What is Functional Training? Training for Athletes and For Life

By on October 19, 2020

What is Functional training? This is a term that is thrown around a lot, but which is infamously nebulous and hard to define. This partly explains the varied responses that we see to the term: with some seeing it as the future of fitness and others seeing it as a bunch of fools on wobble boards.

Spoiler: I fall firmly in the former camp.

So, what is functional training? And how do you employ the strategies in your workouts?

Functional Training: A Definition

Functional training has no single definition.

Generally though, it is agreed that functional training means training for a function. You are trying to improve “functional capacity” by ensuring you can do the things you want to do better. Or, alternatively, gaining the ability to do more things.

Functional training can be divided into two camps depending on your goals:

  • Training for specific athletic skills
  • Training to be more capable in everyday life

Let’s take a look at both.

What is Functional Training for Athletes?

Athletes can use functional training as a form of complementary preparation (conditioning) alongside their main practice. This way, they can enhance their performance in a given activity.

This involves a lot of different strategies. Common examples are:

  • Training core stability to facilitate the transfer of power via the limbs
  • Training explosiveness to develop greater speed and power
  • Training proprioception to enhance balance, coordination, and agility
  • Training range of motion to prevent injury and create more opportunities for performance
  • Focussing on “prehabilitation” to prevent injury

Of course, there is more to it than that. But this list is fairly representative of the kinds of things you’re likely to be doing.

Functional Training vs Sport-Specific Training

Juan Carlos “JC” Santana is director of the Institute of Human Performance (how cool is that name?). In his book, Functional Training, he describes “functional strength” as strength that you can use on the field.

JC is also careful to distinguish between functional training, and sport-specific training. Sport-specific training is training that adds resistance to specific sports-related skills. That might mean swinging a heavy baseball bat for example.

(Although, I would always recommend using a cable so that the resistance was coming from behind the athlete.)

Arguments against functional training often mistakenly focus on this type of practice, and therefore fall flat.

Conversely, functional training by this definition involves training that supports those skills. For a baseball player, building the obliques, serratus anterior, and rhomboids, provides the athlete with greater power and control over the muscles used in that movement pattern.

They also learn to use them in tandem: often, the emphasis is placed on neuromuscular adaptations moreso than hypertrophy.

This is the Serape effect that I described in a previous essay. The serape effect is the action of several muscle groups that gives us the ability to drive rotational power through the core – and it’s a big focus of their work.

See also: Training the Serape Effect for Maximum Power Generation

Another consideration when programming function training routines for athletes, is to avoid overtraining them. If you train an athlete too hard in the gym, this can detract from their skill practice. To an athlete, practice is the most important part of their training. If they are struggling to recover from their last workout, then they can’t do that properly.

So, lifting extremely heavy weights is not necessarily a smart move for an athlete. Chasing Deadlift PRs is more about the coach trying to prove their value and massage their ego.

Train Standing Up

JC and his team were kind enough to share with me some research they conducted looking at functional training methods for training this effect. In one study, they looked at the use of the single-arm cable press instead versus heavy bench press for developing functional pushing strength.

Of course, an athlete can deliver less force when standing rather than lying supine, so this results in significantly less hypertrophy. But the study revealed significantly more activation of the anterior deltoid, and contralateral abdominals and lats.

By using a cable, the individual is forced to brace their core against the resistance.

So by using a cable, the individual is forced to brace their core against the resistance and maintain enough stability to then exert force via the shoulders, chest, and delts. Over time, the athlete should theoretically adapt and learn to engage their anti-rotational strength, while also generating and applying the necessary power. This lets them actually use the pushing power they’ve developed in a useful manner.

This is far more applicable for an athlete swinging a bat or racket, or a wrestler attempting to avoid being thrown to the ground while also pushing the opponent back.

What is functional training?
Resistance bands can offer the same benefits

In short: what good is being able to bench press a ton of weight when lying flat on your back? In reality, we push forward while standing upright!

