Functional Training is NOT a Waste of Time – A Defense

By on July 1, 2022

This post is a response to a video posted by the channel “Natural Hypertrophy.” I came up a few times in that video but it was actually very respectfully done and there are definitely no hard feelings! We ended up agreeing on a lot of points in the comments.

But I still felt compelled to make a response video. Primarily because this is not the only example of such a video on YouTube. There are LOTS of videos from creators writing off functional training as being pointless or disingenuous. Many of these are far less informed or respectful.

functional training

And even when someone concedes that functional training “exists,” it’s often with an asterix. That often reads something like “Functional Training does exist… seeing as everything has a function.” Argh.

Obviously, as the author of Functional Training and Beyond, I disagree. And I’d like to put forward my take on the subject.

This is that take.

A Response to Natural Hypertrophy

The video discussed the notion that “functional training” doesn’t really exist, or need to exist. The central argument was that every movement is functional – in that it has some useful function – and therefore no movement is truly functional. This is not an especially new critique but it’s certainly one worth discussing.

Another argument was that a lot of us so-called “functional coaches” actually just want to look like bodybuilders but don’t want to admit that. He calls out some coaches for saying that they got their physiques purely as a by-product of their functional training. He specifically hypothesized that people wouldn’t watch my channel if I wasn’t in good shape.

He also made the case that a lot of functional exercises have no real benefit – such as quadralateral movements. Why does someone need to crawl in real life? How is this “functional?”

Alright, let’s tackle those points.

“Every Movement is Functional”

So, if every movement has a function, how can one form of training claim to be “more” functional?

I think this is a big issue for many people: they feel attacked by functional training. The very existence of functional training seems to suggest that bodybuilding, powerlifting, distance running, or whatever other form of training you subscribe to is not functional.

See also: What is Functional Training? Training for Athletes and For Life

But, of course, the curl is functional for building big biceps. And the bench press is functional for competitive powerlifters.

And sure, those exercises are functional for bodybuilders and powerlifters. So, if they liked, they could call those movements “functional training.” That would be a bit odd, though.

Plate Curl Tempo Training

The confusion here is that the “sports” in question are actually the same as the training. So, there is really no need for “functional training” here. No one is questioning whether your curls and bench presses are useful!

These exercises are also less functional for the general population, however. And less functional for a competitive sprinter.

A competitive sprinter might benefit from exercises like the ATG split squat, the barbell hip thrust, weighted jump squats, barbell back squats, and sprint drills.

We don’t call this type of training bodybuilding, or powerlifting. So, we call it functional training. It is training for a specific function, distinct from the training itself.

See also: Functional Aesthetics: Bodybuilding X Functional Training

Curls might become useful again for an MMA fighter, as they can help with choke holds. An MMA fighter also needs a ton of cardio, good mobility, and an invincible core paying special attention to rotational strength.

This is where functional training originates and where it most applies: as training for specific athletes.

But Does it Really Help Though? Really?

Now, some people would have you believe that there is no point in performing moves like the barbell hip thrust or training single leg strength etc. seeing as “strength is strength” and

I barely want to waste time discussing this point. Obviously, the big three lifts build a lot of strength and they’re great. They do NOT translate to every possible type of performance. If it did, you wouldn’t even need all three moves, you could just use one move!

Just like training the squat alone wont improve your bench press, nor will training the three big lifts improve your rotational power. Or your endurance. Or your single leg strength. Or your mobility.

Especially after you’ve strapped on a weight belt, then arched your back or thrown on weight lifting shoes to minimize range of motion.

This is where the principle of specificity comes in, which is crucial when programming for any sport.

Powerlifting is also not optimal for a bodybuilder.

Explosiveness

I’ve also heard certain powerlifting coaches argue that there is no point in training with plyometrics (explosive movements) seeing as fast twitch fiber density is largely genetically predetermined. We can’t become “more explosive.”

I don’t know what this claim is based on. Studies show that fiber type is about 50% trainable (referencethis one puts it a bit higher). This also varies from one muscle group to the next. And it’s even possible to change how changeable this muscle is!

sled push or pull

Then there’s the fact that explosiveness is not entirely the result of fiber type. Things like technique and neural drive also play a big role (can you also recruit those fibers?). Not to mention the myotatic strength response, tendon strength…

This is why a sled push/pull using around 30% of bodyweight will improve running speed (study). Running with more than this amount of resistance, however, actually slows you down. That’s because more weight forces you to move more slowly and “grind out” the movement. Again: simply training max strength is not enough if you want all-round performance.

