Functional Training Fallacy

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been very fortunate to have an opportunity to work in close conjunction with Ned Lenny, a really bright physical therapist with an office in Cherry Hill, NJ.  Ned has been doing some in-house work for us at Endeavor, which has been a great educational experience for me and our athletes.

Ned and I were talking about one of our hockey players, and we started talking about training strategies for muscles primarily considered stabilizers. The rotator cuff and the lateral hip musculature are two popular muscle groups that populate the stabilizer category.

Collectively, the rotator cuff muscles function to stabilize the humeral head within the glenohumeral joint and ensure proper tracking of these two bones on one another

The deep hip rotators (pictured) and the gluteus medius (not pictured) compromise the lateral hip musculature typically considered as serving a stabilization function

These muscle groups do in fact function primarily as stabilizers. In other words, they provide dynamic control of the surrounding joint and stability of the joint so that high levels of force can be generated by the extremities. At the risk of beating this analogy to death, attempting to express strength or power with poor stabilizer function is similar to attempting to shoot a cannon from a canoe. Stability creates the foundation for strength and power. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the expression of these qualities.

This understanding is a huge step in the right direction from the textbook approach to training where external rotators are only trained in external rotation movements and internal rotators are only training in internal rotation movements without any focus on their co-contraction functions in the interest of more global movement. Instead of these isolated rotations, better exercise choices are:

Rotator Cuff: Partner-assisted dynamic stabilizations, farmer’s walks, waiter’s walks, 1-arm stability wall hold, etc.

Lateral Hip Musculature: Backward monster walks, lateral mini-band walks, all single-leg exercises

In these exercises, the aforementioned muscles function in concert with one another to promote stability. This would be the most functional/integrative way to approach training these muscle groups. In both the hockey and sports training industries, there are tendencies to utilize new information in an extreme fashion. In other words, pendulums tend to swing too far in one direction; too much black or white and not enough shades of gray.

Sometimes the training industry goes too far…

In this case, Ned pointed out that training and movement aren’t just about function, they’re also influential in tissue nutrition. In this vein, nutrition refers to fluid and nutrient circulation to tissue structures within the body. When muscle groups become too rigid, they lose nutrition, become fibrotic, and can even begin to calcify. Naturally, this results in a loss of mobility and proper function. Taking muscles through a full range of motion helps improve nutrient delivery to the structures and therefore can help improve their function. This line of logic indicates that, despite the lack of “functional” carryover, there is still a place for more isolationist exercises like pure internal and external rotations.

A more functional approach to training the rotator cuff

Of course, before the people that have only been recommending tubing exercises for rotator cuffs for the last decade celebrate, the isolationist approach, by itself, is still not the best way to go. The major take home here is that, as with all things training, there are shades of gray. There is a place for both modalities. This is also another example that sometimes the most sport-specific training solution is anti-sport-specific training!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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