Functional training seems to the popular new kid on the block that everyone’s talking about. Commercial gyms are all starting functional training classes. F45 and Crossfit studios dedicated to functional fitness are opening left, right, and centre.
Functional training is appropriate for everyone of all ages, gender, and sizes. It ensures that your workout is more than just big muscles and shredded abs.
So, what is it? Is it any good? And most importantly, is it right for you? Continue reading our ultimate guide to understand what functional training is and how it’s relevant to you.
What is functional training?
Functional training describes any type of exercise that has a direct relationship to the activities you perform in your daily life. Whether it’s sports or work-related, maintaining or improving your current capacity is the primary objective for functional training.
Health professionals, including physical therapists and exercise physiologists, first utilized functional training for rehabilitation. If someone were recovering from an injury or condition, movements that mimicked daily habits would be encouraged.
For example, take a basketballer who wants to return to dunking after a knee injury. What type of exercises will help them achieve this, a jumping box squat, or the knee extension machine? Which exercise most similarly replicates the movements and muscles involved in dunking? The jumping box squat, of course!
Compared to traditional training, functional training has some overarching differences. The main principle of functional training is to ensure that any exercises performed are meaningful and relevant to your day-to-day operations.
Although traditional training, such as bodybuilding, can help develop big bulging muscles, these gains do not necessarily translate beyond aesthetics.
Specific differences between these two approaches are outlined in the table below:
|Functional Training||Traditional Training|
|Primarily focuses on whole-body movements||Incorporates both whole-body and isolation training|
|Aims to reduce the risk of injury||Increased rate of exertion and muscle overload is prioritised|
|Focuses training on intangible skills (e.g. balance, coordination, core stability)||More focus on physical capacity (e.g. endurance, strength, hypertrophy)|
|Incorporates dynamic movements and stability||Infrequently incorporates dynamic movement and stability|
|Considers functional fitness tailored for your daily habits (e.g., walking, working etc.)||Does not necessarily translate to your daily habits|
Example of functional fitness exercises
Functional exercises can incorporate a variety of activities, including strengthening, balance, and bodyweight movements. Typically, functional fitness training will involve compound movements, which means that more than one joint will be working at a single moment.
Using the functional training definition and criteria, below are a few exercise examples:
|Squats||Lower body strengthening of muscles (e.g. glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, etc.)||Sitting to standing. Sport-relevant movements (e.g. crouching, jumping, ducking, driving forwards)|
|Kettlebell Swings||Requires power and strength generated from the hips and buttocks. You also need to maintain a stable core throughout the whole duration of the exercise.||Lifting or picking up heavy objects from the floor. Sport-relevant movements (e.g. jumping, hopping, braking quickly)|
|Push ups||Upper body strengthening with a specific focus on pushing muscles (e.g., pectorals, triceps, deltoids)||Pushing objects and equipment (e.g. trolleys, car door) Sport-relevant movements (e.g. blocking in American football , passing a basketball)|
Different types of functional training
There are several different approaches to functional training. These days, everywhere we go, we either see an F45 or Crossfit studio. Despite all these various programs, there is no single ‘right’ way of functional fitness training.
With more research and commercial programs emerging, there are now more categories of functional training than ever. These broad set of categories include:
High-intensity functional training (HIFT)
High-intensity interval training or HIIT is one of the largest growing fitness industry trends in the past decade. In fact, the American Sports College of Sports Medicine ranked HIIT as North America’s number 1 fitness trend in 2019.
“[HIIT] refers to an exercise program that is characterized by relatively short bursts of vigorous activity, interspersed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise for recovery.” – Feito et al. (2018)
HIIT programs encourage you to exert maximal effort to help you achieve your fitness goals in the shortest period possible. Research by Alansasre et al. (2018) stated that these types of training approaches benefited your physical fitness, physiological functions, and reduced the risk of chronic disease. However, the majority of HIIT classes focussed on aerobic exercises, such as cycling or running.
High-intensity functional training (HIFT) adopts the intense nature of HIIT classes but combines a practical element to the routines. HIFT programs such as Crossfit incorporate a myriad of functional compound movements, including deadlifts, squats, and pull-ups. Other than aerobic improvements, HIFT aims to elevate strength, balance, coordination, and an extensive array of physical characteristics.
