What Is Functional Training and How Can It Benefit You?

What Is Functional Training and How Can It Benefit You?

Functional training ranks among the buzziest of fitness buzzwords. But what the heck do trainers mean when they call training functional? Isn’t all training performing some sort of function?

Yes, but when it comes to improving your fitness, functional training is more nuanced. “Ideally, functional training conditions you to perform the actions of daily life [more effectively and efficiently],” says Jim DiGregorio, an exercise physiologist based in Norwood, N.J.

For a more detailed explanation of functional training, read on.

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Why is Functional Training Important?

Functional training matters because it helps you develop “real world” fitness. As you go through your day, your movements follow patterns. How you reach for an item on a high shelf, the way you squat to pick up a heavy object, how you get out of a chair — if you’re moving, you’re performing a function that involves a pattern of pushing, pulling, lifting, squatting, etc.

Functional training not only improves specific movement for a sport — for example, better side-to-side mobility for tennis or more efficient strides for running — but also streamlines how you move in general. As DiGregorio points out, your everyday actions improve.

Functional training helps you build strength, power, and mobility that translates beyond the gym.

Why does that matter? Because when you’re more efficient, you put less strain on your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.

You distribute the work throughout your body instead of relying on one muscle group — significantly reducing the risk of overuse injuries and chronic tightness and strain. And that mobility translates at the gym as well, because your movement improves as you’re working out.

Functional training has origins in physical therapy

Functional training emerged after World War I, when soldiers returned home with injuries that affected basic daily functions such as walking, bending, sitting, and standing. Their physical therapy emphasized core strength and mobility (among other things), which are essential for virtually all movement.

Over the years, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other disciplines have drawn the focus away from improving real-life movement to serving specific fitness objectives, such as creating defined, muscular physiques.

Modern fitness ideology has refocused on function, with an emphasis on compound (multi-joint) movements instead of isolation (single muscle group) exercises. By doing that, the fitness equipment arsenal expanded to include things like slosh pipes, battle ropes, sandbags, kettlebells, and suspension trainers, along with more traditional tools like medicine balls, barbells, and dumbbells.

Functional training focuses on movements, not muscles

From a functional perspective, most gym routines have two problems.

1. They train individual muscle groups (biceps, pecs, quads, hamstrings, etc.) instead of movement patterns (e.g., pushing, pulling, lifting, stepping, walking, crawling, jumping, squatting).

2. They typically occur only in the sagittal plane of motion. That involves forward and backward movements, encompassing most classic exercises like the squat, biceps curl, and even running.

Here’s the thing: Human movement doesn’t usually recruit one muscle group at a time, and it certainly isn’t limited to one plane of motion.

Movement occurs in three planes of motion:

1. sagittal (front and back)

2. frontal (side-to-side)

3. transverse (rotational)

But there’s more to functional training than simply incorporating compound movements and “non-sagittal” exercises like the lateral lunge and dumbbell reverse chop into your routine.

An effective functional training program:

  • favors free weights over machines.
  • works muscles through their full range of motion (no “half rep” curls or presses).
  • incorporates plenty of instability work (to recruit more muscles and fire up your core to re-stabilize your body).

Functional training emphasizes unilateral movement

Unilateral, or single-limb, training is a cornerstone of functional training. If you’ve ever done the Bulgarian split squat, single-arm bent over row, or alternating shoulder press, you’ve done unilateral training. (By contrast, bilateral training trains two limbs simultaneously — think biceps curlbench press, or back squat.)

Unilateral training helps overcome muscle imbalances, and it also adds instability to cultivate balance that translates in the real world. (Think: staying upright on an icy sidewalk versus doing a pistol squat on a wobble board.)


What’s The Difference Between Functional Training and CrossFit?

Doing either CrossFit or functional training will likely help you get better at the other, since both focus on strength, stability, and movement in a way designed to help you function better. But although there’s plenty of overlap between CrossFit and functional training, they aren’t synonymous.

Both functional fitness training and CrossFit can deliver significant benefits, and using them together may boost your progress.

