Functional Training – What is it, really?

By now, most people have heard of ‘functional’ training. A lot of people think they know what it is, while many have no idea. Today, we are going to look at what it really is and how you use this kind of training in your own fitness program.

There are a ton of different definitions of functional training, but they all basically boil to down to something like “training that prepares you for activities of daily living (ADLs).” There are some common things that we all do – moving between sitting and standing, picking things up and putting them down from the ground, waist level, or overhead, pushing, pulling. There is also a lot of variance between individuals, and that is what you should be focusing on when considering how ‘functional’ your training is.

Lets look at two people: a farmer, and an office worker. What does ‘functional’ mean to each of them? Its totally different. For the farmer, baling hay, climbing into and out of farm equipment and barns, and carrying heavy things from place to place are some key tasks to his job. He may be required to bend over thousands of times a day to pick crops or plant seeds. The office worker, on the other hand, might sit down and stand up twenty times a day, but otherwise is sedentary. What these two individuals would consider ‘functional fitness’ is completely different, because the functions they fill in society are completely different.

It is important to first look at what function you are trying to gain fitness for. If it is office work, a key exercise is squats as switching between sitting and standing is almost exactly the same movement as squatting. There are also likely muscle imbalances and weaknesses due to prolonged sitting, which may require their own set of exercises. People who don’t sit all day at work might not have any need to do those, though, so are they ‘functional’ or not? It gets complicated.

An exercise is functional for a specific individual, but to do ‘functional’ training means that you must first know what the function you’re training for is. Think of an office worker, a construction worker, a farmer, a factory worker, a truck driver, a lumberjack, a sailor. They all have wildly different demands placed on them every day, and what may prepare you to work on a ship might not be effective for undoing the damage caused by spending 8-10 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. A factory worker who lifts things high up may need to focus on overhead movement more, while a worker in a factory who does not lift things overhead would not need to do those exercises. Maybe that worker lifts things from the ground to waist level, where deadlifts from the ground would be a more useful exercise to mimic work demands. Even two workers in the same job might need different ‘functional’ exercises – a five foot tall factory worker will find themselves lifting things overhead much more often than one who is over six feet tall.

Functional fitness has become a buzzword, like ‘core training’ or ‘metabolic training/conditioning.’ It does have a place, but I think it has been thrown around too much and have become wary of anyone who promises ‘functional training programs.’ From what I have seen, most of these are not functional for anyone, let alone an individual with their own ‘function.’ They often include overly complex movements to make you feel like you’re doing something different and better, but its really just different, and often dangerous. Stuff like this:

I can’t imagine this ended well, but at least you can’t fault him for not being well dressed. Photo Credit.

Training should prepare you for daily life no matter what. In that sense, any program you start on should be ‘functional.’ The only reason to do a non-functional program would be if your athletic goals didn’t line up with the goal of living a healthy and active life. Bodybuilders, for instance, don’t do functional training. What they do really doesn’t mimic most of what they do during the day, but that isn’t their goal – the goal is to get huge muscles, functionality be damned. Competitive ultramarathon runners (who do races more than 26.2 miles) don’t concern themselves with functional fitness beyond the ability to complete the distance in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes athletic goals don’t line up with general wellness goals, and that’s fine for athletes at the top of their game, but for most of us, just being healthy and active is more than enough. Most of the exercises in a well-rounded plan should have a purpose, whether it is a ‘functional fitness’ plan or not. If you’re unsure why you’re doing an exercise, ask! If you can’t get a good answer, don’t do it. EVERY exercise, every rep, every session should have a clear, defined goal. Maybe you spend all day sitting and need to strengthen your back and core. Maybe you don’t. But if you go into without first clearly defining what the function you are trying to improve, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy on things that are not specific to you. Figure out what you need first, then work on that specifically. A ‘functional fitness’ plan that is one-size-fits-all can be just as bad as one that doesn’t even consider ‘functional fitness.’ Working with a fitness professional can help you identify and achieve goals related to being more comfortable and able in your day-to-day life by incorporating exercises specific to you and your lifestyle. If you’re not sure about whether your fitness program is helping you meet those goals, feel free to send me a message and we can talk about it one-on-one, and together come up with a plan that will prepare you for living your best life.