Low-intensity functional training (LIFT)
Low-intensity functional training (LIIT) is the unattractive and less popular cousin of HIIT. The ugly duckling of the family. In fact, I would probably bet you hadn’t even heard of LIIT before.
However, LIIT is fastly emerging as possibly another contender in the fitness industry. As opposed to the intense nature of HIIT, LIIT proposes more submaximal efforts interspersed with shorter rest periods. The theoretical application of LIIT is to achieve similar outcomes as HIIT without a high risk of injury. However, the jury is still out about its effectiveness as there is insufficient research.
Similar to HIFT, LIFT also includes more functional exercises than it’s counterpart LIIT. Whether it’s body weight squats or lunges, LIFT advocates for a high volume of exercises as opposed to high intensity. This lighter regime is perhaps more appropriate for beginner to intermediate individuals to avoid injury.
Like the ugly duckling, LIFT has enormous potential, which can only be seen with time. As more people and researchers begin to notice it more.
Functional weight training
Traditional weight training is arguably the most common approach for most beginning to intermediate gym-goers. Arms today, legs tomorrow, and maybe back the day after. All in the hopes of being jacked and getting that amazing beach bod.
“Part of what’s cool about sand castles—especially the more elaborate ones—is that we know they’re not going to be around for long. With our bodies, though, that’s something that we like to ignore. Pump that iron and drip that sweat, but the reality is you’ve only got about 20 summers to enjoy your hard work before the wheels start to fall off.” – Joe Rogan (Source)
What a fantastic quote by UFC commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan. Traditional weight training emphasizes unsustainable beauty standards, which fade with time. The gains made to our quality of life should be as meaningful (if not more) compared to physical attractiveness.
Functional weight training prioritises developing intangible characteristics, which optimises the way we live and move. This type of training includes a diverse range of activities, such as weights, gymnastics, and kettlebell exercises. Unlike traditional weight training, the gains made here will typically diminish at a substantially slower rate.
Benefits and purpose of functional training
As noted above, the purpose of functional training is to ensure that you’re focusing on whatever is meaningful for you.
Perhaps you’re a builder who wants to climb a ladder without shoulder pain. Or maybe you’re a sprinter seeking to break your personal best. These two different individuals have vastly contrasting motivations but can both effectively utilise functional training.
Through a carefully crafted program and some creativity, functional training can purposefully enhance important movements and skills.
Interestingly, functional training also has many notable benefits. In a 2014 scientific review, the authors analysed 266 studies to determine that functional training could potentially reduce physical disabilities in older adults.
They also concluded that a good functional training program had the capacity to improve multiple areas, such as balance, mobility, and coordination. A training program that just focuses on elements, such as strength or endurance isn’t purposeful enough.
Requirements for functional training
Functional movement exercises are for everyone! The whole purpose of functional training is to ensure that it is meaningful and specific to your needs.
BUT… do not be fooled by misleading marketing. Just because a fitness studio or program describes themselves as ‘functional,’ does not mean it’s right for you. For example, a HIIT class for an inactive person may initially be too demanding and potentially lead to injuries.
A comprehensive consultation and physical screening by a health professional (e.g. physical therapist, exercise physiologist, etc.) should be performed before attending these sessions. After the assessment, you will have a clearer idea about your goals and the safest way to achieve them.
Depending on your goals, specific exercises should continue to be performed. A variety of fitness equipment may be used, which includes:
- No equipment (e.g. just bodyweight)
- Resistance and power bands
- Free weights (e.g. kettlebells, dumbbells)
- Balance board
- Functional trainer / cable machine
How to do functional training?
“Functional training attempts to train muscles in coordinated, multiplanar movement patterns and incorporates multiple joints, dynamic tasks, and consistent alterations in the base of support for the purpose of improving function.” – Liu et al. (2014) (Source)
A well-constructed functional integrated training program will contain compound exercises and focus on a variety of elements (e.g., coordination, balance, etc.). However, these movements must be specific to you. Just because an exercise is deemed as ‘functional,’ does not mean that it’s ‘functional’ for you.
