What functional training really is

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

When I was writing this article, I was browsing through YouTube for the best functional workout. It was… interesting. For the sake of not upsetting anyone personally, I decided not to post any of the videos I saw but make this a “words-only” post.

You might be aware of the popularity of functional (fitness) training. You see more and more battle ropes, flipping tires, slash-pipes in the gyms that jump on the “functional train”. The functional fitness industry is booming and keeps bringing new “stuff” on the market that is even more functional – and more expensive – than what they sold you half a year. It is not a secret: There is a lot of money to be made with functional training. But what does functional training really man? If you ask different people, belonging to the fitness industry, you will most likely get different answers. In my opinion, a lot of people miss the point. So, let us consider three different generic workouts I have put together:

Workout 1

Back Squat

Military Press

Bent-over Dumbbell Row

Workout 2

Leg Press Machine

Shoulder Press Machine

Rowing Machine

Workout 3

Squats on Balance Board

Kettlebell Push Press

Battle Rope

Now let me ask you: Which one is more functional? Workout 1, 2 or 3? The answer is YOU CANNOT KNOW until you know whom it is designed for. What functional training really is: Functional training serves a purpose. This purpose is neither to sell another piece of fancy equipment nor is it to teach all your athletes and clients to do YOUR personal favourite exercise because you feel it is really good for YOU personally. The purpose of a functional exercise is to support someone SPECIFIC to their needs by choosing an exercise or a workout SPECIFIC to the adaptation that they want or need.

Bearing this in mind and now looking back at the three workouts I presented above you should see that all three versions somewhat consist of one exercise for each of the following categories: knee-dominant lower body exercise, upper body vertical push, and upper body horizontal pull (or close to that in the case of the battle rope). So, in all three workouts you will end up working your muscles in a similar way (I am aware it is not exactly the same and if you are an EMG-geek: take a deep breath and relax, talking about differing muscle activation is not the point of this). The point is, that all three workouts can be functional! They can fulfil a purpose for an individual person SPECIFIC to their needs. Workout 1 could be a functional workout for a healthy, mid-aged man wanting to get strong. Workout 2 could be a functional way for an 80-year old person to gain more strength in a controlled environment with the aim to better cope with the activities of daily living. Workout 3 could be functional to someone seeking to train stabilizing the body under dynamic constraints.

Let us change the context: If you talk to physical therapists or rehabilitation specialists about functional training, they will probably tell you a similar story. In their environment, a functional exercise is an exercise that helps their patient to either rebuild the capacity of a structure that was injured or re-educate the CNS. Practicing taking one step after the other can be a very functional exercise for someone who lost some of their motor patterns after a stroke. In this case, practicing gait patterns fulfils the purpose of allowing a person to engage into the activities of daily living again.

To summarise, I hope I could explain to you, what in my eyes, functional training or a functional exercise is. It always depends on the circumstances and the specific needs of the individual person exercising. If that individual person chooses an exercise that – over time – will help that person to get closer to this goal it is a functional exercise.

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