Body Weight vs. Equipment

  • Functional training tends to use body weight for resistance. (Though if you want to increase the intensity, you can add some weights.)
  • CrossFit usually focuses on equipment, integrating gym staples like barbells, rowing machines, pull-up bars, and more.

Pace and Setup

  • CrossFit follows a high-intensity model, so you follow a circuit within a certain (short) timeframe.
  • With functional training, you’re focused more on awareness of your movement patterns and perfecting your form, which tends to follow a more relaxed pace. You can incorporate a circuit if you like, or work on one or two movements in a session.


7 Functional Training Exercises You Should Try

These seven functional training exercises will help you sculpt head-turning muscle, but more importantly, they’ll help you become stronger and more powerful in movement patterns outside the gym.

1. Dumbbell reverse chop

functional training- dumbbell reverse chop

Why we like it:

Operating in the transverse (rotational) plane of motion, this total-body move targets the core, shoulders, and quads.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in both hands in front of you at arm’s length.
  2. Keeping your back flat and core braced, bend your knees and rotate left, lowering the dumbbell to the outside of your left knee. That’s the starting position.
  3. In one explosive movement, stand and rotate to the right, pivoting your left foot as you lift the weight above your right shoulder.
  4. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
  5. Do equal reps on both sides.


2. Push-up

functional training- push up

Why we like it:

It’s tough to beat the push-up when it comes to building functional upper body strength.

How to do it:

  1. Get on all fours with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders.
  2. Engage your glutes and brace your core to lock your body into position.
  3. Keeping your elbows tucked and head down, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor.
  4. Pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.


3. Dumbbell squat

functional training- dumbbell squat

Why we like it:

It’s the king of lower-body exercises. Few other moves engage more muscles below the waist — if you squat with perfect form.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells by your sides.
  2. Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  3. Pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position.


4. Step-up

functional training- dumbbell step up

Why we like it:

This unilateral exercise helps iron out muscle imbalances while introducing an element of instability that boosts muscle engagement throughout the body. You might feel it most in your quads, but your glutes, calves, and core are also working.

How to do it:

  1. Stand tall, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides, and place your left foot on a bench so that your hip, knee, and ankle are all bent 90 degrees.
  2. Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, push your body up with your left leg until it’s straight (keep your right foot elevated).
  3. Pause, and then lower your body back to the starting position with control.
  4. Perform equal reps on both legs.


5. Bear crawl

Why we like it:

This dynamic core exercise has a hidden benefit: Synchronizing the actions of opposite limbs can profoundly affect neuromuscular communication, balance, coordination, and mobility. In short, it can help you move more powerfully and efficiently in everything you do.

How to do it:

  1. Get down on all fours with your arms straight, hands below your shoulders, and your knees bent 90 degrees below your hips. (Only your hands and toes should touch the ground.)
  2. Keeping your back flat, crawl forward and backward, moving opposite hands and feet in unison (right hand and left foot, left hand and right foot).
  3. Continue moving forward with opposite hands and feet in unison for the desired number of steps, then reverse the movement to work your way back.


6. Bulgarian split squat

functional training- bulgarian split squat

Why we like it:

Another powerful unilateral exercise, the Bulgarian split targets the quads and glutes, while building strength and stability from head to toe.

How to do it:

  1. Stand facing away from a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides.
  2. Place the toes of your left foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Keeping your torso upright and core braced, lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the ground (don’t let your left knee touch it).
  4. Pause, and then push back up to the starting position.
  5. Perform equal reps on both legs.


7. Single-leg foot-elevated hip raise

functional training- single leg elevated hip raise bench

Why we like it:

By engaging your glutes and opening up your hips, this exercise can help counteract the consequences of sitting (read: weak glutes and tight hips — and the back pain that often accompanies them).

How to do it:

  1. Lie face-up on the floor with your arms by your sides, your right foot on a bench (or other stable object), and your left foot elevated.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and push through your right foot, raising your hips until your body forms a straight line from your right knee to your shoulders.
  3. Pause, then return to the starting position.
  4. Perform equal reps on both legs.