Functional training has been a fitness industry buzzword for some time now, although it’s hard to define exactly. The problem lies with what does and what does not constitute a functional exercise. This is not always a simple question to answer, and what is deemed functional for one person may not be for another.
Some experts define functional training as an exercise that has a direct carryover to daily activities or sporting endeavors. For example, a squat while standing balancing on a wobble board could be said to be a functional exercise because it develops balance and strength simultaneously – attributes that are often required to be demonstrated together.
Alternatively, some might argue that a seemingly non-functional exercise such as triceps kickbacks are actually very functional for someone like a swimmer because, in that particular sport, the arm is extended in a way very that is similar to triceps kickbacks.
Other experts say that EVERY exercise is actually functional as performing even something as seemingly non-functional as the leg extension will result in improved performance in the leg extension, thus meeting the criteria for functional exercise.
It’s almost easier to say what is not functional training! In general, exercises that used fixed-path resistance machines, work small muscles in isolation, are performed solely in the sagittal or forwards and backward plane, or do not require much in the way of balance and coordination are not considered functional.
Anyway, semantics aside, functional training is here to stay, so it’s worth learning more about this approach to exercise.
FUNCTIONAL TRAINING BENEFITS
Where many types of training, specifically bodybuilding and machine-based training, are all about developing “show”, functional training is more about developing “go”. In other words, the aim of functional training is to improve your ability to move well rather than changing your appearance.
As life often happens in multiple dimensions/directions at once, functional exercises are often similarly multi-directional. Lunges, a traditional leg exercise, can be made more functional by adding an upper-body twist so that you work in two planes of movement at the same time – sagittal and transverse in case you wanted to know. Multidirectional exercises like lunges with a twist are very useful for athletes who play racquet sports.
Alternatively, you could do sideways traveling squats to work in the frontal plane. Side-to-side exercises like this are great for athletes who play sports that involve lateral movements, such as rugby players dodging a tackle, or skiers who pushing off the outer edge of their skies to carve a turn.
Functional exercises are designed to work your muscles in a way they are most likely to be challenged in real life. As functional experts often say, life does not always happen in straight lines.
FUNCTIONAL TRAINING DRAWBACKS
Most exercisers would benefit from adding some functional-type exercises to their routines but, sometimes, functional training exercises can resemble circus tricks rather than genuine exercises, and the skill requirement becomes so great that any potential for overloading your muscles is all but eliminated. Squats while balancing on a stability ball are a prime example.
For your muscles to get stronger, they must be challenged. This is the principle of overload. Overload is usually in the form of an external resistance such as a barbell, dumbbells, resistance machines, or bands.
If a functional exercise is so convoluted that you are forced to use significantly less weight than normal, your muscles are going to be exposed to much less stress and, subsequently, will get weaker rather than stronger – basically the opposite of what any exercise should do.
For example, if you can do a barbell back squat with 60kg but start doing wobble board squats with 20kg, you may be challenging your balance more than normal, but your muscles are not getting the same workout as before. This doesn’t mean that squats on wobble boards are a bad exercise; it’s just that they aren’t the best choice if strength is important to you.
Rather than drop your heavier squats in favor of wobble board squats, it would be better to squat normally first and then, on completion of your more traditional leg work, add some functional leg exercises in to complement what you have already done.
Unfortunately, too many exercisers (and trainers) have jumped on the functional training wagon and have turned their backs on other forms of training, labeling more traditional workouts as non-functional and unproductive. This problem is nothing new and happens every time a new exercise fad emerges.
EXAMPLES OF FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE
Here is a brief list of functional exercises for you to try. As with any new workout, start with light weights, build up gradually, and use the perfect technique to minimize your risk of injury.
LUNGE WITH OVERHEAD PRESS
Using your arms and legs simultaneously is the epitome of functional training and is also an effective way to get a lot of exercises done in a short amount of time. With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet together and your dumbbells racked at shoulder-height. Lunge forward with your left leg and press your right arm up and overhead. Lower the weight back to your shoulder and stand up. Repeat using the opposite leg and arm. Continue alternating sides for the duration of your set.
SQUAT, TWIST AND OVERHEAD PRESS
Squats are arguably the most functional exercise you can perform as it’s nigh on impossible to get through a day without doing at least a few squats. Adding an overhead press and a twist makes this exercise considerably more demanding.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your dumbbells racked on your shoulders. Push your hips back and squat down until your knees are bent to roughly 90 degrees. Stand back up and pivot to your right by lifting your left heel and turning on the ball of your foot. Simultaneously push your left arm up and overhead. Lower the weight and square your shoulders and hips. Do another repetition to the opposite side.
PLANK WITH SIDE ARM CABLE ROW
Planks are an awesome core stability exercise but adding some upper bodywork at the same time adds a nice functional twist. Facing a low pulley station, get into the plank position resting on your elbows. Reach out and grab the low pulley handle with one arm. Maintaining the plank position, pull the handle into your shoulder. Extend your arm and repeat. On completion, rest a moment and then perform another set but using the opposite arm.
Functional training is a useful and beneficial way to train, and many functional exercises help redress the imbalances caused by performing purely sagittal plane exercises. Is it the best way to work out? Probably not. No single form of exercise is perfect, but as an additional weapon in your workout arsenal, functional training offers enough benefits to warrant inclusion.