One of the latest buzzwords in the fitness industry used ad nauseam by personal trainers is “functional” training. Yet, when I ask what they mean by functional, I either get blank stares or some egghead pointing to the battle ropes. If you are at a commercial gym and are not surrounded by people doing curls on a bosu ball or flailing around on the battle ropes, consider yourself lucky. If you think it’s annoying when people curl in the squat rack, try having the squat rack taken by someone doing 45 lb. curls standing on a bosu ball… it’s infuriating!
FUNCTIONAL TRAINING DEFINED
So what is functional training? In different contexts it could have different definitions. If you are an athlete participating in a sport then functional training would be training that has a high rate of transfer to your sport. More commonly (since most gym goers are not training for a specific sport) it means exercises that involve training the body for activities performed in daily life.
Unless you work on the docks tying up boats all day when was the last time you had a day where that battle rope training came in handy? Or how about the bosu ball? You stand on a lot of inflated balls every day at work? I’m guessing the answer is no.
WHY HAS IT BECOME SO POPULAR?
Functional training has become popular because it is an important concept, and a recreational gym goer should be training with everyday activities in mind. It’s just that the modalities commonly associated with functional training (bosu balls, battle ropes, etc.) are not functional. If you are around the fitness industry long enough you will see fads come and go. But the truly functional and effective exercises weather each one of these storms.
WHAT IS TRUE FUNCTIONAL TRAINING?
What are some activities that almost every human does multiple times a day? You sit down, you stand up, you pick stuff up, you walk, and you climb stairs. What exercises do you think would transfer best to these activities?
I would argue that the two most functional exercises you can do are the barbell squat and deadlift. If you can squat more you will surely be able to sit down and stand up more efficiently. And if you increase your deadlift, that 40 lb bag. of flour from Costco will be much easier to grab off the floor. The grip strength gained from deadlifting will also allow you to make 2 trips to the trunk for groceries instead of 3. That sounds pretty functional to me.
ANOTHER TIP FOR FUNCTIONAL TRAINING
Sometimes we need power, sometimes we need max strength, and sometimes we need muscular endurance to perform our everyday tasks. Trying to move a heavy boulder out of the back yard is going to require maximal strength, carrying your groceries up 4 flights of stairs to your apartment requires muscular endurance, and defending yourself in a beer room brawl at the local kick-and-stab requires some power behind those punches or body slams.
To facilitate this need for different types of strength in our daily activities (on a side note, you probably shouldn’t be fighting at bars daily) you need to work out in all rep ranges. Throwing different stimuli at your body will ensure that you are ready for anything that life throws at you.
When choosing exercises for your own functional training program think logically about what is actually functional for you. Look at the biomechanics of the exercises you are doing and try to envision what daily activity it would transfer to. And keep the bosu balls out of the damn squat rack!
BY NOAH BRYANT, CSCS