It's possible your friend has more body fat than you. Please refer to the Fitness Corner "Archives" to an article I wrote about body composition.

     I provided a picture of Corey Bradford with his arm relaxed and then with his arm flexed. You will observe a significant change in the size of his upper arm when he flexed his bicep. This is because he has very little body fat. A person with more body fat can have a bigger arm, but will demonstrate less change in size when measured.   

     The theory used by exercise physiologists to explain how a muscle grows bigger is, the cross sectional width of each muscle fiber increases. We do know with adequate overload, all muscles grow bigger and stronger. The degree of growth and strength gain is dependent upon some known neurological, physiological, and biomechanical advantages.

     There are some known (and probably many more unknown) characteristics that allow muscles to generate size and strength gains. In their Kinesiology book, Cooper and Glassow state, "The force which a muscle can exert when it contracts depends upon the number, length, and arrangement of its fibers, the geometric relations of the muscle fibers to the tendon, the angle of insertion of the tendon on the bone, and
the distance the tendon inserts from the joint axis about which movement occurs*."

     These are some of the genetic traits you and your friend have inherited from your parents. You cannot change any of these characteristics. They have an impact on how much weight you can lift. Some athletes inherit good leverage for performing a specific exercise. Muscles are connected to the bones with tendons. When a muscle contracts it shortens and pulls on the tendon attached to the bone. As the muscle contracts it will cause the bone to move.

     Muscles hook up to bones at two different places (point of origin & the point of insertion). The point of origin is the same point in humans. For example, your biceps and the biceps of your buddy are connected at the same spot near the top of your shoulder.

     However, the other spot where the muscle hooks up (the point of insertion) is different between you and your buddy. The position where a muscle inserts varies in all humans.  The spot where a muscle inserts can provide a tremendous leverage advantage. The difference of one centimeter can provide a tremendous leverage advantage. The biceps inserts somewhere on your forearm. The further away from the elbow the biceps is connected, the better the leverage.

     Imagine the insertion point of your biceps being the door handle on a door. Leverage to open the door improves as we move the door handle further away from the hinges. It would make it more difficult to open a door if the door handle was placed in the middle of a door. It is easier to open a door (leverage improves) when the door handle is connected near the outside of the door. The further away from your elbow that your biceps is connected to your forearm bone, the better leverage you will have to perform any exercise involving the biceps (biceps curls, lat pulldowns, chin-ups, etc.). This same leverage advantage occurs with all of your muscles, not just your biceps.

     In Geoffrey Dyson's book, The Mechanics of Athletics, he states, "Some athletes, fortunately endowed, possess muscular insertions that are farther from their joints than in the average person; and this, if true of one of their bone levers, appears to apply to them all! Only a very small difference is necessary to give considerable mechanical advantage." 

     I do not know for sure, but it is quite possible you have favorable insertion points when compared to your buddy. A person with a short forearm and a favorable insertion point for the biceps will lift more weight than a person with a longer forearm and a less favorable insertion point.

     Dyson states, "A weak, long-levered athlete is therefore at a distinct disadvantage, for he can employ his levers against only very light resistances."

     As I stated earlier, there are many things that impact strength gains and hypertrophy. All of our players utilize the same routines. The only difference is how each responds. That is one of the reasons we do not test and compare one player to another. There are too many genetic variables that allow one player to lift more weight than another. It has nothing to do with how hard a player trains.

My advice to you is train hard and do not compare your results to anyone else but your own.

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