Recently, “functional training” has become a buzz word in the fitness industry, used so often to describe so many different types of training and equipment that it has lost its meaning. I’ve read explanations of functional training ranging from “training your muscles to work the way they do in everyday tasks”, “training movements, not muscles”, “training at speed”, to “integrated, multi-planar movement that requires efficient acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization capabilities in a proprioceptively enriched environment”. I think what that last quote is trying to express (in an unnecessarily complicated way) is: full body, multidimensional movement performed under control despite added instability. In my opinion, even that translation is too complicated. No wonder many people get confused and overwhelmed about training.
These days everything from crossfit to stability, core, sandbag, free weight, and bodyweight exercise is described as “functional training”. Are all of those types of training really “functional”? The answer depends on you (the person performing the exercise), and your needs and goals. I believe that any exercise can be functional if it helps the person performing it reach their goals, and that each person should design their training program so it’s functional for them.
The word “functional” is defined as “serving a utilitarian purpose” (Dictionary.com). So, let’s define functional training as simply: performing exercises which serve a purpose. But what is that purpose? That should be the first question you ask yourself when designing an exercise program. Why do you work out? What are you trying to achieve?
For many people, the answer is aesthetic – they want to look better by losing weight or building muscle. For these people, general high intensity cardio and resistance exercises are functional. Most soundly designed all-around programs are appropriate for that purpose. For a bodybuilder, barbell, dumbbell, and machine exercises performed specifically for increasing muscle mass are functional. For athletes, functional exercises are those that directly improve their ability to perform in their sport. A baseball pitcher, for example, would benefit from rotator cuff exercises. A runner would benefit from lunges and glute medius exercises.
For some people, exercise is a means to improve their ability to perform activities of daily living, such as moving freely without pain, carrying groceries, or lifting their children. These people should focus on basic movements which incorporate many major muscle groups (push, pull, squat, hinge, carry). Those exercises generally translate well to movements performed during everyday activities. Some people may want to choose exercises to complement their hobbies. An avid hiker should perform hill sprints, a rock climber should perform pull ups and grip strength exercises, a stand-up paddle boarder should practice balance or stability exercises such as squats on a wobble board. Some may perform exercise to address health issues. To increase bone density, resistance exercise which directs force vertically through the center of the body, such as deadlifts, should be performed. To decrease blood pressure or resting heart rate, high intensity intervals as well as steady state cardio exercise are important. To rehabilitate a knee injury, reduced range of motion leg extensions may be functional.
Maybe you just enjoy certain exercises themselves. I, for instance, enjoy the feeling of strength and accomplishment I get from pull ups. The mental and emotional boost I get from pulling my bodyweight makes it a functional exercise for me. On the other hand, many exercises touted as “functional” may not be appropriate for every goal. If your goal is to increase maximal strength, stability exercises may be counterproductive. Maximal strength requires very heavy resistance, and instability reduces the amount of resistance that can be used. If your goal is to run a marathon, bodybuilding-style training will add extra mass to your frame which may make distance running more difficult.
When designing a training program, the first step is to assess your needs and goals. Don’t waste your time performing exercises that don’t make your life better or easier, and don’t get sucked in to irrelevant fads, no matter how “functional” they claim to be. Decide what you want to get out of exercising (you could have multiple goals) and structure your program in a way that helps you achieve those goals. The idea is to tailor your effort to what you want to achieve, i.e. what’s functional for you.
Remember, health and fitness should make your life better. Keep that in mind and you are more likely to be successful at achieving your fitness goals, whatever they might be.