Functional Training


Functional Training is hot right now!

You read about it in almost every magazine, But what does Functional Training mean? What makes an exercise or a training program functional?

If you interpret the term functional loosely then every exercise and/or training program should be functional. What I mean by that is, if the exercise that you’re engaged in or the workout routine that you’re following doesn’t serve some function, then you are wasting your time.

Something tells me that the term functional training wasn’t intended to encompass all exercise programs. But instead the term was probably developed to defined exercises that help to improve the way our bodies function. That I can buy.

But I also think the definition needs to go a little deeper and be even more specific. After an internet search I found this definition; Functional training is any type of exercise that has a direct relationship to the activities you perform in your daily life. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I found a whole bunch of different definitions on the web, but this one summed up the essence of each definition succinctly. One component of this definition really stands out to me, and that is “…activities that you perform in your daily life.” What’s important about that portion of the quote is the fact that it addresses the fact that one person may not be performing the same exact daily activities as the next person. There is built in flexibility, which is good. But that leaves me with two issues with this definition.

1. If functional training has to be adaptable to a wide array of daily activities, then one exercise that may benefit one person could harm another person. And if an exercise is detrimental to someone can it really be defined as functional?

2. If someone is sedentary and/or overweight and that person begins any exercise program and loses any amount of weight, I guarantee you that person will perform his/her daily activities better. So now were back to any and all exercise being functional again.

So let’s tighten the definition of Functional Training up a little more. Here is my definition of Functional Training.

 Functional Training is any exercise or exercise program designed to improve human movement with consideration for the way the body is designed to move.

Ok maybe that doesn’t sound as sexy as “improve the activities that you perform in daily life.” But let me explain. most of the daily activities that we engage in are repetitive and are the very reason we have flexibility and strength imbalances, i.e. pain and dysfunction. To restore proper function (see where the term Functional Training comes from) we need to address the way the body was designed to function and develop a plan based on that.

Before I tell you what makes an exercise Functional I think a brief history of how we got to this place and the reason for the popularity (current trend) of Functional Training in the Fitness Industry.

A huge portion of the fitness industry can be attributed to Personal Training. Personal Training has its roots in body building. In the late 70’s (perhaps even earlier) people who were looking to start an exercise program began to seek out guidance. They naturally turned to the people who seemed to know the most about exercise. The people they turned to were the most muscular people in the gym, i.e. body builders. Body builders shared what they knew with their clients; how to build muscle. An industry was born.

As years went by the personal training industry grew rapidly and it began to attract trainers from varied backgrounds. Trainers who entered the profession with a background other than body building needed to start separating themselves from body builders. As a non-body builder they couldn’t compete with what the body builders were offering (muscle hypertrophy/growth). Through this process it became clear that there was a market for clients who had fitness goals other than body building.

So trainers began to offer an alternative to body building and as it evolved it became known as Functional Training. But like every good thing it’s been taken too far. Functional Training became the anti-body building. If body building is machines, isolation exercises, and single plane movements. Then Functional Training is free weights, multi-joint and multi-plane movements. If body building is stabilized controlled movement, then functional training is unbalanced, unstable movements. The more unstable, unbalanced, difficult the movement pattern the more “functional” and exercise was considered (and still may be).

I’ve seen squatting on a stability ball used as an example of a functional exercise. Please tell me what daily activity does squatting on a unstable rubber ball mimic? To all the trainers out there that will tell me that the ability to squat in an unstable environment will increase strength and performance in a more stable environment, you’re offering anecdotal evidence at best. And yes, I can squat on a stability ball, but I’ve never had a client do it. It’s a circus trick not a functional exercise.

I’ve seen people develop exercises that are so unstable and unbalanced that the person attempting the exercise could only complete one or two reps before losing balance. That isn’t functional, strength and progress are developed through repetition. There also some who think to make an exercise functional there must be rotation. That would be a rotational exercise not a functional exercise (although functional exercises can have a rotational element).

Ok, no more ranting

Now it’s time to learn the truth about what makes an exercise truly functional.

I’m not going to list exercises that are either functional or non-functional. Because the functionality of an exercise is varied due to the needs of each person. But by returning to the definition of Functional Training that will lay the foundation for what constitutes a functional exercise.
Functional Training is any exercise or exercise program designed to improve human movement with consideration for way the body is designed to move.

Here are some basic principles of human movement.

1. We are designed to stand on our feet and move (walk/run/etc.) against the force of gravity
2. We don’t move in isolation. multiple muscles and joints are involved in all natural movement.
3. There is an element of balance
4. There is an element of proprioception (an awareness of our body’s position in time and space).
 This one needs a little explanation. Close your eyes and extend your right arm out to the side. Keep your eyes closed and bring your finger to your nose, but don’t touch it. Stop just before you touch your nose. Now open your eyes. See how close your finger is to your nose. You knew where your finger was relative to your nose without being able to see it. You had a natural awareness of your body position in time and space. That is proprioception.
5. There is an element of flexibility
6. There is an element of stability.
7. We know that our joints, flex, extend, glide, and rotate plus some more technical movements.

So a Functional Training exercise should address at least one of the above mentioned requirements. And a Functional Training program should address them all.

Unless you’re a body builder with a goal of muscle growth/hypertrophy, every exercise you perform should be functional. The good news is, most exercises are.

To learn more about selecting exercises that will help you to improve your health, fitness and life, check out my photo gallery.

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