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CrossFit and Functional Training

CrossFit and Functional training often get confused and that’s understandable, as they do have a lot in common. They do however have quite different training principles. Here we examine what each involves and some of the training tools that support them.

Functional Training

This really started life as a way to rehabilitate after injury, but today it means a lot more. It is focussed on ensuring that your body is fit enough to perform the everyday tasks that we all have to do. In other words it is training your body for everyday life. It is also used by sports people to train on specific movements required  in a sport. Hence the word ‘functional’.

So, performing the deadlift in functional training is to replicate the strength and technique required when carrying heavy shopping. Movements are predominantly about bending, pushing and pulling. The idea is that you build strength and endurance to avoid injury.

The intensity of functional training can be varied so it is generally suitable for most ages and abilities.


CrossFit started in 2001 and is based on training given to the US Armed Forces. The exercises in CrossFit are based on functional movements but to a much greater degree of intensity. In this sense it is often referred to as ‘high intensity functional movement’. To teach CrossFit you have to be licensed and you have to train in what is called a’ box’ or a special kitted out CrossFit gym.

CrossFit also incorporates weightlifting and other aspects of gym training. There are national and international cross fit competitive events. CrossFit is an intensive functional workout; in this sense it is not suitable for all ages and abilities.

Many people who attend a CrossFit class do find it a highly motivational and stimulating experience, as well as completely exhausting!

Gym Sleds

Sometimes also referred to as power sleds and prowlers. Gym sleds are a training tool for functional and CrossFit training and essentially work on pulling, pushing or dragging motions. Depending on how they are used they can provide an all over muscle workout. They are an aid for strength and conditioning but also for explosive power.

Sleds tend to be known for targeting muscles in the lower body in particular the quads, hamstrings and glutes but can be used for all over body workouts. By adding weight, changing the position of your arms, changing the angle that you hold the bars on the sled, will all change the intensity of your workout.

Sleds support functional workouts in that they can be great for rugby players for example as they imitate the low position that has to be taken when tackling. Athletes can also benefit as the sled can be harnessed to a sprinter to make acceleration harder.

There are lots of different sleds to choose from but essentially sleds fall into two main categories:

  • those that build power and strength
  • those that build speed

So you will need to choose between; prowler sleds which require a lower grip, sleds with wheels which can be useful if protecting your floor is important,  specialist dragging sleds, heavy push sleds which you can stack Olympic weights on, pull only sleds, those that convert to wheelbarrows and finally specialist sprinting sleds.

Before you buy a sled do consider what you want to use it for, if you want to use it for sprinting for example you need a specialist sprint sled. Also consider the surface you will be using, some can only be used on certain surfaces and concrete for example can cause real damage to some sleds.

Look for attachments available, some sleds will let you attach harnesses and ropes. Check that you can make adjustments to the height of the bars as this will add variety to your workouts. Look for durability and the composition of the sled and frame. If you want to use your sled for heavy weight movement then check the weight allowance of the sled.

Weight Plates

Weight plates help build strength and when paired with a barbell help target loads of muscle groups with exercises like the deadlift and miliary press and so are pretty essential in functional training. There are a number of decisions that you need to make when purchasing weight plates. Firstly you need to decide between Olympic and Standard Weight plates. Olympic weights have a 2” diameter, Standard have a 1” diameter, which is the primary difference. Olympic weights tend to be more versatile and popular with most power racks and weight benches made to fit 7 ft Olympic bars.

Then there are different materials. Iron and steel plates are the cheapest option but can rust so not always a great investment. Then there are coated ones with a choice of rubber coating or urethane. Rubber coated plates provide a good grip, won’t rust, won’t damage your floors and are easy to move. Urethane coated plates are however more durable than rubber, will bring all the advantages of rubber but importantly are also odourless, so for home gyms can be a great choice. You will also see weight plates called bumper plates which have a steel core and very thick coating. They are usually sold in an array of bright colours. They have become very popular for XFit because they are so durable and can withstand being dropped, so they cope well with XFit deadlifts.

Do also consider the amount of weight you want to lift. When purchasing you will see an industry standard tolerance of +/- 5% on listed weights. If you are competing and accurate weights are crucial for you, then you may wish to consider buying calibrated weights.

Weightlifting Bars

Crucial for weight training, you will soon find that there are many different types of weightlifting bar to choose from. When buying a weightlifting bar be clear exactly what you want to use the bar for. The barbell is the most common and popular type of bar and within this class the standard bar is the most common barbell.

Available in different lengths, but usually around 7ft long they have a knurled part to grip and are perfect for presses, squats, deadlifts, overhead press, Romanian deadlift and bent over row, all popular functional exercises. Some more specialist standard bars include the squat bar which has an additional knurling grip in the centre which provides additional grip on your back to prevent slipping when squatting. The deadlift bar is narrower in diameter and provides a little more whip which helps in the deadlift. Finally there’s the bench press bar which has zero whip.

Olympic weight bars are made of special steel and are specialist weightlifting bars. They provide more whip so that you can lift more and cause less injuries. Trap bars are shaped like trapezoids and are perfect for performing the deadlift. Curl or EZ bars are perfect for bicep and curls as you don’t have to contort your wrist to hold them. Then there’s the cambered weight lifting bar which is angled in shape providing perfect stability for squatting and allows you to lift more weight.

When purchasing a weightlifting bar be clear what you want to use it for. As you can see from above there are many different types of bars which support specialist functional exercises. Look at the quality of the materials and check the knurl of the grip as some are not as good as others in that they are slightly smoother. Also check out the maximum weight they can support and that that is in line with what you want to lift not just now but also as you progress. Also check out the details of the whip so you know what sort of bend and rebound you are going to experience.