A Functional Training Tale

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | November 10, 2021

carl raghavan coaching the squat

Why are you doing that? If you’re not doing a movement in the weight room to get bigger, faster or most importantly stronger, then you are wasting your time. Some things in life are binary, not nuanced. I have to tell you a true story – it brings up an age-old mistake often seen in gyms, having to do with “functional training.”

I was watching a guy who can deadlift 700 lb attempt to strict press, using a football bar that was swinging around with chains attached to it. He’s a tall chap, so the chains at their lowest point were floating 2 feet off the floor. In other words, they never actually unloaded – which is typically how you use chains. Generally, the whole point is that at the bottom of the range of motion, most of the chain rests on the ground. So as the lifter presses, each link of the chain will rise off the floor and add some additional weight to the barbell, making the load progressively heavier at lockout than at the bottom of the lift. Quite a mouthful to explain, it’s also known as “accommodating resistance.” This type of lifting was originally popularized by Westside Barbell.

Anyway, as I watched this lifter perform his bastardization of the lift, I couldn’t hide my reaction. I quickly frowned, followed by a smirk, as I realized this was a bullshit lift and he should know better – he’s a strong lad. So I decided to grill him. The football bar (it weighed 26.5 kg) had 30 kg of plates and a chain on either side. The chains weighed roughly 8 kg per side, so let’s say the total bar weight was approximately 72 kg. Or let’s be generous, and say at most it was 80 kg. I asked, “Why are you doing that?” He replied – and I’m paraphrasing – “It’s functional for rugby and good for shoulder stability.” The debate that followed didn’t really go anywhere after that explanation. So I thought it would make a good article instead, which I may or may not hand to him one day.

The words functional and stability don’t mean much in the gym. They’re buzzwords, not specific, measurable things you can pin down. And referring to a sport just tends to muddy the waters a little. True vectors of performance include the following: did you make the athlete bigger? Yes or no. Did you make the athlete faster? Yes or no. Most importantly, did you make the athlete stronger? Yes or no. The barbell, with its cast iron plates, are what the majority of people in the weight room need, including athletes: no more and no less. Even though this particular dude is a strong deadlifter, he doesn’t have a 140 kg (or 315 lb) press to go with his 700 lb pull. Maybe if he did press 315 lb, he would have known better than to execute a lift like that in a public space. He would have realized that a press upwards of 300 lb would do more than enough to help his rugby and shoulder stability, and he would have avoided wasting his valuable time on sub-optimal work.

None of this is intended to knock the strength or capacity of this particular lifter, mind you. He’s a strong dude, no question. In fact, I was surprised to see him worrying about shoulder stability. I’ve seen him routinely power snatch 110 kg with relative ease. Personally, I’d say his shoulders are stable enough. So the question, then, is what additional benefit he gets from swinging chains and a football bar that he doesn’t get from a heavy power snatch. Your guess is as good as mine. If he simply enjoys the lift, then fine – but it doesn’t strike me as a particularly efficient way to do anything.

If you’re trying to execute a movement that replicates your sport while using a barbell or any other implement in the gym (assuming you’re not talking about barbell-based sports, obviously), then you are wasting your time. If you really want to practice something closely related to your sport, then surely you’re better off doing your actual sport – doesn’t that make more logical sense? Ultimately, it comes down to the two factor model. This has been explained elsewhere in much more detail already, so I won’t get into the weeds, but basically the two-factor model is this: get strong and play your sport. To get better at your sport, you need to practice it. To get stronger, you need to lift heavy weights. The classic barbell lifts – squat, press, deadlift, bench, snatch, and clean & jerk, maybe with some other weightlifting jerk variations – are everything you need to be a strong, powerful human and more. No machines, bands, or chains required, although they can be useful when used correctly and for specific individuals.

So are they necessary in this case, and for this specific individual? What is this athlete actually concerned about? Well, there are two main reasons someone might want “shoulder stability” in rugby. How do I know this? I did a little research and asked a semi-pro rugby player, and he said you need strong shoulders for tackles and line-outs.

Tackles, or any sort of collision, obviously occur frequently in a rugby game, but let’s break down what is actually happening. The athlete needs to apply force from his feet into the floor (the pitch) and transmit that force all the way through his leg, torso and back, then into his shoulders then finally into arms and hands. He has to be able to produce enough force to be able to tackle, stop, or control any situation that is in front of him with his hands and shoulders. The best and most efficient way to train for these attributes in the weight room would be to press. The press provides the purest amount of total body compression out of all the barbell lifts. Yes, the squat, deadlift and bench handle more weight, but the sheer number of actual joints and limbs loaded under compressive force is higher in the press. The press has the longest kinetic chain out of all the main barbell lifts. Yes, the athlete will get huge value from the other three lifts too – which is why they should also be staples of a rugby player’s training – but when we consider what’s involved in a tackle or collision, we see that the press fits the bill best.

The other situation in rugby that places great demands on the shoulder is a line-out. This is where an athlete jumps into the air to catch a throw-in. As a teammate, you may have to hoist this big dude up to bolster his jump and make him more likely to catch the ball. It’s kind of like a macho version of a cheerleading move – but you’re not lifting some stick-thin bleached blonde who throws up every meal. The athlete may weigh 120 kg or more, and you have to be strong enough to hold him above your head during this maneuver. This obviously would be best practiced as a drill on the pitch during training, as it’s a specific skill and a skill needs to be practiced, like shooting a basketball or correctly performing a judo throw. A skill like that cannot truly be replicated in the weight room with a barbell, unless of course your goal is specifically barbell-related.

So much for skill. What about strength (thinking back to the two-factor model)? What barbell lift will best help in this scenario? Again, a press will be the best tool for the job, as it builds strength in the shoulders so effectively. And to be clear, I don’t mean pressing using a football bar with a few plates and chains swinging around: a big, heavy barbell press is the ticket. The only other variation of press that could benefit a rugby player for line-outs would arguably be a push press, since the player is most likely going to bend his knees to generate more force in a game situation before hoisting up his team mate. Again, the push press is a common weightlifting variant that can be easily taught and programmed. Any decent athlete can get to grips with it in five seconds. But presses, squats, deadlifts, and cleans cover all the bases, and push presses are just not as important as getting very strong on the basic barbell exercises.

It will be obvious by now that I don’t believe most of these “alternative” lifts involving chains and bands are optimal for training. They have their uses. But not in this context. They don’t increase “shoulder stability” as well as a straightforward press. Now, if you enjoy lifting with chains and you simply want to do something different because it’s fun or you’re bored, then be my guest. Who am I to tell you not to? But let’s not pretend it’s “functional,” or is optimal training for your sport. It isn’t. The two-factor model offers you everything you need to know about optimal training for specific sports. Lift for strength; practice your sport for skill.

If your priority is optimal training, then the squat, press, deadlift, bench, power clean and power snatch, trained correctly, are nearly always all any modern athlete needs from the weight room. The rest of your training time should be spent out there on the field, doing your sport. Everything else should go towards sleeping and eating, and that’s it. Not balancing on one foot, doing T’s and Y’s with a TRX or re-enacting a match scrimmage situation while gripping a barbell with your eyes closed. So let’s melt all the landmines and colorful vinyl kettlebells down to make new racks and barbells, throw the TRX straps in the bin and pop every Swiss ball and Bosu ball we see. Let’s make functional training go the way of the dinosaurs – extinct, and not the topic of my latest gym rant.

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