Functional training has been used as a buzzword in the fitness community for some time now, and yet very few people have a clear understanding of what it means. The short answer is that it is training that mimics daily activities and sporting movements, but let’s look a little closer at the role functional training plays in a fitness routine that will get results.
In order to better understand what functional resistance training is we first need to take a look at traditional resistance training. Most traditional gym-based resistance training programs emphasize isolation exercises targeting individual muscles or muscle groups. Some examples of these traditional exercises would be the bench press, preacher curl, leg press, leg extension, leg curl, triceps extension, etc. All of these exercises are performed on benches or machines which provide external support allowing you to maximize the loading through the targeted muscles. These types of exercises are typically performed by bodybuilders and have minimal stability demands. They do not mimic daily or sporting activities, and do not challenge coordination, balance, proprioception (ability to determine to your body’s position in space), or overall motor control. While this type of training can be very useful for increasing muscle mass and strength, it does little to improve our overall ability to perform daily or sporting tasks.
So now that we have an idea of what traditional strength training is, we can focus back on functional training. Functional training is simply training that serves the purpose for which it is designed. Now this definition leaves a huge amount of wiggle room for determining what is and what is not functional training. For example, in the case of a bodybuilder, the purpose of the exercise is simply to increase muscle mass. There is no other sporting performance or skill requirements involved, so traditional lifting could be considered functional training for a bodybuilder.
In the case of a high-performance athlete however, our goal shifts to increasing sporting performance. This provides a much more complex goal to accomplish, as athletes perform highly complex movements across multiple planes that require incredible concentration, stability, coordination, and balance. This means that for athletes we need to look at an entirely different method of strength training tailored to each individual athletes sporting demands in order to provide them with the performance results that they are seeking.
Functional strength training used by athletes is designed to improve the ease, efficiency, strength, and control with which we are able to perform daily and sports activities. This type of training emphasizes compound whole body exercises across multiple planes with a focus on movements that mimic daily and sporting activities instead of specific muscles or muscle groups. This type of training uses no external supports, requires concentration and improves proprioception, balance, and coordination.
So, we can see that what we consider functional strength training really depends on what our goals are. A true functional training program for a competition bodybuilder will vary widely from a program designed for a rugby or hockey player, but what doesn’t vary across all of these demographics are the basic movements that get us through our day. All of us regularly have to lift, lower, push, pull, and carry objects without external support as we go about our day to day lives. We all perform a wide variety of dynamic lower body movements without external support as we move around and interact with the world.
This means that for the vast majority of people the ideal form of strength training will be the functional strength training used by athletes: Compound, whole body exercises that mimic and support fundamental functional movements in order to increase the ease and efficiency with which we are able to perform our daily or recreational activities.
This type of training, with an emphasis on movement, is ideal for rehabilitation and prevention of injuries, as well the improvement of overall functional capacity, from ease of movement day-to-day to recreational and sport performance. Ensure your program is functional for you by seeing a qualified fitness professional who can identify any functional movement dysfunctions and tailor your program to match your specific functional movement needs!