“Functional” fitness is a term that has trickled down from its origins in the mid-1990’s to common exercise parlance today. While the actual definition can and is regularly questioned (always helpful when you want objectivity), let’s consider what it usually refers to.

A level of complexity has always been associated with the term “functional fitness/training.” Somehow, the logic goes, the more advanced the exercise, the more it will have carryover to activities of daily living. Time and testing has demonstrated, both in research and practice, that the inverse is true. Standing on one leg while using the opposite hand to draw figure 8’s is somehow sold as ‘functional’ or ‘balance’ training. And while it may demonstrate some measure of ankle stability, it largely misses the realm of increasing performance when discussing life movements.

More complex does not mean more muscle recruitment or activation. It just means the exercise requires more…planning, I suppose.

So where did the whole ‘functional’ label get it’s street cred? The short version of the story is that, in a sweeping wave of overgeneralization, bodybuilding-style training was newly considered ‘non-functional’ and a hinderance to general movement patterns. It became the arch-nemesis of the new ‘functional’ training. I’ll make an analogy…

You know when you see art, but it is definitely art that could have been done by a 5-year old? Then someone explains how advanced it is and how much depth there is to it and now you’re on the fence with believing it all but really…there are an awful lot of scribbles.

So ‘functional’ training is, often, a lot of movement scribbles. More, or less importantly, spending a predominant amount of time during a session focusing on “balancing” or “instability” exercises takes valuable time away from coaching exercises that will really make a difference; namely compound movement strength-based exercises. Most of these you’re likely familiar with; squatting, pushing, pulling, hinging, and carrying.

I had a great conversation with one of our Autism Fitness Certification hosts several months ago.

“I saw you have your athlete carrying a heavy sandbag. What do you have them do that for?”

“To get them better at carrying heavy stuff.” 

Him, laughing, “It’s that simple?” 

“Yup.” 

Now don’t mistake simple with easy. If you’re delivering fitness programs to adults or teens with autism, you know how challenging basic movement patterns can be. Due to both the underlying physical and kinesthetic deficits, combined with what is often an inactive lifestyle, many of our athletes with ASD have significant difficulty performing a “basic” squat or overhead press.

When we look at exercise selection for adults with autism and related disabilities, we have to identify the movement skills that will most reliably generalize to activities of daily living. Fortunately, and since there are no autism-specific exercises, there’s a good historical (and current) reference for these types of exercises. Turns out, squats, presses, pulls, and carries. Yes, those heavy carries that get our athletes better at carrying heavy stuff.

There’s the issue of over-thinking exercises which can be equally mucked up with ignoring pre-requisite skills. You won’t see a lot of unilateral strength exercises in our AF curriculum. Are single leg strength exercises bad? Absolutely not. But there is the principle of pre-requisites. We regularly consider these in academic or life skills. In academic situations the pre-requisite might be arithmetic before multiplication. In like skills it may be cutting the onion before adding it to the pan. In exercise it is establishing strong, stable bilateral (two feet on the floor) patterns before progressing to unilateral variations.

During a podcast recording the other day, Greg Austin (founder of Inclusive Fitness) and I were discussing the terminology of ‘functional’ fitness. Given the fact that it now means who-knows-what in both professional and general circles, I think we need new, untarnished terminology. I offer the label of “Life Skill Movements” for what we do in our Autism Fitness programming. The way we strengthen and enhance physical ability will have the highest potential to transfer beyond that activity itself; it generalizes where needed the most.

A label is only as good as what you can do with it. Functional is a label. Stretching is a label. Exercise is a label. The platinum question is “What do we mean by that?” followed by its equally precious “What do we do about it?” 

Great coaches have great filters; the ability to see an exercise, a method, and practice, and incorporate, reject, or modify it based on the needs of the individual/athlete. So what, in actuality, will a program require to enhance strength, stability, and motor planning for adults and teens with ASD? Well, that’s what we made a whole Certification about.

-EC