If you’ve flicked through gym schedules, chances are you’ve seen a functional training session crop up, but what exactly is it? Well, it’s just that—a workout designed to be functional.
In this case, functional exercises help you perform everyday activities and tend to use movement patterns that mimic how you naturally move. Think squats, overhead presses and pulls; these might initially seem constricted to the gym environment, but compare this to sitting and standing from a chair, putting something on a shelf, or pulling a cart and you quickly begin to see the parallels.
What’s more, functional fitness workouts can be squeezed into your schedule anywhere, anytime, and using any equipment. Whether you prefer calisthenics (bodyweight exercises) or cranking up the resistance with some of the best adjustable dumbbells or resistance bands, functional strength training can help you achieve those muscle gains and improve your cardio, too.
We spoke to Jeff Hoobler, strength & movement specialist at Wahoo Sports Science, to delve deeper into the benefits of functional training.
Jeff Hoobler is a cycling and strength coach with over 25 years of experience working with athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. In addition, he is a MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, Foundations Training Instructor, and USAC Level 3 Cycling coach.
What is functional training?
According to Hoobler, the term ‘functional training’ became popular in the late 90s as people began to get more creative and steer away from bodybuilding and linear movement patterns.
"Functional training is about supporting activities outside of the gym," he said. "It has become the new standard of what is possible, using elastic bands, medicine balls, ropes, kettlebells, sandbags, and even tires, to get your body to move through diverse movement patterns."
Functional training focuses on compound exercises, a type of exercise that recruits multiple muscles and joints together. Take the humble squat, for example. As you perform a squat, your hip, knee, and ankle joints work through flexion and extension, and your ‘working’ muscles (glutes and quads) drive movement alongside the hamstrings, calves, and erector spinae (the muscles that support your spine) which act as synergists or ‘supporting’ muscles.
And that’s before you consider your core muscles are at play to help out too!
Benefits of functional training
Hoobler told Live Science that one of the main objectives of functional training is to distribute the load throughout your body to recruit different muscles. "This is a big difference from traditional training or bodybuilding that focused on isolating muscles and creating hypertrophy."
"[With bodybuilding], you end up with overdeveloped muscles, many underdeveloped areas, and very poor coordination. This type of training is not very ‘functional,’ and bodybuilders tend to not move very well."
Functional training can be manipulated into HIIT workouts (if you want to up the ante on your cardio class) or performed as working sets and reps to mimic a more traditional hypertrophy or strength training session.
Here are the science-backed benefits functional training.
Builds strength, balance, and endurance
According to a systematic review of nine studies in Frontiers, functional training significantly improves speed, muscular strength, power, balance, and agility, and moderate evidence suggests it could improve muscular endurance and flexibility too. No evidence showed improvements to body composition, but this could partly be down to the role of a calorie deficit in body recomposition.
Prevents muscle loss
Wondering how to gain muscle? This training style is crucial for muscle atrophy prevention (preventing muscle loss) associated with age and can be a preventative measure for late-life disability in older adults, according to the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity.
Another meta-analysis of the effects of functional training on functional movement, posted in MDPI, supports this. The meta-analysis found that strength training reduces neuromuscular and functional capacity aging and increases muscle mass, bone density, and strength.
The compound exercises traditionally used in a functional workout could also benefit deconditioned people, because they strengthen joints and muscles and improve the ability to perform daily movement, therefore decreasing the chance of strains or injuries, as discussed in the journal of Ethnicity & Disease.
Functional training not only offers improvement in terms of muscle growth, but it can help with some of the other key components of fitness: balance and coordination.
"With functional training, we're looking at using a resistance that can come from different tools and with it the ability to move these implements in multiple different directions," Hoobler told Live Science. "You distribute load through the entire system rather than through a narrow path of fiber or reduced joint range of motion.
"The beauty of this is that you end up with a more resilient system that tends to move with better coordination and timing."
How to perform a functional workout
"As far as the loads and resistance go, we're generally talking about weights that are lighter than traditional lifting because you are moving in multiple directions," Hoobler advised. So don’t kick off your functional training session by picking up the heaviest weight available.
"Asymmetric loads mimic a sport or activity, such as carrying a firehose. Functional training has become very popular with firefighters, police officers, and military personnel and is mixed into the fold of what's called ‘tactical training,’ where training your body to be ready for any situation is the goal.
"Functional training is also generally more cardio-heavy than traditional weightlifting. You may have extended sets or compound exercises where you move in a circuit-type workout, challenging not only muscular strength and endurance but cardiovascular capacity."
Free weights vs machines and body weight
Functional training uses your body weight, free weights, or machines. Bodyweight functional training—also referred to as calisthenics—is a popular method because of its ‘anywhere, anytime’ flexible approach. And there are strength gains to be had from it too, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
In a small study of 23 healthy, moderately trained men, subjects were assigned to bodyweight push-up or bench press groups. Both groups were tested across areas like muscle thickness, one-rep-max (1RM), bench press, and push-up progressions pre and post-study, engaging in training three times a week for four weeks. Both groups significantly increased their 1RM and push-up progression, yet the improvements in the bodyweight push-up group were significantly greater. The study concluded that calisthenics could be employed to improve upper-body muscle strength.
The fight between free weights versus machines continues to roll on, but the benefits and drawbacks are published in a roundtable posted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Free weights generally involve a larger musculature for support and stabilization and can ‘readily simulate real-world lifting movements.’ They also require a greater range of motion and muscle activation patterns.
Machines come with benefits (they provide resistance through all stages of a lift, for example, and are more beginner-friendly) but tend to be encouraged less often when performing functional exercises.
It’s often better to use free weights or body weight to power your functional exercise routines and sprinkle in isolation exercises.
"A well thought out functional training plan supports healthy athletic movement, helping your body to distribute and accept loads from multiple angles, and also makes you stronger and more resilient – while reducing the risk of injury," Hoobler said. "If you want to be able to move in dynamic patterns and improve your balance and coordination, then functional training should be part of your game."
This article is not meant to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or treatment.
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Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and resident fitness writer at Future PLC. Having trained to work with both the mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and aims to bring mental wellbeing to the forefront of fitness. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and how we can build more sustainable training methods. You’ll find her writing about the importance of habit-building, nutrition, sleep, recovery, and workouts.