You may have heard the term “functional training” tossed around at the gym, and you may think you’ve got a handle on it: It’s a type of athletic conditioning that uses balls, bands, kettlebells and other tools to strengthen “stabilizing muscles” that traditional strength-training exercises miss. Right?
Not exactly. Or at least, that’s not the full story.
“When people think of functional training, they think of bands, gadgets and gimmicks,” says Michael Boyle, author of Functional Training for Sports: Superior Conditioning for Today’s Athlete.
“While those are some of the tools used within the system, they are not the system itself. The simplest definition of functional training is that it’s the application of functional anatomy to training.”
In other words, it’s resistance and flexibility training that’s based on how the body works. It’s more than just a means for the fitness elite to enhance performance and reduce injury risk — it also improves the general health of the musculoskeletal system and enhances performance in everyday activities.
The methods commonly associated with functional training are secondary to the set of principles upon which it is based. These principles can be reduced to three basic rules:
Rule 1: Train movements, not muscles.
Your muscles never work in isolation in sports. Instead, many muscles cooperate to execute specific movement patterns. Your strength workouts should involve similar patterns.
Rule 2: Training should be sport-specific.
Different sports and activities emphasize different movements. The specific movements you use in functional training should simulate those you use outside the gym. If you’re a softball player, for example, you’ll want to emphasize shoulder and torso rotation along with other movements involved in throwing a ball and swinging a bat.
Rule 3: Train progressively.
Functional training is often associated with exotic — and sometimes idiotic — movements, such as performing squats while balancing on a Swiss ball. But when practiced correctly, functional training begins with basic movements designed to address major weaknesses and progresses toward more advanced, sport-specific actions. Basic modes of movement progression include:
Single plane > Multiplanar
Isometric > Dynamic
Slow > Fast
Nonresisted > Resisted
Though functional training is not defined by any particular method, there are certain training methods it frequently employs — because they work.
Single- and Alternating-Limb Movements: Traditional strength exercises such as the machine leg extension and the barbell biceps curl involve moving both legs or both arms together. But because single- and alternating-limb movements — think running — are more common in sports and everyday activities, they are also more common in functional training.
Multiplanar Movements: Most traditional strength exercises are done in the sagittal plane (forward andbackward movement), but real-world body movements are often multiplanar — including frontal (side-to-side) and transverse (rotational) planes, explains Lee Burton, PhD, ATC, CSCS, program director for athletic training at Averett University in Danville, Va. “In functional training,” Burton says, “we try to break people out of this sagittal-dominant way of training.”
Balance Elements: Unlike most sports movements and everyday activities, there is no balance requirement in traditional strength exercises (like the bench press). In contrast, functional training makes frequent use of exercises with a balance component, such as the single-leg dead lift.
Core Training: “In every movement, some parts of your body need to be stable and other parts need to be mobile,” says Burton. Many people have inadequate stability in the hips, pelvis and lower spine because they cannot properly activate important stabilizing muscles such as the deep abdominals. Functional training relies heavily on core-strengthening exercises to teach the neuromuscular system to properly activate these muscles while performing alternating-limb movements.
Variable Speed: Most people perform traditional strength exercises at the same slow speed. But sports movements often involve high-speed muscle action, so functional training incorporates high-speed exercises such as the single-leg box jump.
There is one caveat to functional training: Doing it effectively requires some specialized knowledge — and practice. Burton suggests that beginners work with trainers who have specific education, certification and experience in functional training. The more specific a trainer’s experience to your sport or special needs, the better.