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Is ‘Functional Training’ all Bull$*@t?

Look up the word functional in a dictionary and you will find the following

‘(adjective) capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.’

I take this to mean that function equals purpose. Given that each person’s purpose for training is different this means that functional training will be different for everyone. To the bodybuilder, training will be functional if it helps them grow muscle. To the person looking to slim down, training will be functional if it helps them lose body fat. To the athlete, training will be functional if it helps them perform better. Rather than any one style or method, functional training is any kind of training that moves you closer to your goal.

The idea of functional training originated in the sports medicine world and has since found its way into mainstream gyms. The general idea is that the exercises used to return an athlete back to health could also be the best exercises to improve the health of the average gym goer. A lot of great things have come from this but along with that has come a certain level of confusion and misuse of the term. When someone thinks of functional training, in general they picture a TYPE of training, usually linked to using certain pieces of equipment (Battle ropes, kettlebells, Stretch bands or Swiss Ball). As a result of this, we have come to see training as ‘functional’ only when it employs these specific tools.

The truth is that these tools are not inherently more functional than a barbell or a machine (gasp), they can all be used for functional training given the right context. For example, starting on a leg press, if you lack the strength, control or mobility to squat or lunge, is a great strategy and one that has worked for several of my clients.

Whilst I hope you are convinced that training should be considered ‘functional’ if it moves you closer to your goal, there are a few things that should serve as metrics of whether training is functional in the way it is commonly thought of:

  1. Functional training should teach people how to handle their own body weight
  2. Functional training should improve balance and proprioception
  3. Functional training should challenge the body through its primary movement patterns e.g.: squatting, lunging, pressing, pushing, hinging and rotating

The good news is that almost every training method worth its salt will improve these areas. Here are three tips you can implement in your next gym session to make sure you are working towards the functional qualities listed above:

  1. Do exercises one side at a time. This means split squats instead of regular squats, one arm db press instead of barbell military press
  2. Do most exercises standing. This will increase core activation
  3. Train the major movement patterns. In a training week make sure you have a press (push-up or bench press), pull (row or chin up), squat (split squat or goblet squat), hinge (deadlift or hip thrust), lunge (reverse, forward, walking) and rotation (wood chop or palof press)

Do these things and you will have a body that both looks and performs well.


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