Functional training may seem like its on the rise in the fitness community, but it’s one of the oldest and most common types of training around. Functional training got its beginnings in the physical rehabilitation field and was created by physical therapists to improve patient recovery after injury or disability. Specific exercises were developed to help patients regain function and return to activities of daily living. From this start, functional training has been embraced by fitness professionals and morphed into predominantly weight-bearing exercises that simulate everyday movements and target core strength. Here, we explore the basics of functional training and discuss how to incorporate it into your routine.
What is the point of functional training?
Well, function. The purpose of functional fitness training is to improve your ability to perform your everyday activities. Think of it as training for the entire movement—not just a specific muscle. When you jump, you’re not just using your leg muscles. It’s a coordinated effort between your nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, and musculoskeletal systems that allows a fluid movement.
Jenelle Sullivan, PT, stresses that functional exercises shift as we pass through the stages of our life. She says that appropriate functional exercises for a teenager are very different from a 50-year-old, or an 80-year-old. A teenager doesn’t need to focus on getting up from a chair, but that may be a challenge for an older person. Also, a person with a disability will require a different functional focus versus someone who’s not challenged with a disability. At each life stage, the activities of daily living change, and so should the functional exercises.
How do I apply functional training to my life?
The key to effective functional fitness training is simulating the actual activity that you’re training to improve. There should be a focus on doing similar types of contraction (eccentric, concentric, or isometric), speed, range of motion, and level of coordination. The closer the exercise mimics the actual activity, the more effective the training. For instance, if you’re an active person who spends a lot of time on a bike, functional training would include exercises that simulate the movements and strengthen the muscles used in biking.
Although exercise machines are a popular method for strength and fitness training, most, such as a leg extension machine, tend to focus on one area of the body and don’t mirror actual activity, as well as a functional exercise. Functional training comprises the movement continuum, meaning that it involves all the systems that work together to perform an activity. If you want to become a stronger biker, you don’t just work on your quads—they’re only one component of the entire system recruited to pedal a bike.
Are there different types of functional training?
Anyone can gain physical benefits of functional training. A few specific groups reap serious rewards from both high-impact and low-impact styles of this training method.
High-Intensity Functional Training
Recently, the US military has incorporated a form of high-intensity functional training (HIFT) in soldier training. The program was designed to promote better physical preparedness in a variety of situations through intensive cardio, endurance, and strength training regime. A military report that investigated HIFT versus traditional training programs suggested that the lower volume and duration HIFT may result in less injury compared to higher volume endurance training. Although this type of training may work for very fit soldiers, that level of intensity may pose greater injury risks to the general population. So, despite the promise of HIFT, more well-designed studies need to be done to determine strong conclusions on the safety of HIFT.
Low-Intensity Functional Training
A lower intensity version of functional fitness has been increasingly used to help older individuals maintain their lifestyles and activities. A study done by exercise scientists and a physical therapist at The University of WI-La Crosse compared two groups of individuals: one that did a series of functional exercises, and a control group that just continued with their usual exercise routines. After the four-week study, the functional exercise group showed greater improvements in strength, endurance, agility, balance, and flexibility, and were better able to maintain activities of daily living.
Is functional fitness training for everyone?
As with all exercise, it’s important to check with your healthcare provider if you’re starting a new fitness program, or have medical issues that may impact your ability to exercise safely. Avoid jumping into a functional training routine at a level that puts you at risk for injury. Increase your intensity slowly, allowing time for your body to adapt to new movements.
Almost anyone can incorporate functional training into their fitness program, and working with a fitness professional is one of the best ways to ensure that your routine is safe and effective.
8 Key Points in Creating a Functional Training Program
- Determine what your functional fitness goals may be, and tailor your functional training to what type of activities your body does each day.
- Take your level of fitness and health into consideration
- The program should include a variety of exercises that train flexibility, strength, balance, coordination, power, and endurance.
