What is Functional Training?

Functional training is a method of training originally developed to rehabilitate people who experienced a loss of functions due to an accident, old age, disease, or excessive weight gain.

Today, however, functional training is utilized not just as a rehabilitation technique, but as an effective way to train, regardless of one’s goals.

What is Functional Training?

Functional training is designed to improve the quality of a person’s life by developing and training muscles to make it safer and easier to perform everyday activities such as climbing stairs, tying shoes, or carrying groceries. Functional training increases the strength, range of motion, and ability of an individual through a variety of tasks. Emphasis is placed on multi-joint and multi-muscle exercises that use basic movement patterns such as pushing and pulling, squatting, and hinging. They utilize muscles in both the upper and lower body simultaneously and work to improve movement proficiency. A squat to a bicep curl, for example, is a functional exercise because it trains the muscles used when bending down and picking something up.

In scientific terms, functional training is done to enhance the working relationship between the nervous system and the muscular system. The muscular system has three primary functions in the human body: maintaining posture, producing movement, and generating heat. Nearly all bodily movements result from muscle contraction. For this reason, it is important for an individual to tone or train their muscles, because without muscle tone, they would not be able to generate enough heat to maintain body temperature or even sit up straight in a chair.

Functional training thus incorporates resistance training in such a way that improvements in strength directly boost performance of the muscular system. The desired result is to make it easier for individuals to perform their daily activities.

According to Dr Everett Harman in the reference book for the NSCA, Essentials of Strength & Conditioning: ”The concept of specificity, [functional training] holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity).

“The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercise similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occur and the direction of the movements.”

How Does Functional Training Work?

Unlike the traditional fitness model that encourages the training of only one, isolated muscle group at a time, when performing functional training, exercises should use multiple muscles simultaneously and incorporate tri-planar motions. Functional training is usually performed while standing up and uses free-weights, kettle bells, medicine balls and stretch bands and incorporates various plyometric exercises that aim to condition the body in an unstable environment.

Exercises in functional training typically follow a progression. The idea is that once an individual learns to perform an exercise properly, the exercises can be modified to further challenge the individual. Simple functional exercises can be made more complex so as to continue to push the individual to increase their strength and balance. For example, if an exercise is originally performed on a stable surface, the modification would be to do it on an unstable surface. Or, if the exercise is originally done using two legs, it can be performed using only one leg.

Why is Functional Training Effective?

The body is a complex system made up of many different parts and chains. When everything is working correctly, we move well, with speed and with strength. A weak link in the chain, however, creates dysfunction and poor performance in the body. Functional training targets these weak links and enables the whole body to perform more effectively and efficiently.

According to Jermaine Archibald, a personal trainer at London’s Equinox fitness club, who specializes in functional training, performing exercises that mimic daily activities, is a highly effective way to train.

“By training your muscles to work in the same way they do outside the gym, you prepare your body to perform to the best of its ability in a variety of everyday situations. That’s something that anyone can benefit from - be it a professional athlete, or someone trying to rebuild strength after an accident.

“If you want to feel, move, and perform better, you should train your body the way it moves and functions naturally.”

Top 3 Tips for Functional Training

1.  Focus on compound exercises

Focus on performing exercises that use multiple joint, compound lifts. These are the best types of exercises for strength building and are considerably more functional than isolated exercises.

2. Train unsupported

The majority of functional training should be done while standing and not by being supported by a bench or machine. Not relying on an outside object for support will help improve core stability and balance.

3. Train using dumbbells, kettle bells, medicine balls and stretch bands

Performing workouts that incorporate dumbbells, kettle bells, medicine balls and stretch bands will help improve strength, balance and increase an individual’s range of motion due to the unstable nature of the exercise.