If you’ve browsed gym schedules, chances are you’ve seen a functional training session, 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 move naturally. Think squats, presses and overhead pull-ups; these may initially seem cramped for a gym environment, but compare this to sitting down and standing up from a chair, placing something on a shelf or pulling a wheelchair and you quickly begin to see the parallels.
What’s more, functional fitness workouts can be built into your schedule anywhere, anytime, and using any device. If you prefer calisthenics (bodyweight exercises (opens in new tab)) or resistance training with some of the best adjustable dumbbells (opens in new tab) or resistance bands (opens in new tab)functional strength training can help you achieve those muscle gains and improve your cardio as well.
We spoke with Jeff Hoobler, strength and movement specialist at Wahoo Sports Science, to delve 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 holds 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 move away from bodybuilding and linear movement patterns.
“Functional training is about supporting activities outside the gym,” he said. “It’s become the new standard of what’s possible, using elastic bands, medicine balls, ropes, bells, sandbags and even tires to get your body moving through different movement patterns.”
Functional training focuses on compound exercises, a type of exercise that recruits many muscles and joints together. Take the humble meeting for example. As you perform a squat, your hip, knee and ankle joints work through flexion and extension, and your ‘working’ muscles (glutes (opens in new tab) and quads) direct the movement along with the hamstrings, calves and erector spinae (muscles that support the spine) which act as synergists or ‘support’ muscles.
And that’s before you consider your core muscles (opens in new tab) are in the game to help too!
Benefits of functional training
Hoobler told Live Science that one of the main goals 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 focuses on isolating muscles and creating hypertrophy (opens in new tab).”
“[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 not to move very well.”
Functional training can be manipulated into HIIT training (opens in new tab) (if you want to up the ante in your cardio class) or be performed as sets and reps to mimic a more traditional hypertrophy or strength training session.
Here are functional training benefits backed by science.
Builds strength, balance and endurance
According to a systematic review of nine studies in Frontiers (opens in new tab), functional training significantly improves speed, muscular strength, power, balance, and agility, and moderate evidence suggests that it may also improve muscular endurance and flexibility. Neither trial showed improvements in body composition, but this may be partly due to the role of a calorie deficit. (opens in new tab)in body recomposition.
Prevents muscle loss
Wondering how to gain muscle (opens in new tab)? This style of training is essential for preventing age-related muscle atrophy (preventing muscle wasting) and may be a preventive measure for late disability in older adults, according to the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. (opens in new tab)
Another meta-analysis of the effects of functional training on functional movement, posted on MDPI (opens in new tab), supports this. The meta-analysis found that strength training reduces the aging of neuromuscular and functional capacity and increases muscle mass, bone density and strength.
Compound exercises traditionally used in functional training can also benefit unconditioned people because they strengthen joints and muscles and improve the ability to perform everyday movements, thereby reducing the chance of strains or injuries, as discussed in the journal Ethnicity & Disease. (opens in new tab).
Functional training not only provides improvement in terms of muscle growth, but can help with some of the other key components of fitness. (opens in new tab): balance and coordination.
“With functional training, we’re looking at using a resistance that can come from different tools and with that the ability to move these devices in many different directions,” Hoobler told Live Science. “You spread the load across the entire system instead of a narrow fiber path or a 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
“In terms of loads and resistance, we’re generally talking about weights that are lighter than traditional lifting because you’re moving in multiple directions,” Hoobler advised. So don’t start your functional training session by picking up the heaviest weight available.
“Asymmetrical loading mimics a sport or activity, such as holding a fire hose. Functional training has become very popular with firefighters, police officers and military personnel, and has been mixed into what’s called ‘tactical training,’ where you train the body your to be ready for any situation is the goal.
“Functional training is also generally more cardio heavy than traditional weight lifting. You can have extended sets or compound exercises where you move in a circuit-type workout, challenging not only muscular strength and endurance, but also cardiovascular capacity.”
Free weights vs. machines and bodyweight
Functional training uses your own body weight, free weights or machines. Functional bodyweight training – also referred to as calisthenics – is a popular method due to its flexible ‘anywhere, anytime’ approach. And there are strong benefits to be had from it, too, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (opens in new tab).
In a small study of 23 healthy, moderately trained men, subjects were assigned to either bodyweight push or bench press groups. Both groups were tested in areas such as muscle thickness, one repetition max (1RM), bench press and push-up progressions before and after the study, engaging in exercise three times a week for four weeks. Both groups significantly increased their 1RM and push-up progress, however improvements in the bodyweight push-up group were significantly greater. The study concluded that calisthenics can be used to improve upper body muscle strength.
The battle between free weights and machines continues, but the benefits and drawbacks have been laid out in a roundtable posted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. (opens in new tab). Free weights generally involve more musculature for support and stabilization and can ‘easily simulate real-world lifting movements.’ They also require a greater range of motion and muscle activation patterns.
Machines come with benefits (they provide resistance in all phases of a lift, for example, and are more beginner-friendly) but tend to be encouraged less often when performing functional exercises.
It’s often best to use free weights or bodyweight 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 distribute and accept loads from multiple angles, and also makes you stronger and more resilient—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.”
Ready to try a functional workout? The best home workout equipment (opens in new tab) can kick start your foray into functional fitness and our weights at home workouts (opens in new tab)promises to improve your functional strength.
This article is not intended to provide medical advice and readers should consult their physician or health care professional before adopting any diet or treatment.