One of the key criteria for many programs are including compound exercises. These exercises work multiple muscle groups and joints.
For example, performing a push-up will engage your pectoral, triceps, and abdominal muscles. As opposed to an exercise, such as a bicep curl, which isolates the movement to a single muscle only.
There are numerous benefits to compound exercises, which include:
- Improves balance and coordination
- Transference to your daily habits
- Develops muscle bulk and strength
- All your muscles will be getting a workout
“… a completely functional workout, with a lot of plyometric exercises, some stability work, some balance work. All stuff that’s going to translate to the pitch and improve performance.” – Michael Lewis Cunningham (Professional soccer player and performance coach)
Michael’s functional movement training video is an excellent example of how to construct a program for athletes, such as soccer players—utilizing dynamic compound exercises in a variety of positions and techniques.
He incorporates a wide range of exercises, including the single-leg Romanian deadlifts, which are relevant for kicking and box jumps for explosiveness.
Functional movements to incorporate in your routine
Many performance coaches and health professionals can get quite creative with functional training. However, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for a proper workout.
Below will be three fundamental exercises you can perform anytime and anywhere. Whether it’s before your gym workout or even during your breaks at work.
Underneath these exercises will be regressions and progressions to make the exercises either easier or more challenging, respectively. These functional movements can even be modified to cater to your physical fitness and abilities.
Sit to stand
Start seated with your bottom flat on the chair and feet aligned with your knees. Gently lean forward and push up with your feet. Begin to lift yourself forward and upright. Finish in a standing position.
- Regression: Increase the height of the bench
- Progression: Use one leg rather than two
Start facing down with a straight torso and hands on the ground (shoulder-width apart). Begin with elbows extended. Slowly bend elbows and lower chest to the floor. Hold for 2-3 seconds before pushing up to the starting position.
- Regression: Kneeling push up
- Progression: Raise the feet
Start by standing upright. Begin with one step forward and knee extended. Take in a deep breath before bending the knee to 90 degrees. Pushing up from the ground, return to your beginning position.
- Regression: Assisted lunge holding a wall or post
- Progression: Loaded lunge, try adding a kettlebell
Key points in creating a functional training program
- Before creating a functional training program, make sure you create specific short-term and long-term goals that you’d like to achieve. Tailor your program around these goals.
- Incorporate compound exercises and movements. Isolation exercises can be included but ensure that they are minimal and relevant to your goal(s)
- Focus on a variety of elements, including balance, coordination, plyometrics, strength, etc. Do not focus on just one type of exercise.
- Multi-directional movements. During our daily routine, we move in all sorts of directions, forward, backward, sidewards, rotating, etc. Our exercises need to be able to reciprocate these movements.
- Progress or regress exercises if they are too easy or difficult.
- Use a variety of bodyweight movements and exercise equipment (e.g., free weights, kettlebells, resistance bands, etc.)
- Keep your exercises relevant to what you want to achieve.
Alternative exercise approaches
Do not over-complicate functional training. You do not have to change your whole exercise routine(s). There are ways of modifying your existing program or incorporating functional training to other alternative exercise approaches.
Perhaps you could do a few functional exercises before your workout as a warm-up. Or maybe you could interchange between your usual program and functional training. To keep things sustainable, don’t be afraid to be flexible.
Other alternative exercise approaches can be modified or work in conjunction with functional training include:
- Traditional weight training
- Aerobic exercises
- Traditional yoga
Hopefully, this guide has contextualized the meaning of ‘functional.’ Functional training has real-life, meaningful benefits for all aspects of life. Whether you’re seeking elite athletic performance or just want to feel better during the day, this type of training is always relevant for you.
No, it’s not just a fad. And no, not all ‘functional training’ programs will be suitable. Functional training should be meaningful to you, and you only. Some organizations offer cookie-cutter programs that are simply not appropriate or safe for you.
If you’ve just started working out, finding a reputable coach or health professional is essential. Appropriate guidance will help set the foundation for your health.
Have you tried functional training? Let me know more below:
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