Sports Series Part 1: Function vs Capacity

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Function vs Capacity

Written by Mitchell Robinson

In general, there are two schools of thought when it comes to training for sport in the gym. The first school sees a gym environment as a place to train capacities that a person may utilise in a sports-specific context. The second school of thought sees a gym environment as a place to mimic the movement patterns of their chosen sport in an attempt to be “representative” of their needs and/or be more “functional”.

If your physio makes you feel like you're in the circus, get a new physio ;p

What is the goal of working out in a gym environment? We would argue that the goal is to increase the capacity of a muscle to tolerate load or perform work. The gym environment is best used to increase capacities, and sport-specific tasks can utilise those capacities. See, the most “functional” task a sports person can perform is - you guessed it - the sport itself! Attempting to mimic sports-specific tasks in the weights room is not functional – there is very little carryover from a motor-learning perspective. The pattern of motor unit recruitment is very task-specific. The best way to improve your skill is by actually performing the skill!

So, why do gym? 

So, we’ve stated that the point of weights training is less about improving your skill, and more about increasing the capacity of the tissue. If your muscles don’t have the capacity to perform the skill, you can’t perform it. Duh! Likewise, if your muscles do have the capacity to perform the task, but you don’t have the skill to perform it you’re also out of luck! You obviously need both.

Why do so many physios and coaches conflate these concepts? 

They don’t know better. Or they do know better but want to complicate the process to appear as a guru, create dependence and/or make money!

Are "functional" exercises completely useless?

No. You may improve performance with “functional” exercises at gym. Those improvements just won’t be optimal. Again, the optimal way to improve your skill is to perform the skill, and the optimal way to improve the capacity of your muscles is to appropriately load them.

But clearly you can train different "capacities" in the gym (strength, power, speed etc.)?

Of course! However, training variables are context-specific, so you’re best to see a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist and get an individualised and periodised program.

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