The Complete Guide to Functional Training

Is functional training the best, and the only effective, way to train? Well, depends on the coach, and the client, their knowledge and after all, also their attitude.

In the past most people associated fitness training with low body fat, big muscle and athletic physique, strict nutrition regimes and of course, pretty often also with a training based around the use of the fitness machines (and exercises which isolate a certain group of muscle).

A few years ago fitness industry finally recognised there are other, more useful, benefits of training, and eventually adopted the philosophy used by professional athletes for decades –functional training– a way of working out where the sole goal is making the body more functional, and injury proof, whether for everyday life or high-level sport performance.

New trends were born; training regimes such as CrossFit, TRX, functional fitness and other. Many experts started to claim this is the best way to train, but… is it?

Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • What Functional training is and how it began
  • Who trains Functional exercises
  • Pros and cons of Functional training
  • Functional training terminology
  • Example workouts
  • How to get started

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1.- What is functional training?

Quite simply explained, functional training is a way of training, or a form of exercise, which aims to make the person’s body stronger and more stable but also more agile and flexible, and most importantly – more healthy with a pretty high level of aerobic capacity. Maybe the term “athleticism” would describe it best.

Athleticism (noun) – physical qualities which are characteristics of professional athletes, such as strength, endurance, energy, coordination, agility…

Sharing my best abs exercises on my channel. Link in bio ⬆️ #abs #helenafalk #fitness #inspiration #personaltraining

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1.1 Functional training for rehab and recovery

When we get injured, our biggest goal becomes full recovery and getting back to the body and the movements we were easily able to do before the accident. Our way back is a process called rehabilitation, or recovery, and a physiotherapist who leads us through, and gives us an exercise plan, which will eventually bring us back to old level.

That training plan is full of exercises which incorporate all sorts of movements from muscle strength and joint stability to balance and flexibility, anything that would make our joints, tendons and body in general functional again.

This is where functional training stems from. It has its origins in rehabilitation where physiotherapists, kineziotherapists and other health experts have been, and are still, using this approach to help people rehabilitate and recover after accidents, diseases, movement disorders and other various injuries.

1.2 Each movement or exercise is task orientated and has a purpose and a goal.

For example, squat is a complex exercise which is not solely used in Powerlifing competitions, but has its purpose in everyday life: like standing up and sitting down (or even picking yourself up from the ground after a sudden fall). To perform a full squat, your body has to be functional enough to display a sufficient level of balance and flexibility to confidently reach, and sit, in a bottom position.

This might seem as a piece of cake but most people in developed world can’t perform a full-depth squat without twisting the body or not fully reaching the desired depth.

The goal of functional training is to fix just that: align the body so it does not (over)compensate with other joints or muscles and gradually develops a stress injury caused by an overuse of certain movement.

Functional training often mimics movements we perform at home or at work (on daily basis). It also helps us improve performing those everyday movements, so we can reach for things stored on top of a high closet or pick up our children and lift them up easier (and as mentioned before, without getting pinched in the back or somehow injured).

2.- Functional training in the fitness industry

In fitness, functional training reached a level where most people started to advocate this as the one and only way to train. However, in professional sports athletes have been training task-oriented for decades, and lots of ideas and regimes in today’s functional fitness industry actually come from there.

The complete guide to functional training - Jessica Vetter

How to build athlete’s body in a way so it does not suffer any injuries but at the same time improves the specific, more specialized, performance (an athlete is specialized in).

For example, alpine (downhill) skier’s body needs to be strong, stable and enduring enough to sustain a 2-min high-speed, high-adrenaline and high-intensity course while also safely land a few 50+ meters long jumps. Functional training of a downhill skier includes everything; from pure strength exercises and long distance endurance sessions to acrobatics, parkour runs, agility training, gymnastics, etc.

The goal of functional training is also to prevent potential falls/accidents or try to save a skier from getting injured in case of a crash. Strong core, stable but flexible joints, strong tendons and healthy, agile body are the result of a thought-through and smart functional training which has been developing a professional alpine skier for at least 15 years.

2.1 What is functional fitness training?

In bodybuilding, functional training often involves the word “fitness”. The term is related to having an athletic physique, low in body fat and pretty muscly built, but still capable of performing a variety of complex or more advanced movements.

The functional type of exercises usually, or in most cases, include free weights and other non-machine type of fitness equipment such as elastics bands, TRX or suspension trainers, gymnastics tools, kettlebells, medicine balls and other.

In contrast to machine-based fitness training which isolates a certain muscle we want to strengthen or target so it develops (grows), functional moves focus on core and its development: control, strength, stability.

Functional fitness training and related exercises force an athlete to activate and balance the body to execute a movement which is, at the same time, trying to push or throw the person out of balance. Good examples are unilateral exercises with free weights, such as one-handed bent over row or one-legged deadlifts. 