So, what is functional training? It is not just choosing compound movements over isolation – it means choosing movements that have crossover for real-world activities.

Single-Leg Strength, Hip Stability, and More

A lot of emphasis is likewise placed on single-leg strength and stability. An example given in the book is the single-leg stability ball bridge, used to develop hip extension. This can translate to improved performance when running.

See also: A Home Workout for Single Leg Strength and Jump Height

Developing the hip stability necessary to move powerfully off of one leg translates to greater running speed and lower incidence of injury. Athletes in many sports are required to jump off of one leg far more frequently than two, and it also comes in handy when switching direction. JC refers to the structure of the single-legged position as the “7-frame.”

Running is categorized here as locomotion – which is one of the “big four sports skills.” The complete list looks like this:

  • Locomotion
  • Level changes
  • Pushing and pulling
  • Rotation

Different coaches will of course take different approaches. But you’re likely to see similar ideas play out across functional training strategies.

I highly recommend checking out the IHP Fit YouTube. JC really knows his stuff! I’ll put a link in the description down below.

Why “The Big 3” Aren’t Enough

Thing is, if you train only with the three big lifts, you are missing out.

This does nothing to develop rotational strength or single-leg strength. Likewise, you won’t improve your mobility outside of fixed patterns. Or learn to coordinate movements in other ways. Those who claim that getting strong in the big three lifts will make them strong “everywhere” are kidding themselves. If strength gains worked like that, you would only need one lift and that would magically make your entire body stronger and more coordinated!

Functional training with cossack squat
Cossack squat

This is the law of specificity. Far from being an argument against functional training, it is a perfect argument for it.

My personal view on this is that training with both heavy lifts AND this type of functional movement can provide the maximum performance benefits. Build that strength and then learn to apply that strength.

What is Functional Training for the General Population

How does functional training apply to the general population?

If we apply the same logic, the objective is to train to support everyday activities. That doesn’t necessarily mean mimicking everyday movements precisely, though. Rather, it means developing strength, mobility, and control that can help us to perform them better.

It means being ready for anything. So that when we lift a heavy pram out of the boot while holding our baby in the other arm, we don’t do ourselves an injury. Or drop the baby.

What is functional training with kettlebells

Do you really need functional training to go about your relatively low-intensity lifestyle? What is functional training good for if you’re just an office worker?

When Functional Training Matters

Well, functional training helps me anytime I need to get up off the floor in seconds, from any position, because my daughter has run off toward the kitchen!

Functional training also benefited me recently, when I was required to carry heavy bags of cement, then heavy fence panels, from the delivery van to our house. Goblet squats and offset kettlebell farmers’ walks are anti-flexion and anti-lateral-flexion movements respectively that built my core stability so I could brace against the loads and avoid injury.

Functional training is also the perfect antidote to a mostly lethargic lifestyle. When you don’t use your body’s full range of movement, you lose mobiltiy and strength in those ranges. If your training program only works a few repetitive positions, this can lead to injury.

The Natural Method

If this sounds familiar, that’s because functional training as applied to the general populace takes a lot of cues from Georges Hébert’s Natural Method (or la méthod naturelle).

Georges spent time in the French Marines in the early 1900s but after coordinating the escape and rescue of 700+ people from disaster, he gained a renewed appreciation for the importance of athletic skill and performance. To that end, he developed a system for complete physical development, influenced by the indigenous people he observed in Africa.

He believed in being “strong to be useful” which is at the core of functional training. His ideas would go on to inspire parkour and MovNat. He’s also responsible for the military’s use of assault courses!

Georges wrote this:

“The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.

In the “virile” or energetic sense, the system consists in having sufficient energy, willpower, courage, coolness, and firmness.

In the moral sense, education, by elevating the emotions, directs or maintains the moral drive in a useful and beneficial way.

