What is Functional Training?

Ask ten different people what functional training is, and you’ll probably get ten different answers. That’s one of the reasons why it might seem like functional training is an elite, mysterious approach to getting fit. The truth is that functional training is all about functional movements to help get you in the best shape of your life. No matter if you’re a standard bodybuilder, a powerlifter, or a marathon runner, functional training can help get you in the best shape of your life.

two guys doing pull-ups as part of functional training

While kettlebell training, rope work, and weighted power bags can all be part of functional training, the important thing to remember is to not get too bogged down with the details. So let’s take a look at the goal of functional training and how you can incorporate it into any fitness programme.

What’s the Goal of Functional Training?

As with all things fitness, our personal goals and motivations generally fall somewhere in three categories – looking better, training better, or feeling better. When you incorporate functional training into your routine, you’re working toward training better.

But what does that mean?

Training better means training smarter. As an athlete, it’s likely that your body is accustomed to moving in the same planes of motion – lateral, vertical, forward, or backward. Functional training improves your strength by training across all movement platforms, which increases your physical performance and helps to update the way your body moves and functions.

The exercises you perform while functionally training will help your muscles learn to work together and prepare your body for daily tasks. By simulating the movements you perform in your sport or at the gym using unconventional equipment, your body learns to adapt to different conditions, which overall can help improve your fitness level.

Functional training has its origins in physical therapy and rehabilitation. PTs developed exercises that mimicked the movements their patients were likely to encounter at home or work to help them recover faster after surgery or an injury.

What Kinds of Movements are Included in Functional Training?

Functional training is based on movement patterns, not muscle groups. Today’s fitness culture is all about looking like you lift, thanks in part to the golden age of bodybuilding. Having bulging quads and defined biceps might help you win fitness shows, but if you can’t do a pull-up or squat your own body weight, you’re not really that fit. The problem with this kind of training is that you’re targeting muscles in isolation, which has virtually zero real-world benefits. That’s just not how your body was designed to perform.

Free weights and body-loaded exercises are prioritised during functional training sessions to improve your coordination and strength relative to your body weight.

Here’s what you won’t find in functional training: lots of crunches or other “standard” ab work. The reason? Because our abdominal muscles aren’t made to be crunched and twisted as you might think. In reality, the core’s purpose is to ensure that the rest of your body has the strength and stability it needs to perform, you guessed it, functional movements.

Functional training is all about multi-planar movements. The three planes of movement are:

  • Saggital plane – front and back motion
  • Frontal plane – side to side movement
  • Transverse plane – any type of rotation

Traditional approaches to fitness generally work within the sagittal plane of movement with some frontal plane movement as well. However, real functionally means addressing all three planes when you’re training. Remember that the goal of functional training is to develop movement strength and proficiency equally across all three planes of movement and within the five categories of human movement patterns.

What are the Benefits?

The benefits of functional training stretch from sports benefits to real-world applications, since functional training at its root, will help you perform daily movements easier.

  • Better mobility – Movement pattern training ensures that your joints move through a full range of motion and build strength across all movement plans. This is one of the major keys to proper joint function.
  • Increased athletic performance – Functional training can help improve your athleticism. Whole-body strength, movement quality, and overall stability are improved when you add functional training to your programme.
  • Injury prevention – With better mobility comes greater strength and stability, which helps keep your joints protected.
  • Real-world strength – Isolation muscle development doesn’t do much outside of the gym. Functional training means that not only do you look strong, but you are actually strong. Real-world movements translate to real-world strength.

Examples of Functional Training Exercises

Don’t tell the functional fitness enthusiast in your life, but before the modern era of gyms, functional fitness was the only kind of fitness. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so accessible – you’re literally training your body to be used in the way it was designed. By incorporating movements like pushing, pulling, hinging, and jumping, you’re replicating what early humans did to survive.

Each of the movements found in a functional training programme can be found in everyday life, whether you’re an elite athlete or just performing your everyday activities. For this reason, functional training has real-world benefits, and the results are almost immediate.

Here’s a sample functional training programme that builds on working with all three planes of motion and uses all five core functional movements:

Upper body pushing – both vertical and horizontal

  • Overhead press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups

Incorporating both a pull movement and a press movement standing and in a vertical plane makes this workout a lot more effective than just hitting a bunch of machines at the gym.

Lower body training pattern – vertical, horizontal, rotational

  • Barbell good mornings
  • Squats (in all varieties)
  • Plyo box step-ups
  • Kettlebell swings

The key takeaway here is that functional training has less to do with specifically targeting one muscle group. Instead, a more holistic approach means that your training session might focus on one muscle group (like back, for example), but your entire body will end up getting a really good workout.

Conclusion

Functional training can help provide you with the skillset you need to increase your strength, stability, and mobility. Over time, the increased focus on using bodyweight and functional exercises will help you thrive in both life and in sports. Functional fitness training uses basic movement patterns like pushing, pulling, and hinging exercises to utilise your movement proficiency among specific muscle groups. These muscle groups become stronger, making function fitness one of the best approaches to leading your best life.

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