- The program should be designed with careful progression and monitoring.
- The exercises should include movements on multiple planes.
- Include concentric, eccentric, and isometric muscle contractions.
- Use your body weight and equipment, such as free weights and resistance bands, instead of machines.
- The best functional exercise is doing the activity, but exercises that simulate the movement can significantly improve your performance through frequent training bouts.
Functional Training Exercises
The type of exercises you do will depend on your functional fitness goals, but here are some great exercise examples that can be included in your routine.
Functional Training Equipment
- Medicine balls
- Bodyweight training
- Resistance band or tubes
- Slide board
- Balance disks
- Suspension systems
- Foam rollers
One Leg Dumbbell Row
Stand with weights in each hand. Bend forward from your hips as you raise one leg behind you with your knee bent. Bring the weights up towards your chest as you balance on one leg. Repeat on the opposite side.
Foam Roller Fly
Lay on your back with a foam roller beneath the length of your spine. Bend your knees with your feet resting on the ground. Grasp weights in each hand and extend your arms at shoulder level with a bend in your elbows. Bring the weights up overhead and then return to start position.
Foam Roller Press
Lay on your back with a foam roller beneath the length of your spine. Grasp weights in your hands and extend your arms at shoulder level to your side with elbows bent at 90-degree angle. Raise the weights up and return to start position.
Use a mounted bar and your bodyweight. Grip the bar with palms facing away from you and at shoulder width, slowly pull your body up as far as you can and return to start.
Use a mounted bar and bodyweight. Use an underhand grip to grasp the bar and pull your body up as far as you can and return to start.
Elevated Feet Push-Up
In push-up position, place feet on a bench or block and lower to the floor for a push-up.
Use a barbell, kettlebell, or weights. While holding the weight, sit on a bench that has back support or stand with feet hips-width apart. Raise the weight to shoulder height and press it towards the sky. Lower back to shoulder height and repeat.
Place the forearms on the ground with the elbows aligned below the shoulders. Lift your body up, balancing on your forearms and toes. Engage your core, keep your body level, and hold for 30-60 seconds.
Planks with Foam Roller
Rest your elbows on the foam roller with legs straight and toes suspending the lower body. Practice maintaining your balance without allowing the foam roller to move.
Plank with Ball
Kneel facing the ball with your elbows bent and resting on top of the ball. Push your body up extending your legs behind you and on your toes. Keep your body straight as you press upward and hold.
Medicine Ball Twist
Lay on your back with a foam roller placed along the length of your spine. Bend your knees with your feet resting on the ground. Grasp a medicine ball in both hands and raise it above your chest. While keeping your arms straight, lift the ball overhead and back to center. Keeping arms straight, move to one side, then back to center, and then to the other side. Repeat the entire sequence.
- On your hands and knees with your back in a neutral position, raise one arm straight out in front of you to shoulder height. Repeat on opposite side.
- In the same position extend one leg straight out until at hip level. Repeat on opposite side.
- In the same position raise one arm up to shoulder height and extend the opposite leg straight out behind to hip level at the same time. Hold for increasing lengths of time.
- In the same position, place two half-foam rollers beneath your knees and hands and extend opposite arm and leg and hold for five seconds. Increase the duration of the hold as your balance improves.
Wall Sit with Foam Roller
Place a foam roller between your back and the wall. Slowly lower into a squat position and hold for a count of five. Return to start. Increase the duration of the squat as you become stronger.
Step Overhead Press
Place a bench in front of you that puts your hips at a 90-degree angle—or lower—when you place one foot on top of it. Hold a weight in each hand at shoulder level with your elbows bent. Step up, with one foot on top of the bench, so that both feet are on top of the bench as you raise the weights overhead. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Burpee to Broad Jump
Bend down, placing your hands on the floor, then quickly pop your legs behind you into a push-up position. As you do a push-up, pop your legs to your hands and then jump up and forward quickly.