With that in mind, functional fitness training needs to be taught by a coach or an expert who understands the technique and the purposes of certain exercises.

3.- What are the benefits of functional training?

If performed on regular basis with a correct technique, and a smart attitude, functional training offers numerous benefits.

3.1 Better life

We are not over exaggerating when we claim functional training improves life. After all that is its main purpose. Especially people who were not active (ever) before or the older generation which is trying to add a few more quality years, or a decade, to their life spam, feels the benefits of exercising and moving (for health) pretty quickly.

Better agility and more movement patterns also allow, and motivate, people to perform and engage in various activities that make life more fulfilling, and fun.  

More aerobic capacity and strength will also help with getting through an 8-hour work day easier. People who regularly exercise experience less chronic pain or inactivity related issues such as stiff tendons and joints.

3.2 Stronger bodies are harder to… get injured.

Of course strength alone is not enough, but if we add the term we have been talking about all along – functional, we have a benefit that will might save the knees and lower backs from chronic pain or inconvenient injuries.

Experts often like to use the term functional strength. The word relates to strength which co-exists with stable and flexible joints. Too often people focus on developing muscle mass, or a certain number on the squat, but don’t pay attention to nurturing their ankles, knees, hips and shoulder mobility.

While getting strong is good, engaging in all aspects of functional training is even better.

Functional training benefits - Mitchell Adams

3.3 Aerobic capacity and good endurance helps you feel better

A lot of discussion is often focused around the strength and stability development, while endurance gets quite pushed aside. The conditioning training can take a lot of time and often feels very monotonous, and let’s face it, boring.

Functional training tries to make it “more fun” and attractive by using different exercises with lower or no load at all, and combine them in 3+ sets with biggest amount of reps. Take CrossFit for example.

In general, functional training plan should be designed in a way it also assists the athlete, or regular people, to develop a basic level of aerobic capacity and endurance.

3.4 Better flexibility

Based on the fact that most of us go through life doing same movement patterns day by day, we also develop certain weakness, such as stiff tendons and joints. You might not think this is important, but most of the chronic pain people experience throughout their life spam, for example low back pain, stem from that.

Think of how doing a 10-minute stretching routine in the morning, right after getting out of the bed, makes you feel better. Just bending over trying to place the hands flat on the floor have a profound effect on how we feel at that moment.

Better flexibility also contributes to better posture, better walking and moving around the house, or around the town, in general.

3.5 We get better at reacting and moving quickly

Agility is a capacity to react and move quickly, and easily. It’s also what often saves people from dangerous situations or prevents them from sudden falls. People with good agility are able to react before they hit the ground hard and save themselves by grabbing the fence or keep/establish the balance in one way or another.

Agility is that more important because it’s related to cognitive functioning and one of the skills we lose first as we get older.

3.6 Improved body posture and walking gait

If you are planning to see a physio because your posture looks weak, and feels painful, and your walking is more like dragging, it’s very likely they will introduce you to the world of functional training.

When we talk about the outlook, upright posture and an active, quality walking gait are two things that matter (much more than how your body looks like). More stability and core strength, and more athleticism in general, will benefit your posture and help you keep the spine in a more upright position.

3.7 Confidence is part of the package

With all the physical and well-being related benefits, confidence is quite often a consequence of a good functional training. Not only that we move and feel better, today’s types and brands of functional fitness trends often bring people together and support them to socialise and meet other like-minded people.

3.8 Lower body fat, more muscle and a healthier body

Last but not least. We have to mention the logic consequence of taking care of yourself and engaging in functional training: less body fat. If you are being consistent with exercise, your body will respond in gaining some muscle and lower fat tissue. However this is also dependant to what and how you eat.

But in general, functional training is a great way to keep exercise attractive while learning new skills, re-gaining important functions and unknowingly loose a few kilos (of fat). We could say it’s a fun and a quality way to reshape your body.

4.- It is never too late to start with functional training

Although our current lifestyles are forcing us to sit a lot, we were born to move in various ways. Even professional athletes specialized in a single discipline keep their training, at least during off season, diverse. To simply not get fed up with doing the same movement over and over again.

No matter the situation, it’s never too late to start with functional training. There are always some things we can still improve. Functional training aims to re-train function or at least, to make movement a bit easier.

If you look and search a bit through social media or your community in general, you will notice people of all ages are training to get better with movement and to improve their health. From 70+ elderly men and women lifting weights and even doing burpees and pull ups to the younger generation just simply enjoying their time in the gym.

How to start? Find your local gym which offers coaching or group classes. Buy some good, stable fitness shoes, find your sport clothes and that’s pretty much it. Then show up to the gym and commit to making your body more functional.

What do you think?

Is functional training just a fitness craze or a really good way to training?

It's never too late to start with functional training - Vrope Fire 2.0

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Written by Velites Sport