Functional Training is a term that is being used more and more in the fitness industry and it is a term, that in my opinion, is used quite loosely! To be honest I don’t think many trainers understand what Functional Training is let alone clients and gym goers.
In this article I’m going to attempt to define what I believe functional training to be from the knowledge I have gained doing courses and from meeting some of the top presenters in the industry who work with Applied Functional Science.
Firstly I don’t believe there is such a thing as “functional training” but I do believe in training for a function. According to the Oxford English Dictionary; Functional is defined as,
“capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.”
Therefore, we should be training for what we are designed for and what we are intending to do in everyday life or, if you’re an athlete, what you do in your chosen sport.
Ask yourself this question: “is the training I’m doing functional for what I do in everyday life or in the sport I play?” I was recently lucky enough to meet and listen to Dave Tiberio from The Gray Institute present on footballers’ knee injuries. One statement he made really stuck in my head, he said “if the training doesn’t look like football it’s not functional for football!” This is so true, you have to train for your function. Here are couple of examples of what I mean.
An office worker training for weight loss: they are mainly going to be sitting down getting in and out a lot of a squat type position. As a personal trainer I would want them to be able to sit down and get up for long periods without pain whilst helping them to achieve their overall goal of weight loss. If my training was functional for this I’m training them for their function. This doesn’t mean that I would train them in a seated position! For example I would do squatting in all three planes of movement, use different foot positions and also focus on their thoracic mobility so they can hold themselves in good postural positions whilst at work.
A footballer who wants to be able to sprint quickly out of a turn: I would train all the muscles and joints responsible for that movement and do training that replicates this movement, again training for function.
I’ve read a lot of articles recently saying that compound movements such as Squats and dead lifts or integrated movements such as a lunge and press are functional and are functional training methods. Which in a sense they are but my question would be functional for what? A dead lift would certainly be a functional exercise for a power lifter but it sure as hell isn’t going to help a swimmer improve their 50m butterfly.
For an exercise to be truly functional it has to be task driven and serve a purpose. If not its just an exercise. I also believe that a functional exercise has to be 3-dimensional, this means performed in the Saggital plane (forwards and back), the frontal plane (side to side) and the transverse plane (twisting or rotating). This is because every joint in the body works in 3 planes of movement.
I believe that if you want to call it “functional training” it has to follow the 4 basic rules below:
It has to be training for a function or task driven
The exercise has to be 3D
It must involve chain reaction ( the body working as one unit)
It has to resemble your function whether it be a sport, a job or an everyday activity.
I could add more to this list but I think these are the fundamentals of functional exercise. I also believe you can look at an exercise and decide how functional it really is you could even score it 1-5, 5 being very functional and 1 being pretty pointless. Here’s an example of what I mean.
A 21 year old male going on a lads holiday and he wants bigger arms for the beach. I know that he’s going to want to do a lot of work on his biceps, therefore a bicep curl with a lot of load sitting down is going to be most functional for him, as his arms will get bigger and it will suit his task of looking good on the beach. That would score a 4 or 5, something like standing on a bosu doing bicep curls would score a 1, it would be the least functional exercise for him. This is because standing on a bosu would limit the amount of weight he can lift because of the instability and therefore result in less gains in hypertrophy (muscle development), whereas seated he could lift a bigger load and gain more hypertrophy.
So next time you are training, or if you are a trainer, look at the exercise you’re doing and ask yourself, am I training for a function, is this exercise truly functional for the tasks or sports I want to do? And remember if it doesn’t look like your function it probably isn’t functional for what you and your body want to do!