The true Natural Method, in its broadest sense, must be considered as the result of these three particular forces; it is a physical, virile and moral synthesis. It resides not only in the muscles and the breath, but above all in the “energy” which is used, the will which directs it and the feeling which guides it.”

Georges Hébert

This likewise inspired the 7 primal movements as described by physiologist Paul Check:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Bend
  • Twist
  • Gait

Actions vs Functions

In his book: The Functional Training Bible, author Guido Bruscia outlines a distinction between actions and functions. The adductor brevis might have the action of adducting the thigh, but one of its functions is to help maintain hip stability during normal walking gait.

So, to train functionally, we should focus on walking with a movement like the farmers’ walk, rather than using the hip abductor machine.

After all: when do you ever need to crush something between your thighs? Who are you, Natasha Onatopp?

Such approaches tend to favour training the body as a compound system.

Such approaches tend to favour training the body as a compound system, rather than isolating specific muscles. While there can be benefits to using isolation and single-joint movements (such as hypertrophy and targeting weak areas), we rarely move that way in real life.

Training with only isolation movements will often result in imbalances and poor intramuscular coordination.

What is Functional Training With Kettlebells?

This is why we often say things like “kettlebells are more functional.” That’s because kettlebells inherently involve more muscles working at more unpredictable angles.

In real life, there are no straight lines and few constrained, repetitive movement patterns. If you want strength that transfers to everyday tasks, you need to be adaptable. This is also why movement training and primal flows can be so beneficial.

But to be clear, this is a spectrum and it is something that is highly personal. To know what isn’t and what is functional training, you must first define your own goals.

How Bodybuilding Can be Functional

SuperFunctional Training ATSP Hierarchy

I don’t agree that bodybuilding-style-training is “non-functional.” Bodybuilding will make you stronger (though perhaps not to the same degree as powerlifting), and it will also increase your strength endurance (possibly moreso than powerlifting owing to higher rep ranges). You’re still increasing functional capacity. And if you’re a pro bodybuilder, then there is no training that is more functional for your sport!

Again, it all depends on your goals.

I actually devised my own system for choosing functional exercises based on goals. I call this the “ATSP Hierarchy.” You can read more about it in this post.

What is SuperFunctional Training?

As for my goals? My interests lie in using functional training to develop skills and abilities that I don’t necessarily need in my day-to-day life. I want to be able to planche, flip, kick, climb, lift heavy weights, and handstand. None of these are required skills for my daily life, but I want to explore the performance I’m capable of.

Because it’s fun, and because it might one day come in handy.

I can’t fully understand people who say “I don’t need to be faster or more stable.” You don’t need to be richer, or happier, or better looking either!

What is functional training - hill sprints

How is having greater physical capacity? Think about what else you could accomplish if you had more energy and more power. And that’s before we consider the benefits that physical training have on brain function, mood, or general health.

Isn’t it cool to be more like the heroes we look up to on the big screen?

Why do most people who work out at the gym focus purely on aesthetics OR trying to lift really big numbers in three key lifts?

Train for Everything

Using a program of compound lifts doesn’t make sense for the average person who isn’t planning to compete as a powerlifter. Hyperspecialization won’t undo all the damage that sitting for 10 hours a day does. It just makes you better at those lifts.

Surely it’s better to improve in as many disparate areas of performance as possible?

I don’t just want to be functional, I want to train to be SuperFunctional.

Don’t want to be strong to be useful; be strong to be awesome.

If you feel the same way, then be sure to check out my ebook and training program: SuperFunctional Training. It’s a PDF that explains how to develop body and mind in ways that most people overlook, drawing on concepts from old-time strongmen, recent research, martial arts, and countless forms of training. Check it out here.

Don’t want to be strong to be useful; be strong to be awesome.

Or, just keep reading, researching, and incorporating new ideas into your training. Think about your own goals and reasons for training, and let this guide your exercise selection. Don’t just stick with one training program and be done with it!

Do you agree? What is functional training to you? Let me know in the comments below!

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.

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