Six Factors of Functional Ability
Posted September 02, 2022 by Matthew Romans
One of the logical goals of pursuing a comprehensive exercise program should be to be able to perform daily activities (and other physical tasks) safely and with greater ease of effort. Dr. Doug McGuff has talked about something called maximum physiological headroom, which is essentially the difference between the most that one is capable of doing and the least one is capable of doing. When the most and the least are equal, death is the result. There are six factors of functional ability that determine how well we perform physical tasks of varying degrees of intensity. Two of these factors are genetically predetermined, four are within your power to improve, and one is specific to the nature of the activity you are pursuing. Ken Hutchins discusses these six factors in "The Renaissance of Exercise", a 2011 updated version of the original Super Slow Technical Manual, and I have found that most exercise enthusiasts and "trainers" are either grossly unaware of these factors, or lack the ability to articulate them. I mention the factors here because they provide some context to the Total Results exercise philosophy.
Neurological Efficiency. This is the percentage of muscle that can be contracted in a maximum effort, and usually falls somewhere between ten and forty percent. This is genetically predetermined by birth and cannot be changed by exercise. If an exercise subject has difficulty maintaining a smooth movement and performing subtle turnarounds, it is likely that they are neurologically inefficient. Such clients can still make considerable physical improvements but may progress more slowly.
Bodily Proportions. These include bone length, muscle belly length (between tendons) and tendon insertion angle. One's body proportions often play a big role in what sports or activities a person decides to pursue. Think about former Olympian Michael Phelps: he has long arms, long legs, big hands, and wide shoulders. You probably couldn't pick a better prototype for an elite swimmer. There are numerous other examples of top-echelon athletes, but his example really sticks out. Bodily proportions are also genetically predetermined.
Cardiovascular Efficiency. This describes how effectively the heart, lungs, and blood vessels transport nutrients to the working muscles and remove waste products from them. Steady state (largely aerobic) activity is relatively inefficient for accomplishing this, and carries with it a high risk of repetitive stress injury. Improving cardiovascular efficiency is best accomplished by performing intense exercise for the skeletal muscles (a Total Results workout). Remember that the cardiovascular system can accomplish nothing on its own; it needs mechanical loading of the skeletal muscles. If there is a greater demand placed upon the muscles, then the aforementioned structures will have to work harder in order to keep up, thus creating a reason to adapt.
Skill Proficiency. Improving your ability to perform certain skills or tasks requires regular repetitive practice of those specific movement patterns. If you want to get better at tennis, practice the shots that the sport requires in conditions that are as close to or identical to a competitive match. The same is true for playing a musical instrument. If you are giving a piano performance on a Steinway baby grand piano, it doesn't make sense to practice on a Casio portable keyboard. This allows your muscles to function as efficiently as possible when performing these skills.
Flexibility. I believe that too much importance is placed on this factor. Flexibility can be improved to a certain degree, but it is highly overrated in my opinion. Many people do unsafe things to improve flexibility and often get injured in the process. Things like ballistic stretching, PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, and other types of flexibility training needlessly raise the risk of injury with very little reward. Hockey goaltenders and ballerinas use extreme degrees of flexibility, but this is something that is required to excel at their endeavors. This is not recommended for regular people; all one needs is a functional range of motion for everyday living. For my money, flexibility is most safely enhanced by performing proper strength training through a safe and pain-free range of motion on our Super Slow Systems and Med-X machines.
Muscular Strength. Skeletal muscle is the one type of muscle tissue in our body over which we have volitional control. Muscles produce force to enable movement. It should surprise nobody that the main reason for a loss of independence by the elderly and infirmed is a decrease in muscular strength that comes with age. Working to increase strength has both a direct and indirect effect on other physical improvements (fat loss, insulin sensitivity, resistance to injury, etc.) because all of the body's other subsystems are subservient to the skeletal muscles. Total Results exercise is the safest and most efficient way to improve one's muscular strength.
When we talk about functional ability, please do not confuse that with so-called "functional" training. Functional training involves performing a series of everyday movements with added resistance. Not only is this practice extremely dangerous due to high forces, it completely violates principles of motor learning. It's also important to differentiate neurological efficiency from neuromuscular adaptation. As Ken Hutchins says, "This (neuromuscular adaptation) is not in the sense of the all-out effort, but in the recruitment of motor units as the muscle progresses through a set of multiple repetitions." While your distribution of muscle fiber type is genetically predetermined, you can improve how efficiently each fiber type is recruited during the course of exercise.
Understanding the factors of functional ability can give you a better sense of how your body works, and what can and cannot be improved through training and practice. Much of what is required to perform at a high level every day and for many years to come is within your power to change. I often go back to what the Stoic philosophers have said for a couple of thousand years, and that is to understand what you can control and what you can't. Great physical and mental improvement can be made if you are willing to put in the work and apply the knowledge passed along to you by your instructor. We want to see you succeed, but it is largely up to you.