In the last two decades, there have been countless “buzz words” that have popped up in the fitness industry. These terms or phrases are usually grounded in good intent and decent methodology, however, over time their meanings begin to fade. HIIT, Tabata, PIYO, Oxygen Deprivation, Altitude Training, Muscle Toning, Muscle Confusion, etc. are words that have flooded class descriptions over the last several years.
Most recently I’ve noticed the complete over-classification of workouts considered to be “functional training.” A giant misconception that should be debunked is that functional training can be implemented as a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. What may be considered functional for one individual may in fact be extremely detrimental to another. Therefore, before we look into exactly what constitutes functional training, keep this one truth in mind:
Functional training ultimately depends entirely on the individual’s physical needs and goals.
What Does “Functional” Training Actually Mean?
Functional training includes a series of exercises that best correlate with an individual’s everyday life/activity. This style of training should be centered around injury prevention through an emphasis on balance, mobility, full body strength and movement!
While many exercises and planes of motion can be carried over to a wide range of gym-goers, keep in mind points of emphasis will vary from one functional workout to another. For example, a rotational college athlete is going to have different functional needs than a mother who just gave birth 6 months ago. Just like a 75-year-old grandfather is going to have a different set of parameters that have the most “real world” application to him.
The question you need to answer for yourself is: what type of activities does your everyday life entail? Do you work a job that you are constantly picking up heavy material and carrying it for a distance? Conversely, do you sit for extended periods of time at your job, or on a commute? Are you in the restaurant industry where you have to balance and carry large heavy trays over your head? In your free time do you play beach volleyball, tennis or golf? Do you have a grandchild that you enjoy picking up? Or maybe you’re on the ground playing with your grandchild and the ability to steadily get up from the floor is paramount for you? Do you have a medium to large dog that needs to get lifted into your car from time to time?
The answers to these questions shouldn’t mean you should omit aspects of functional training from your programming. Instead, it should provide the groundwork for what aspects of functional training should be emphasized more than others.
Functional Training is comprised of elements such as:
- Unilateral Training versus Bilateral Training
- Varying the planes of motion in which you train
- Accessory Work (this includes the type of core and mobility work you include in programming)
Unilateral Training Methods VS. Bilateral Training
I’ve written numerous times in the past on the benefit of unilateral training in the context of metabolic output and eliminating a bilateral deficit- here though I will highlight the benefits that unilateral training serves in relation to functional training.
Just to review- unilateral training means you are training one side/limb of the body at a time (versus bilateral which would be training both limbs). The immediate advantage to this style of training, from a functional perspective, is the balance and subsequent core activation it forces you to exhibit. For any gym patron, balance should be an underlying priority with your training programs. Remember, functional training should be rooted in injury prevention. Nothing will wreak more havoc on an individual’s health (both in and out of the gym) than poor balance.
Balance training has an extremely wide spectrum of how it can benefit every type of trainee. A high level collegiate athlete (regardless of sport) needs to have balance and body control on the court/field of play to move most efficiently. Similarly, an older client also needs balance training in order to perform tasks such as confidently going up and down stairs with something in his or her hands’.
Even if you think you’ve got a good handle on your balance, it should still be a priority of yours to always maintain solid balance levels- especially as you get older. Everyday life is a series of curveballs, and having good body control and spatial awareness will protect you against an uneven sidewalk, loose step board, quick cut in a sporting event, or rogue toy on the floor. Even walking on uneven surfaces such as the beach or a wooded hike, can put someone with poor balance in a precarious situation.
Due to the importance of balance in everyday life, I feel that unilateral exercises for most individuals generally provide a more functional option. That is not to say I am against bilateral strength moves, nor am I saying they are not functional. Traditional Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Rows etc. are all extremely important movements that should be incorporated in any good exercise routine and are functional for certain populations.
The reality is though: many individuals wind up putting more strain on their body (lower back, knees and shoulders) by forcing themselves to perform traditional bilateral strength moves- under the context of ‘they’re functional.’ Or, others will completely throw functionality out the window and instead turn to isolation moves such as machine Leg Extensions and Leg Curls, because they think they ‘can’t squat’ or they ‘can’t deadlift’- which is not always true either.
Strive to find the right variation of Squats, Deadlifts and Presses for you and your goals. In other words, if traditional bilateral strength moves do not negatively impact your joints or lower back, then they can most certainly be at the center of your functional program. That being said, this doesn’t mean you should discount the functional value of unilateral strength work though.
Therefore, a blended program with both bilateral and unilateral strength work incorporated will provide the best option for some- if both training styles are right for you, this provides a great option to reap the structural and overall strength benefits of bilateral moves, as well as the balance, body control and core activation of the unilateral exercises as well. Generally with a blended style, I’d organize this type of workout into 2 unilateral strength move days and 1 bilateral strength day (or visa versa).
Best Unilateral Exercises to Train Balance
There are two options to effectively train your balance unilaterally.
