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The Functional Training Debate


Posted by Adrian K under Weight Training (Strength Training) on 10 December 2013 at 12:00 AM

Functional is a word that is thrown around a lot these days in gyms and online forums everywhere to describe everything from specific training drills, to raw strength, to balancing on a bosu ball. But how well do we understand this incredibly popular fitness term? 

This idea raises a couple of key questions:

- What makes an exercise or type of training functional?

- What are the most functional exercises?

We sparked a discussion here on Tribesports to try and address some of these and we also sought after the opinions of a few top coaches and trainers.

From the discussion there seem to be two main ideas, which we can use to try and understand what constitutes functional training.

Jordan Syatt and Christian Finn suggest that functional training is training that directly moves you closer to achieving your goals.

As Christian puts it - "Functional training is nothing more than making sure there is a match between your goals and the training you’re doing. If your training programme moves you closer to those goals, then it’s functional. If it doesn’t then it isn’t." To back up this argument, Jordan states - "Whatever constitutes "functional training" is entirely dependant on the individual and what they want to accomplish"

The other common idea is that functional training is training which improves or strengthens movements that humans use in everyday life - an idea put forwards by Joe Vennare and Lisa Balash.

Joe acknowledges that different people will be training for different goals (bodybuilders/runners/athletes), but also makes the point that - "The reasoning behind functional training is to make living easier. So think about the movements you perform each day; bending, squatting, lifting objects overhead. Those are the movements you want to train and improve."

Lisa provides us with a few more examples, "lifting a suitcase overhead and placing it in the luggage compartment on an aircraft, shoveling snow, carrying groceries, holding a child.."

What does this mean for your training?

Firstly, consider the advice provided by Christian and Jordan, you need to take a good look at what your goals are and what you want to achieve. If you are training for a specific sport or Challenge, then you need to tailor your training appropriately. As Jordan says, "Everyone has different needs, goals, and preferences...all of which dictate what "functional training" means to them".

If you are an athlete, you will need to pick the movements that will have the most carryover to your sport, "It should involve similar movement patterns, muscular contractions, speed of movements, stabilization requirements, and direction of loading" as Mike from Athletic Lab points out. Chris F also identifies the need for certain athletes to focus on training outside of the gym as well as inside in order to replicate real life / match situations, "In real life movements are rarely fixed, stabilised and repetitive".

American Football

This is perhaps most relevant to sports like Rugby, Football, Tennis, or any sport where your direction and movement are unpredictable and constantly changing with every play.

It is also important not to overlook the need to build the physical attributes that you require in order to excel in your sport. Are you a sprinter? Then you need to create some serious power in your legs with heavy squats, power cleans and lunges. Training for swimming? You will benefit from a strong back. Rugby or American football? You better pack on some size.

So... Which exercises are best for functional training?

Even with all of the above being said, everyone can benefit from improving natural movement patterns, and using exercises which make you stronger at performing these movements. If you are like a lot of people you may find that actually, it is your goal to become healthier and fitter, and a big part of that is your ability to move your body as it was intended and make it stronger.

In general Gymnastics, calisthenics, Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting are great primers for functional movement across multiple sports and applications. However, certain movements really do take a lot of commitment and specialisation to master - not everyone needs to learn how to perform a muscle up or a snatch in order to be fit and strong.

So here is a list of some examples of the best, basic exercises that strengthen natural movement patterns:

DeadliftHinging at the hips

- Deadlifts and Kettlebell Swings 


- Body Weight SquatsBarbell Back Squats and other weighted variations


- Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press orStanding Barbell Shoulder Press

- Push-ups or a bench press with dumbbells or a barbell


- Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups, rowing movements and rope climbs


- Box Jumps and Broad Jumps, add a Bulgarian Bag for more resistance.

Joe Vennare emphasises that everyone can train these movement patterns starting with bodyweight moves, but as they progress they should add resistance in the form of free weights.

"Functional workouts do not require lots or equipment and are free of exercise machines. Free weights and compound movements come once you've built a basis of fitness by way or bodyweight exercises."

Yoga teacher and English Olympic Weightlifting champ Nicola Hobbs agrees:

"Training using your bodyweight through gymnastics and yoga are a good place to start in building functional fitness, but once basic movement patterns are mastered, you need the strength gains from weight training to make it truly functional." 

What about crunches and curls?

Despite being very popular in gyms all over the world. Isolation moves like crunches, bicep curls or shoulder raises actually have very little carry over to most sports or daily life. In a real life situation you would almost never use one muscle in isolation the same way that you would with these movements - as such you can't really describe them as functional. In Nicola's words:

"I would say any type of training that focuses purely on aesthetics is not functional. Functional training needs to have some practical use rather than just building an attractive looking body" 

Of course, if you look back at the advice given by Christian and Jordan, if performing these exercises brings you closer to reaching your goals - feel free to continue!

What do you guys think? How does the idea of functional exercise affect how you train? What are your most "functional" exercises?

  • Encourage

    encouraged this.



    Hmm interesting, not the way I would have defined a functional exercise personally, for me when I speak with people about function and then in relation to exercise I am talking about fitness and form that enhance your ability to be functional in an everyday sort of sense. For me functional strength and fitness is about taking part in life in all its shapes and forms rather than a singular hobby or sport etc, does that make sense? Still these are all good core exercises for people who want really useable fitness!


    Hey Brad, when you say "to be functional in an everyday sort of sense" - isn't that covered in the article by some of the participants - "The other common idea is that functional training is training which improves or strengthens movements that humans use in everyday life" or would you define it differently to that?

    Brad N encouraged this.


    Hi Adrian, I think it touch’s on the concept for sure, I just wanted to slip my thoughts in there, I am always intrigued by people who simply want to be fit for the sake of it, rather than to achieve goals within their lives, having said that these sorts of people are usually only really wanting to achieve a look of fitness perhaps? It is also all around that word “functional” it means different things to each of us so trying to define exactly what is functional in forms of exercise for an individual is difficult?

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