Do you have a friend who you think is fit and healthy? Who is capable of astounding displays of strength? But then they strain their back when getting out of bed or trying to open a jar of pickles! Worse yet, have you lived through that story yourself? If it is you should consider incorporating functional training into your exercise routine.

It’s easy to get buried in the avalanche of exercise terms that float around the fitness scene. Whether it’s at your local gym or researching online, the information can be overwhelming. Recently, one of the terms that have started to receive a fair amount of attention is functional training. So what exactly is functional training and how can you benefit by including it into your fitness routine? I plan to answer that question in detail here and explain how it can provide sustainable health and fitness.

What is Functional Training?

There is some confusion about what functional training is. Most of it is centred on the easy, yet incorrect association with the idea of functional strength. People who incorporate functional training into their regiment often do acquire functional strength. Functional strength, however, is a broader idea that can be applied to almost any form of utilisable strength. What sets functional training apart from targeted athletic training, is the history and application. 

Functional training prepares the body to better withstand the strains of every-day life. From walking around with a tired two-year-old in your arms to moving a sofa to a new apartment. Functional training helps to keep you performing at your best in daily life. It aims to protect your body from harm, but its usefulness as a training regimen extends far beyond that.

Physical Therapy

Functional Training has its roots in physical therapy. It can help rehabilitate injured patients and strengthen the body’s core to create a stable platform for recovery. Over time, practitioners found that the same exercises that were useful to regain strength and mobility. It's also useful in preventing injury and maintaining the fitness of everyday people. It does this by emphasising movement over muscle and unilateral movement.

Movement over Muscle

Emphasising movement over muscle is the strategy of building functional strength through the full range of motion. This approach makes the body more adaptable to diverse situations and better protected from the demands of life. Powerlifters tend to build strength in a limited range of motion. This strength is limited in utility. Functional training seeks to strengthen and maintain the body through the full range of motion. This will protect your body and keep you youthful. Functional training practitioners might not be as powerful as bodybuilders, but they will be able to apply their strength in a broader range of situations.

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Unilateral Movement

Unilateral movement is deliberately isolating a muscle movement to a single muscle group or side of the body. It’s important for functional training because this is where the most strain and damage occurs in daily life. As you’re pulling or lifting with one side of the body while the other side of the body is occupied, it’s easy to injure yourself. A recent study shows that unilateral movement strengthens both sides of the body. By focusing on both mobility and unilateral movement, functional training protects the body through the widest range of activities.

What are the Benefits of Functional Training?

You can benefit from functional training which can help to protect your body from damage. Functional training prepares you from unexpected strain or the normal debilitating effects of ageing or misuse of your body. As a culture, we are more sedentary than ever. The normal activities of life used to fulfil the role that exercise must fulfil today. If we want to keep our mobility as we age and protect our physical longevity and independence, we have to make it a priority. 

The Benefits for Everyone

As comical as it is, the thought of pulling a muscle while opening a jar of pickles isn’t just a funny joke. Sometimes it’s the most mundane activities that can introduce an injury into our lives. These injuries can make every other activity painful. Functional training can help you cut your risk of every-day injuries.

The focus on unilateral movements helps functional training practitioners concentrate on strengthening a muscle group. They do this while expanding through the entire range of motion. Consequently, functional training can help you become more flexible as your strength increases. Many forms of strength training negatively impact your flexibility. This is because they focusing on building power in a limited range of motion. This is great for building explosive power within that limited range, but it can be easy to injure yourself if you extend beyond it.

Functional training can also help to improve your posture. This can greatly improve your comfort through every challenge through the day. That small change alone can have a cumulative effect on your health. 

The Benefits for Focused Athletes

Functional training can serve as an excellent way to create a sound foundation to work toward sport-specific goals. It can do this by targeting neglected areas of your body which you might not exercise during focused training. This is true particularly for non-professionals who lack a dedicated strength coach. While focused exercises that mimic the movement you will use in your sport will help you excel in competition the most, they can also leave you weak in other areas.

Additionally, functional training can help you to improve your balance and coordination. It also helps reduce joint pain that might interfere with your training. Studies show a 30% reduction in hip pain in recovering patients from utilising this type of exercise. 

What is the History of Functional Training?

Functional training has a unique history that makes it especially suited for avoiding injury and maintaining mobility and longevity. Once you are familiar with the basic theory and practices of functional training, it’s not surprising to learn that it has its roots in physical therapy. After World War I, many veterans returned home wounded with debilitating disabilities. Some had been robbed of everyday comforts that we take for granted. For many, sitting, standing or even basic motion became painful and difficult. To help these wounded veterans regain some measure of comfort and independence, a new science began to emerge after an act of Congress. 

In 1917, shortly after declaring war on Germany, the United States Congress passed the War Risk Insurance Act. This act specified that all disabled soldiers would receive rehabilitation after returning home from duty. It was the first bill of its kind. The Army Medical Department acknowledged that rehabilitation therapy would be a fundamental part of its health care policy from then on. This was in part to care for the veterans, and in part to avoid costly disability fees that had plagued the U.S. since the civil war. This act marked the birth of rehabilitative medicine. 

Therapist uptake

The technologies developed in this period were soon applied to injured people of all backgrounds. Physical therapists, occupational therapists and other mobility specialists applied these techniques to their patient care. It wasn’t long before these therapies made their way to health-conscious people looking for a way to benefit from the restorative exercises. They discovered that functional training could improve their general health and prevent the debilitating effects of old age.

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What types of exercise are functional?

People often confuse functional exercise with exercise that has a specific purpose. All forms of exercise accomplish a goal and have a purpose. Functional training focuses on rebuilding, maintaining or enhancing the normal function of the body as you work in your day-to-day life. Functional training is built around strengthening the body to manage various tasks. These range from lifting a small amount of weight and carrying it through a range of motions. It will strengthen joints through a full range of motion and bending or stretching the body. Most functional training falls into one of two main categories: low-intensity and high-intensity training.

Low-Intensity Training

Low-intensity functional exercise is the most similar in scope to functional training origins as physical therapy. It is used primarily by seniors and by people who are recovering from injuries. They will either have limited mobility or independence in movement.

Examples of low-intensity functional exercises include one-legged lunges, standing thoracic openers, one-legged dumbbell rows, unweighted squats, side lunges and planks. Any exercise which emphasises movement through a muscle group’s entire range of motion can be used for functional training. Low-intensity versions emphasise bodyweight exercises over weighted exercises. The concentration on slow, deliberate movements over quick jerky movements is important. They create a low impact routine. This will help to preserve movement while engaging the relevant muscle groups. 

malewellness_functional_training_exercises

High-Intensity Training

High-intensity functional training exercises are used primarily by healthy people. It enables them to maximise the utility of their body during day-to-day life. They are also used by recovering patients who are nearing the end of their therapy and are looking for ways to prevent future injury. Athletes use functional training to complete their routines and strengthen weaker muscle groups missed in sport specific training. It can also help athletes prevent injury and rehabilitation.

Examples of high-intensity functional workouts include modified versions of the low-intensity exercises. They are modified by adding additional weight and increased repetitions. Additional movements include kettlebell snatches, kettlebell get-ups, stability ball exercises, battling rope waves, bear crawls and others. Natural movements are still emphasised, but movements are usually augmented with additional weight and an increased focus on maximising the full range of motion. 

What is Functional Training equipment?

In recent years, a broad range of functional training equipment has evolved to support the activity. Functional training equipment is designed to emphasise the natural movement of muscle groups through their full range of motion. You’ll see a lot of equipment used in other forms of exercise that are utilised in unique ways by advocates of functional training.

Stability and Bosu balls

Stability and Bosu balls are an important part of functional training since they are excellent for strengthening the core and stabiliser muscles. Having a weak core and stabiliser muscles is a common cause of injury in day-to-day life. Sitting, leaning, lying or kneeling on stability balls while doing other exercises activates your stabiliser muscles and strengthens your core.

Medicine balls

Medicine balls are used to simulate the awkward weight we must often manage in our daily lives. They also help to build core strength. Same-side and alternating rotational, overhead, kneeling throws and Russian twists are all functional training exercises that incorporate medicine balls.

Dumbbells and Kettlebells

The key to using dumbbells or kettlebells in functional training is focusing on the movement rather than gaining strength or power. High pulls, rows, squat and presses, snatches, sumo dead-lifts and lunge and presses are all examples of functional training utilising dumbbells and kettlebells.

malewellness_functional_training_kettlebells

Battling Ropes

What are standing and sitting hip tosses, alternating waves, swirls, jumping jacks, power slams and ski steps? They are all excellent functional training exercises done with battling ropes. There is a strong emphasis on full motion through the arms while building strength in the core.

Sleds

In functional training, sleds are used to build strength in the legs, shoulders, core and back. It is a versatile piece of equipment that produces excellent results. You can use it to mimic the mechanics of running without negatively impacting the lower body. In fact, a lot of people who might not otherwise be able to run can obtain great results. You can train in a large variety of movements. Sleds can be pushed, pulled or dragged in dynamic and fluid ways to develop power and strength.

Rowing machines

Rowing machines are used in functional training to target the lower back, core, shoulders and legs for mobility, extension and stability. Besides traditional rows and shrugs, you can focus on one-legged and one-armed variations. These types of exercise can help you obtain a fuller range of motion.

Foam Rollers

Foam rollers are cylindrical rolls of hard foam. They are used in functional training to limit a range of motion or to help elongate a motion, depending on the needs of the individual. For recovering individuals, foam rollers provide extra support to prevent re-injury during therapy.

What are the drawbacks of functional training?

Every fitness philosophy has its benefits and its drawbacks. The same is true for functional training. With its origins in physical therapy, functional training is great for making recovery more comfortable. It increases comfort while patients work through the day-to-day challenges of life. Functional training has less impact when it is applied to more specialised training goals including sports and other forms of competition.

Limitations in Sport-Specific Applications

A major critique of functional training based approaches to fitness is when it’s applied to sports-specific training goals. In sports where explosive power is desired to accomplish specific movements, a specialised training regimen targeting these functions will yield greater results. Utilising functional training in this context won’t typically harm the athlete. The time spent on a generalist approach to fitness, however, can represent an opportunity cost that could be better utilised by focusing on the relevant movements. This especially applies to movements where explosive power is optimal for maximum competitive performance.

Functional training routines focus on building strength through the full range of motion as muscle systems are elongated and extended. The requirements of sports performance often require the opposite approach, to produce power while muscles are contracting in a limited range of motion. This lets the athlete apply their power where the mechanical advantage of the body is most optimum and create explosive force. 

malewellness_functional_training_limits

Limitations in Recovery Therapy

Although functional training has proven to be useful to prevent damage and enhance mobility, research studying its benefit to recovery has had mixed results. The study suggests that although pain is usually reduced, recovery time isn’t necessarily shortened. Patients looking to use functional training to reduce their recovery time might be disappointed by the results.

Summary

Functional training is a great form of exercise for anyone looking to enhance their general health and mobility. It’s also useful for people looking to ward off potential injuries to their body caused by the stresses of daily life. If you are always looking for new exercises to work into your schedule, functional training can be a good addition. For athletes with a narrower set of performance goals, you are probably better off sticking to a targeted training program. 

Author: Manny

I am an easy going and sociable adventurer. My main hustle is helping run Australia’s number one community marketplace. I am an inflexible Yogi, functional fitness warrior and beginner boxer. I am huge Wire fan and enjoy watching well written film or TV. Woodwork is my latest passion and dream of having my own workshop or just a small toolshed! Currently listening to my favourite community radio station while making dovetail joints.

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