- Direct Balance Work
- Indirect Balance Work
If you struggle significantly with your balance, I’d highly recommend beginning with direct balance work. This would start as simple as a Single Leg Balance Hold from the floor, working towards having the ability to bring your knee up to about hip level and hold at 90 degrees for 30-60 s. without falling and maintaining perfect posture. The progression from there would be to add in movement of the leg in the air, to increase the difficulty- in other words you’d be putting yourself in a controlled yet more unstable environment. These are fantastic options to add in as rest time between sets of traditional strength moves, or they can be inserted at the end of a warm-up series. Keep in mind, the more fatigued you are, the more challenging your balance work will become.
Some examples include:
Single Leg Balance Hold (Airex Pad)
Single Leg Balance Hold + Leg Extension (Airex Pad)
Single Leg Balance Hold + Hip Abduction (Airex Pad)
Indirect balance work would be considered moves such as a Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, Single Arm Single Leg RDL, Reverse Lunge, Step Up, Single Arm Chest Press, Single Arm Row, etc. Anytime you’re on one leg or using one arm, while simultaneously performing a strength move, you are indirectly training your balance. This is a fantastic functional option because you’re not only working the strength move and balance, but you’re also exhibiting body control and core activation to perform the repetitions. Incorporating unilateral strength work into your programming will increase your total body coordination and strength as well as greatly reduce the risk of injury.
Examples of Unilateral Strength Moves:
Rear Foot Elevated Spilt Squat
Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Single Arm Single Leg RDL
BW/DB Step Ups
Single Arm DB Chest Press
Split Stance Single Arm Cable Row
Half Kneeling Single Arm Lat Pulldown
To Be Functional, You Must Train in ALL Planes of Motion!
The plane of motion in which you train is largely determined by the type of gym you train at. If you are in a more “traditional” gym setting with lots of machines, some squat racks and dumbbells, more than likely you train almost exclusively in the sagittal plane of motion (straight up and down). The negative to this style of training is: life does not occur only in the sagittal plane. You need to incorporate both the Frontal (side to side) and Transverse (rotational) planes of motion into your training regimen in order to consider your workouts fully functional.
Failing to train in the Frontal and Transverse planes of motion will put you at an extremely high risk of sustaining a future injury. Moving quickly laterally- like you would playing pickup basketball or a backyard BBQ game, will often result in a groin pull, or at least tenderness. Twisting and lifting something up simultaneously- like putting groceries away in a high cabinet, or turning around in a vehicle to put something in the back seat- can result in an abdominal strain. Not to mention if you’re a high school/college athlete or play in an adult recreational league, you are severely exposing yourself to injury if you don’t train in all three planes of motion.
Therefore, if you want your training program to be considered fully functional, I highly recommend you train in each of these planes of motion. Understandably, the majority of your time will be spent in the sagittal plane of motion- because Squats, Deadlifts, and Press variations all occur there. It is up to you to incorporate accessory work- either in the warm-up or later in workouts- that emphasize the frontal and transverse planes of motion as well.
This is where you need to circle back to the question I asked in my open- what does your everyday life/activity entail? If you love playing golf on the weekends, then putting an emphasis on rotational work, would be highly beneficial to you. What this means is you should include 2-3 rotational moves throughout each of your workouts. Even though golf is a rotational sport and there is not much side to side movement, you should still include frontal plane exercises in order to maintain a well-balanced functional workout- even if it’s only for 1 exercise per session. This is a prime example of how you can put emphasis on a certain aspect of functional training without discarding anything.
Exercises in Transverse and Frontal Planes:
Split Stance T-Spine Slam
Rope Chop (High to Low)
Lateral Lunge (BW or w/ Resistance)
Lateral Bear Crawls
Mini-Band Lateral Walks
Mini-Band Ice Skaters
The final aspect that makes a workout ‘functional’ is the existence of proper accessory work. This includes mobility and core work that will make your total body strength significantly better and also allow you to move more efficiently in everyday life . You have a few different options how you can incorporate this accessory work into your routine.
First, you can dedicate entire days to mobility and core. For example, if you did traditional strength work Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then that would leave Tuesday and Thursday as great options for extra mobility and core work. Your second option, would be to incorporate mobility and core work daily as an extension to your warm-ups. Finally, the third option would be to integrate core and mobility work during traditional rest periods, within the workout. (This is my favorite option, because it provides for ‘active rest periods,’ where you stay moving for the entire workout. )
Why Include Mobility and Core Work in a Functional Workout?
Under the context of: functional training being centered around efficient movement and injury prevention, having proper mobility and a strong core is of paramount importance. Tight hips, tight hamstrings and a weak core are the main ingredients for a dysfunctional body. Having these components, but continuing to blindly build strength, is like building a house on a foundation made of sand. At some point, your body will break down. Who cares how much you can bench press, if you can’t get out of your vehicle without your back feeling like it’s going to seize up?
