What the hell is “functional” training?

“Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul” – Mark Twain

I lived most of my life seems like in the US. Back in 2007 when I moved back to Greece I felt I was light years ahead of the info pertaining to anything training.  I was talking about functional training and people were looking at me like I had just landed from the mothership…

Things have changed since then. Im afraid for the worst.  I’ll prove my point.

I hear people (and when I mean people I mean other trainers and recreational gym goers) talking about functional training and I realize that functional training is associated with three things:

1. The props used

2. Core training

3. Void of machines/bodybuilding

  1. Toys

Much of the equipment that we often see in “functional” training (wobble boards, bosu, physio balls, airex pads, half foam rolls to name a few) has its origin in physical therapy and rehabilitation.  What we need to understand though is that functional is not so much about these gadgets per se but about the knowledge that physical therapists have gained as to prevent or (to be more accurate) reduce injury. It’s about the information why injuries occur.

These props usually place emphasis on the stabilizer muscles by creating safely unstable environments (muscles that primarily stabilize a joint), which happen to be the ones that usually get injured.  It is a well-known fact that after injury the body’s proprioception goes down the drain in the adjacent joints that got injured. Rehabilitating a client with various equipment that promotes proprioception is great. Supplementing a strength training program is also very beneficial with this type of equipment. But I see this being the main star in many cases. Ask yourself this question: How functional is this REALLY for my client…..image1

2. And then comes the core…

“I see dead people” people trying to balance on one foot on a BOSU ball, trying to do a push up with both hands and feet on a physioball at the same time. All kinds of circus acts for what? All in the name of CORE training. In fact, this is not necessarily considered core training. It’s more balance training than anything else. More show than substance.

The thing is that balance training is very very specific. What does that mean? If you learn how to balance on a dyna-disk doing squats, well you’re going to be good at exactly that. Not much else!

Don’t take me wrong! Balance training is something really important in a well-constructed fitness program. Its just overemphasized and in some cases performed with the wrong application.

Performing any strength exercise on an unstable surface is just silly and underproductive. A strength exercise as the name implies needs to focus on strength. You can’t focus on strength AND try to balance at the same time.  Its really simple: Any major strength exercise that could be considered functional has one important feature. You should be able to fall down while you’re doing it so you don’t. Balance. Coordination.  On the ground. Period.image2

Another misconception is that the core is your abs and spinal erectors when in reality the core encompasses local and global stabilizers such as the glutes, adductors and movement muscles as the lats, hamstrings and quads. So the squat for example could be considered the best functional, core and strength exercise ever. Talk about bang for your buck!! You really don’t need to overcomplicate things!

So props like battle ropes, TRX, sand bags, kettlebells all place an extra payload on the core. In which way you ask? In a stabilizing way. They capitalize in the “functional” Part of your core’s function, which is to resist rotation and extension. So trying to keep your torso as stable as possible while performing with these gadgets does exactly that. Use them with a purpose (their purpose) and not just for show and variation or in many cases unfortunately – marketing.

3. Are machines evil?

I tend to stay away from them usually but they have their place. So if leg extensions for example help elderly people move without their canes (that holds true) does that make the specific exercise non functional? Of course NOT.  Just because in real life your leg will never perform a movement like trying to walk while someone is pulling on your ankle (except in a safari gone bad) doesn’t mean that the strength you will develop for that specific exercise will not transfer in something so vital and functional as a daily activity for an elderly person.

In the same sense people differentiate between functional training and strength training/bodybuilding. As if bodybuilders don’t perform functional exercises!!!image3

They squat, they deadlift, they press overhead heavy objects; they do chin-ups, lunges (list can go on and on). In many cases a well-trained bodybuilder is MUCH more functional from a person who has relied on using only his bodyweight and the variety of the aforementioned props. Hint: a bigger muscle attacks the bone in a much preferential line of pull (more vertical) therefore creating a better lever and less torque.

People though, when they think and look at this type of training they only focus on the various machines and isolating exercises as bicep curls and don’t see the bigger picture…

We can therefore argue that the term functional should not be associated with the type of exercise, training or equipment but with the outcome instead.image4

So what IS FUNCTIONAL Training?

Any the aforementioned can produce a functional result but they fail to provide a definition and a WHY that is so. So what the hell is functional training?

Functional is an authentic outcome.  It’s a non-isolating (isolating is partial) stabilizing, pain free movement through a purposeful range of motion. Functional is symmetrical and unrestricted movement patterns.

Functional exercise then, is exercise that displays a certain amount of carryover into other activities.  So by doing it you don’t’ only improve your ability to perform the actual exercise but also other physical movements not directly practiced.  In sports training using exercises that mimic the exact sport movement  under load is not functional.

Let me explain: You don’t train a boxer by having him hold dumbbells and recreating a direct punch. A direct punch is practically a horizontal adduction/flexion of the shoulder. Instead, you train the athlete with heavy and or explosive exercises such as the bench press and the overhead press. Then sit back and enjoy what that (functional) training did in terms of carryover in his sport.

Functional is therefore a continuum and depends on the individual and the task performed. Of course that means a different thing for different people (Ex. Elderly people who spend most of their time in what is called activities of daily living (ADLs) are going to be trained quite differently from a 26 year old linebacker.  Functional is anywhere between performance enhancement to physical therapy. A coach that doesn’t use this type of training is a coach that doesn’t realize what injury prevention is.

Once you start thinking in terms of functional anatomy which simply means that the body is not a contortion of muscles acting individually you will realize that functional is simply something that stresses your muscles in all planes of motion and in all of their function which are the accelerating, decelerating and stabilizing aspect, things are going to fall in place.

Many of us have detached from that and see only through the scope of our preferred discipline.  Old school versus functional.  Thing is that we forget that the human body hasn’t really changed that much over the years.  Take cross fit for example. Uses Olympic lifting. I used to coach some of my clients with these lifts 10, 15 years ago. They thought I was crazy. People know about competitive weightlifting exercises for years.  But how popular was the snatch back then? Its just athletic concepts that have migrated in the fitness field because someone is really good at marketing.

My advice: try to stay away from the latest fads especially if it seems too good to be true.  Don’t allow yourself to fall in love with any specific exercise, training philosophy or technique.  Use common sense and what works.  Know when and why you are using anything.  In a nutshell: Be Functional!!!



Cook, Gray with Lee Burton, Kyle Kiesel, Greg Rose and Milo Bryant. Movement.   Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment and Corrective Strategies.  Santa Cruz, California: On Target Publications, February 2013. Kindle.

Boyle, Michael. Advances in Functional Training: Training techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes.  Santa Cruz, California: On Target Publications, December 2011. Kindle.

Clark, Michael A., Scott C. Lucett and Brian G. Sutton. National Academy of Sports Medicine Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Baltimore: Lippincot Williams & Wilkins, 2012. Print.

Norkin, Cynthia and Pamela Levangie. Joint Structure and Function: A Comprehensive Analysis. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1983. Print.

Emery CA, Cassidy JD, Klassen TP, Rosychuk RJ and Rowe BH. Effectiveness of a home based balance training program in reducing sports-related injuries amongst healthy adolescents: a cluster randomized controlled trial. Can Med Assoc J 2005;172(6):749-54.

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