See also: Specificity in Training – For Better Exercise Selection

Interference

And no, training a cable punch-out will not “interfere” with your ability to swing a baseball bat. Just like learning to write the letter B doesn’t make you worse at writing the letter A.

I’ve done deep dives on all these topics, so you can seek those out on the channel if you like. Or you could look at dynamical systems theory and the degrees of freedom problem. Suffice to say, though, that the body is capable of inferring from context which movement to use.

Functional Training for the General Population

So, how does this then apply to the general population? This is where a fair bit of the controversy comes in.

Because doesn’t the average person just sit at a desk all day? Do they really need all these “functional exercises?” Can’t they just lift weights and be happy?

Actually, this is the precise reason that those people DO need functional training.

Split Squat

While you might not need great hip mobility on a day to day basis, if you ignore it for too long, it can eventually result in back or knee pain. The same goes for shoulder mobility. If you’re not training for a handstand, you’re probably fine with limited shoulder mobility.

Until you develop a permanently hunched over posture, serious neck pain, or a shoulder impingement.

And while you might not think you need more cardio or more mobility, you may find you feel more energetic and alive once you work on those things. If you’ve ever Googled “why am I always tired” then you probably could benefit from some functional training.

See also: You’re (Probably) Not Tired: You’re Lethargic

Powerlifting and bodybuilding are good options for getting fit. But, on their own, they don’t offer a complete prescription for all-round health and performance.

If you are a powerlifter right now who is extremely strong but gets out of breath climbing the stairs, or who maybe can’t touch their toes, you might consider adding some cardio and mobility to your training. This would make your training “more functional.”

Combining Modalities

And this is why, to me, the ultimate approach to functional training is simply to combine training modalities. To get a little bit of strength training in and then combine that with mobility work and cardio. The result is someone who is still strong, but also feels great and doesn’t gas out.

A functional coach might suggest that you accomplish these goals by using exercises that offer more than purely strength gains. A deeper squat for example, or a deep lunge. This way you can quickly develop strength AND mobility.

Skipping for Cardio

Do I actually use my deep squat in daily life now? Hell yeah!

Only an hour ago, I got my Tesco home delivery and they placed the crates on the floor outside my door. I got into a deep squat to pick everything up from inside the house. Then I was like “yeah… you like that??”

He looked very uncomfortable. I think it was because he saw how functional I was…

That’s all functional training is. Training that focusses a little more on what you can do outside of the gym and gym-related sports.

Deep squat
Deep squat life

Are Crawls Functional?

And this is where the crawl comes in. This is not a useful movement in and of itself, for the most part. However, it will develop a bunch of useful traits and attributes: core strength, endurance, mobility, and, most importantly in this case: coordination.

I don’t see that there should be anything controversial about that. So, why the hate on functional training?

Natural Hypertrophy made the argument that you don’t need to rope climb because you never rope climb in real life. And that sprints aren’t functional because you rarely need to sprint.

micro workouts

But this is missing the point: these exercises develop extremely useful traits that then apply to a range of activities. Sprinting is often used as a form of HIIT that improves your work capacity, endurance, and explosiveness. It is great for weight loss and performance in sports, but it also progressively overloads ambulation. And I think we can all agree that walking is pretty important.

Sprint regularly and you’ll walk well into old age. Sprint up a hill for even greater gains.

Are Pull Ups Functional?

Natural Hypertrophy also took aim at pull ups. For some reason he got it in his head that the “Functional Bros” say that this is the most functional lift. But he argues we never need to climb, or even really pull vertically. He also points out that a regular pull up is not specific to the actual way we climb – especially if you perform it with a more arched back.

Firstly: I think most functional coaches would argue some form of deadlift to be the most functional lift. So, I’m not sure where he got that from. Likewise, crawling is more a movement associated with movement training… but I digress!

See also: There’s More to Pull Ups Than You Think!

Ironically, this is Natural Hypertrophy actually thinking like a functional coach. That’s the whole point! It’s why for climbing I would recommend the tactical pull up, with fingers on top and a much more vertical motion.

Tactical Pull Up for Free Runners

He mentioned that doing a “cheat” muscle up would actually be the best option for climbing a wall. Because most kids climb walls by pushing up on one side first. But this is where he needs to think a little deeper – kids are great but they’re not always the best examples of optimal movement. Liam Ellis from Parkour Journeys showed me the actual best way to climb a wall (a parkour climb up) and the best exercises to do for it – which would be the wall dip.

The reason to program pull ups is for greater overall strength:weight ratio, and to develop a more balanced physique.

In these moments, it seems that Natural Hypertrophy is basing his opinion of functional training on a few videos he might have seen on TickTock. In other words: a few bad eggs giving functional training a bad name, as usual.

With a name like Natural Hypertrophy, he must be familiar with this. After all, the word “bodybuilding” is largely synonymous with steroid use and monstrous physiques. But again, that’s not all that bodybuilding has to offer.

“SuperFunctional”

I’m the first to admit that I don’t need to be able to climb a rope. Or sprint really fast. The average Joe just needs to be able to sit and type.

That’s why I coined the phrase “SuperFunctional.” I want to be able to do more stuff than is strictly necessary. Because it’s cool.

He called this “Larping as an Athlete.”

This is preposterous: I am larping as Batman!

Seriously, though. That’s what I’m doing. Just like some people like to look good, I like to climb good.

Learning to Climb

And while I have made this distinction, it would still be fine to call this functional training. This is the function I want. Therefore, it is functional training.

What, we’re only allowed to train for stuff we get paid for now?

If I go to a park and throw a medicine ball then do some sprints… what else am I going to call it? It’s clearly different from bodybuilding or powerlifting. It’s not calisthenics.

It’s functional training. It’s just a name that is useful for describing a certain type of training. And we all kind of understand what it means, even if there is plenty of variance within that. This is just an argument of semantics.

Would You Watch Me if I Were Out of Shape?

To the final point: do people who practice functional training secretly wish they were bodybuilders? Do we really just want to look good?

Look… I’m married! I have kids! Looking ripped doesn’t really serve much purpose beyond my business – which yes is an incentive for me to train aesthetics. But otherwise, it would be even lower on my list of priorities.

Walking

Of course, I like looking good and I do practice some bodybuilding – I make no secret of that. But aesthetics genuinely aren’t my primary concern. You might not believe me, that’s fine. But I am more interested in running, jumping, climbing, and doing cool moves.

And my audience is, too. Sure, I probably would have a smaller audience if I had no physique at all. But my ebook sells extremely well thanks to the trailer Grant made. And what does that trailer consist of? Me jumping, throwing heavy stuff, climbing, doing handsprings, sprinting… it’s like a mini action movie thanks to his awesome editing. I only do a double bicep pose right at the end and it’s on screen for a split second. The moves are what sell the product.

Tire Flip

Likewise, I’m way more likely to watch a channel with a guy who can flip than I am to watch a channel from a guy with abs. Everyone has got abs.

Also: Fun

And I also just find all this more fun. It’s dynamic, action packed, and exciting. Some recent things I’ve done while training include: sparring with grant on a hill, slacklining, climbing trees, flipping tyres, throwing medicine balls on a rugby pitch, pushing my car down a gravel track, learning to climb-up with Liam, kettlebell juggling…

I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that training should be fun. I know that this kind of thing isn’t for everyone, but I know there are plenty of you out there like me. And to those of you: I’d love to hear your favourite things about functional training in the comments below. Let’s create a definitive defence of this type of training that anyone can point to when they feel attacked!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

3 Comments

  1. Blair Chafe says:

    I don’t over think the concept of functional training. I just am trying to prepare myself for whatever I’m faced with in my life…outside of the gym! Doing bench press gets me prepared for…doing bench press. But it can help towards my broader outside the gym goals, just not in and of itself.

  2. Ajai says:

    The concept of functional training is especially useful in that it prompts you to think about areas people often neglect in their training – mobility, movement, grip, neck, bulletproofing weak points, and loaded carries, to name just a few examples. it’s completely transformed my approach to training, and I can’t imagine why anyone would hate on it.

  3. Brandon Díaz says:

    Hello Adam, first of all i would like to thank you for all of the information you have given us along all these years, you have really changed my training for the better (including my mental training).

    Also I had an idea the other day, how about a Sam Fisher training video?

    You could cover how Sam would train to not only be able to traverse the environment like a parkour athlete but also how he does it as quietly as possible while carrying all of his equipment

    Btw Sam is able to keep all of that performance being over 50 years old

    Once again thank you for everything

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