Mobilizing your hips (adductors, glutes and hip flexors) as well as your hamstrings and upper back, will make you move and feel infinitely better in every day life. These don’t have to be marathon yoga sessions, nor am I saying to cut back on your traditional strength work in lieu of stretching. Instead, find the time to incorporate mobility moves that you need the most. Having proper mobility will allow you to move more efficiently and ultimately keep you more injury-free- two of the main components of functional training.
The same is true for core work- and I’m not talking about ‘Hollywood Abs’ core work. Training your deep core muscles (from your shoulders to your glutes) will give you a rock solid foundation that can bulletproof you from injuries- particularly in your lower back. If you have a weak core, the main focus for you initially should be the concept of “bracing.” In other words, by bracing your core you are thinking of squeezing your abs down like you’re about to get punched in the stomach- this concept will activate your deep core musculature. Don’t put a premium on holding a plank or doing an ab move for 2 or 3 minutes. Instead, try for 20 seconds with absolutely the hardest ‘bracing’ you can possibly muster. Then build up from there.
Examples of Core Work & Mobility:
Swiss Ball Stir the Pot
Swiss Ball Dead Bug
1/2 Kneeling Adductor Stretch
An accessory exercise that is worth noting that should be included in any functional strength program is the Weighted Carry Progression. This is about as functional as it gets- simply pick up a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettle bells, and walk until you can’t hold them anymore. (Your goal should always be about 20 strides total) This a fantastic option for total body strength work, and depending on which variation you use could also put a tremendous emphasis on your core and shoulder stabilizers as well.
Weighted carries arguably have some of the most carry over to real life application because how often do we find ourselves having to pick up and move a piece of furniture? Or attempt to carry in every grocery from the car? As I mentioned earlier, if you are in the restaurant industry, the ability to confidently carry a heavy tray overhead with one hand is an absolutely crucial skill to possess. These are implemented best at the end of workouts, potentially within a metabolic finisher, depending on skill level.
Examples of Weighted Carries:
DB Farmers Walks
Suitcase Hold DB Farmers Walk
Single Arm Overhead Farmers Walk
Is Isolation Work Functional???
As I stated in the open, one truth regarding functional training is that it is dependent on the individual. Therefore, the inclusion of isolation moves shouldn’t necessarily be written off as completely non-functional. If other aspects of functional training are present, they can be incorporated and it will benefit the individual. For example, if you’re 85 years old, and you cannot safely perform an assisted squat, in order to maintain lower body strength levels- which at the end of the day is crucial to his/her functionality- then isolation moves would provide the best option to do so. I would still put a premium on balance, mobility and core work, however, in this scenario isolation work will be extremely beneficial.
In addition, for those solely interested in putting on muscle, traditional bodybuilding isolation work could be considered functional because aesthetics are the main goal- this is only true if full-body moves are centrally focused, and you’re also training in different planes of motion. If you look at some of the most successful bodybuilders of all time, they still hit their compound (functional) moves and worked in various planes of motion, in addition to the isolation work they performed. As long as isolation exercises are acknowledged as accessory work, then they won’t necessarily hinder the overall functionality of your workout.
Functional workouts are all the rage right now in the fitness industry- which is a good thing, because for an average gym goer, translating what you do in the gym to everyday life should be high on your ‘why I go to the gym’ list. Ultimately you should be exercising to increase your overall longevity- which could refer to your lifespan, work career, and/or an activity you enjoy.
Where I’ve gotten lost though is the over-classification of functional. Similar to isolation work, what may be considered functional for one person is most certainly not for another. Olympic Lifts, Box Jumps and Burpees would be examples of exercises that may not be right for everybody. These exercises could be considered functional for competitive athletes, military or those with a specific goal of competing in an Olympic Weight Lifting or a CrossFit competition.
However, average Janes and Joes do not need to be doing Power Cleans to Split Jerks supersetted with Box Jumps. [In that situation, I would lean towards a more functional option of a Dumbbell Push Press supersetted with a medicine ball slam. You’re getting a lot of the same basic concepts- full body explosiveness with an overhead component, however, you’re mitigating the injury risk by moving away from a complex move- such as an Olympic Lift- where any number of things could go wrong and send you to a doctor’s office]
Keep in mind, one of the first rules of functionality in the weight room is injury prevention- if the risk of injury outweighs the reward of what the move is going to provide, I have to consider it non-functional at that point. This goes for Squat, Deadlift and Press variations- if a BB Back Squat causes lumbar compression and subsequent lower back pain, then that move is not functional for you. A more functional option may be a Front Foot Elevated Split Lunge, where there is less spinal compression. Conversely, if you do not have back pain after performing a BB Back Squat, then it’s got tremendous functionality in regards to lower body strength gains.
Be aware of what is most important to you in your life outside the gym walls. Figuring out those answers, should ultimately determine the proper variation of exercises, the planes of motion and the type of accessory work to include in your own individualized functional program. You should never stray too far from the basic movement patterns. The most important thing is finding the right variation of a movement that best aligns with your goals, body type and functional needs.
While movement is generally the key to optimal health, properly programmed functional movement will allow for longevity in the areas of your life you value most!
Yours in Fitness and Health,
Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass.