Functional training. It ranks among the buzziest of fitness buzz-terms. But what the heck do trainers mean when they call training “functional?” Isn’t all training performing some sort of function?
In a word, yes. But functional training as it pertains to improving your fitness is a bit more nuanced than that. “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, New Jersey.
For those seeking a more detailed explanation, read on.
Functional Training Explained
In short, functional training helps you build strength, power, and mobility that translates beyond the gym. It’s “real world” fitness.
Functional training has origins in physical therapy
Functional training as it’s more widely known today emerged from the rehabilitation of soldiers who returned from World War I with injuries that had cost them basic daily functions such as walking, bending, sitting, and standing. The physical therapy they received emphasized, among other things, core strength and mobility, which are essential for virtually all movement.
Over the years, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other fitness disciplines have drawn the focus away from improving real-life movement to serving specific fitness objectives, such as creating defined, muscular physiques. But modern fitness ideology has renewed its focus on function, focusing on compound (multi-joint) movements instead of isolation (single muscle group) exercises. In so doing, it has expanded its equipment arsenal to include relatively recent innovations like slosh pipes, battling ropes, sandbags, kettlebells, and suspension trainers along with more traditional tools like medicine balls, barbells, and dumbbells.
Functional training focuses on movements, not muscles
There are two primary problems from a functional perspective with most typical gym routines. The first is that they they train individual muscle groups (biceps, pecs, quads, hamstrings, etc.) instead of movement patterns (e.g., pushing, pulling, lifting, stepping, walking, crawling, jumping, squatting). Second, they typically occur in a single plane of motion: the sagittal, which involves forward and backward movements and encompasses 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. Indeed, it occurs in three planes of motion: the previously mentioned sagittal, the frontal (side-to-side), and the transverse (rotational).
But there’s more to functional training than simply incorporating more compound movements like the squat, and more “non-sagittal” exercises like the lateral lunge and dumbbell reverse chop into your routine. An effective functional training program also favors free weights over machines, focuses on working muscles through full ranges of motion (that means no “half rep” curls or presses), and incorporates plenty of instability work.
Functional training emphasizes unilateral movement
When Bosu balls came along in the late ’90s, they immediately became one of the go-to tools for functional training. The thinking was that performing movements like squats and presses on an unstable surface — be it a Bosu ball, wobble board, balance disc, or similar device — would build greater stability and balance. And that thinking was correct — to an extent.
We now know that balance training on unstable surfaces really only improves balance and stability on unstable surfaces. So if you’re a surfer, slackliner, or sailboat racer, carry on with Bosu ball squats. But anyone else wanting to enhance real world balance and stability is better served keeping at least one foot on solid ground.
That brings us to unilateral (single limb) training, a cornerstone of functional training. If you’ve ever done the Bulgarian split squat, single-leg straight-leg deadlift, single-arm bent over row, or alternating shoulder press, you’ve done unilateral training. (Bilateral training, by contrast, trains two limbs simultaneously — think biceps curl, bench press, or back squat.)
Not only can unilateral training help iron out muscle imbalances, but it also adds an element of instability that cultivates the kind of balance that translates to the real world (where the ground generally doesn’t wobble beneath you).
7 Functional Training Exercises You Should Try
These exercises will all help you sculpt head-turning muscle, but more important, they’ll help you become stronger and more powerful in movement patterns that transcend the gym.
Operating in the transverse (rotational) plane of motion, this total-body move targets the core, shoulders and quads.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in both hands in front of you at arm’s length. 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.
In one explosive movement, stand and rotate to the right, pivoting your left foot as you lift the weight above your right shoulder. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Do equal reps on both sides.
It’s tough to beat the push-up when it comes to building functional upper body strength. And you won’t have to sacrifice muscle growth to do it — research shows that the push-up and bench press produce similar levels of muscle activation.
How to do it: 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. Clench your glutes and brace your core to lock your body into position.
Keeping your elbows tucked and head down, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor. Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.
There’s a reason why the squat is known as the king of lower-body exercises: No other move engages more muscle below the waist — if you do it with perfect form.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides. 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. Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
Unilateral exercises like the step-up target one limb at a time, helping to 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 you’ll appreciate the effect it has on your glutes, calves, and core as well .
How to do it: 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. Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, push your body up with your left leg until it’s straight (keep your right foot elevated). Pause, and then lower your body back to the starting position with control. Perform equal reps on both legs.
This dynamic core exercise has a hidden benefit: By synchronizing the actions of opposite limbs (right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg) it can have a profoundly positive effect on 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: 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.) 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).
Another powerful unilateral exercise, the Bulgarian split targets the quads and glutes, but builds strength and enhances stability from head to toe.
How to do it: Stand facing away from a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides. Place the toes of your left foot on the bench behind you. 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). Pause, and then push back up to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both legs.
By engaging your glutes and opening up your hips, this exercise can help counteract the consequences of spending most of your waking hours in a chair (read: weak glutes and tight hips — and the back pain that often accompanies them). You’ll also feel it in your hamstrings.
How to do it: Lie face-up on the floor with your arms by your sides, your right foot on a bench (or other immovable object), and your left foot elevated. 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. Pause, then return to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both legs.