Is Functional Training Right for You?

Functional training is a very popular term in the fitness community and with the general public these days. Although fitness professionals and enthusiasts are teaching and using the concepts, many in the mainstream population are not that familiar with the potential benefits and actual improvements these training methods could bring to their daily lives.

What is Functional Training?

Functional training has its origins in rehabilitation. Physical therapists developed exercises that mimicked what patients did at home or work in order to return them to their lives or jobs after an injury or surgery. I have come across many definitions of functional training, both in strict literal terms and loose interpretations. As you do your research, I suspect you’ll encounter the same.

Functional training has actually evolved from, and now seems to encompass, some of the terms and benefits of core training. I like the following definition of functional training: A range of total body activities that build strength, balance and coordination for general fitness, and also improves your ability to easily perform day-to-day movements or activities. 

What Are the Benefits of Functional Training?

As with most fitness programs, functional training may be performed using various levels of difficulty and intensity. Although the average person can use it as a tool to help with every day activities, elite athletes and their trainers are using it to gain a competitive edge on the field of play.

To begin to understand functional training and its benefits, we must take a look at how it differs from traditional training methods we have used in the past.

  1. Functional training engages large groups of muscles and multiple joints; not just a single muscle or small group of closely related muscles.
  2. Functional training involves unrestricted, user-defined motion against resistance, which activates the neuromuscular system in ways that increase your balance and coordination.
  3. Finally, many of the exercises involve the core muscles of the body, which when trained properly, provide the strong foundation you need to live a healthy active life, perform activities you enjoy, or compete in your favorite sport.

In functional training, it is as critical to train the specific movement as it is to train the muscles involved in the movement. The brain, which controls the muscular movement, thinks in terms of whole motions, not individual muscles. Exercises that isolate joints and muscles are training muscles, not movements, which results in less functional improvement.

For example, a “non-functional,” single-joint exercise can play a critical role in helping to strengthen a weak link (weaker muscle) that a person may have, in order to restore proper muscle balance. Doing such an exercise can allow an individual to more effectively participate in functional training activities, while also reducing the risk of injury. For strength exercises to effectively translate to other daily movements (example, getting up from a chair), several components of the training movement need to be similar to the actual performance movement. This includes coordination, types of muscle contractions, speed of movement and range of motion.

There is also the “multiple planes of motion” theory many experts adhere to. Although this subject can get complicated in a hurry, it is quite simple in its premise. As we stated above, functional training is a user-defined movement which is not restricted by a predetermined path set by a machine. Therefore, the person working out determines the angles and planes on which to perform that movement. Moving forward and backward is one plane while side to side is another. Experts feel that a person gets maximum advantage through exercises that involve multiple planes of motion.

Is Functional Training for You?

We have all seen the warnings “to consult your physician before undertaking an exercise routine,” or something similar, posted in owner’s manuals of exercise equipment purchased. That’s always sound advice, but I would also advise you to consult a fitness professional if and when you decide to try functional training. User-defined and multiple plane training can open the door to injury if performed without some basic knowledge and direction.

In final analysis, it must be remembered that functional training, when properly applied, can provide exercise variety and additional training benefits that more directly transfer to improvements in real life activities. However, in my opinion, functional training should serve as a supplement to traditional strength training, not as a replacement.

Have you had success with functional training? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

Sources

  • Functional Training For Sports, Michael Boyle, Copyright 2004
  • Wikipedia
  • www.acefitness.org