Functional training: the term is thrown around so much that it’s become Functional Training with a capital ‘F’ along the lines of TRX or HIIT training. It’s become associated with gimmicky-looking exercises like overhead single-leg squats on a Bosu ball – the more complicated sounding things you can throw in, the better.
But if that’s not functional training, then what is? The best answer is also the most frustrating: it depends.
This doesn’t sound like much of an answer at all, but it really does depend. It depends on what functional means to you. It depends on what, if anything, is dysfunctional and balancing your goals with correcting those dysfunctional movements.
For example, an athlete will have sports-specific goals and areas of weakness to train for, in contrast to your 9-to-5 office worker who might want to do more general training that includes correcting poor posture coming from a sedentary lifestyle. Someone who has been injured will want to strengthen and support areas of movement connected to their injuries. The list can go on and on. The bottom line is that functional training takes individual goals into account and aims to strengthen any weak points along the way.
Why Care About Functionality?
Let’s indulge the English geek in me for a second and draw up a quick definition of ‘functional’ from Google search:
1.of or having a special activity, purpose, or task.
2.designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive.
3.in operation; working.
synonyms: working, in working order, functioning, effective, usable, in service, in use
antonyms: out of order, malfunctioning
When we apply this definition to our bodies and to human movement, it basically means strengthening joints and muscles so that they are able to control a healthy range of motion in order to prevent injury. When we add considerations regarding any sports, recreational activities, or lifestyle habits into the equation, the exercises you do in the gym become functional and specific to the tasks you want your body to perform safely.
Functional joints mean more efficient joints. This translates to greater control over your movement, which will progress you further in the long run, whether it’s strength, a sport, or general wellbeing that you’re chasing after.
People who aren’t familiar with resistance training might see it as unnecessary or potentially dangerous. Allow me one last English-nerd indulgence with a metaphor. Cars are dangerous – or rather, cars can be dangerous, depending on your skill level and carefulness. And yet, their functional value outweighs their potential dangers. Our insurance is learning how to drive safely, so you take driving classes and learn the rules and the basics, just like you start off in the gym with a sound, functional program.
After that you could go on to be the racecar driver, in which case you need to pay even more attention to maintenance and skill level. In relation to exercise this could be anything that’s high intensity from CrossFit to Olympic lifting to contact sports. Or you could be the pedestrian driver who wants basic functionality, in which case you would just continue to progress from what you’ve been doing.
In any case, add to a solid strength program focusing on full-body exercises (squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and rows are a good place to start) with accessory exercises that address your weaknesses. The following are some exercises that I think most people would benefit from adding to their workouts:
- Turkish Get-Up
There’s a reason most coaches worth their salt will include this in a program, and it’s not because these are fun to do! The Turkish Get-Up includes most of the prerequisites your body should master in order to move functionally: shoulder and core stability, the ability to hip hinge and lunge, and rotational mobility. Here is a good guide to refer to before adding these into your program.
- Anything single-legged
It should be pretty obvious why single-legged exercises are functional. We spend most of our daily lives walking around single-legged. Most sports involve power movements from a single-legged position. As well as that, most injuries occur during single leg movements, so strengthening in that position will mean that your body will have better control over it.
The main thing with single-legged exercises is to know what you are focusing on. When you are doing lunges, are you looking to strengthen more of your quads or your posterior chain? When you are doing single leg deadlifts or single leg glute bridges, are you hinging your hips efficiently and feeling your glutes, not your lower back? If you’re lacking for ideas, Ben Bruno is a good resource to turn to for anything glute or lower-body related.
- Activating your scapula
Scapular control is usually the trickiest thing to learn at the gym. It’s what makes the difference between doing pull ups with your biceps and doing them properly with the lats. Locking the scapula down means that you will be working your shoulders instead of your traps during overhead presses. Good scapular movement prevents bad posture – the typical rounded shoulders and closed off chests that you see in people who sit or look down at their phones a lot.
Here is a good place to start learning more about this too often neglected part of your body. If you want a simple cue, squeeze the shoulder blades down and back with most any exercises in the gym, and make sure to add rows into your routine.
- Get out of the sagittal plane
We live in the sagittal plane, which in un-fancy terms mean any motion that is front and back. Even dedicated gym-goers move almost exclusively in this plane of motion – think your squats, lunges, rows and such. While there is nothing wrong with that, in order to maintain functional movement, you’ll want to include some frontal (sideways) and transverse (rotational) plane movements.
Again, most injuries occur during unexpected movements in directions that your body isn’t prepared for – think of the ankle sprain when you land sideways on your foot, or rotating too fast and feeling your lower back twinge. Strengthening throughout different planes of motion will mean that your body is stronger and, in turn, better prepared within these ranges. Perry Nickelston is a strong advocate of moving of the transverse plane and is a good resource to start off with.