Functional training prepares you for daily activities better than other forms of strength training, so you can keep moving, stay strong longer, and do the things you love.
What is Functional Training?
In many ways, functional training deviates from the most prominent fitness trend: training for aesthetics. While there is nothing wrong with exercising to change your body's appearance, it can be limited in its application to health.
An exercise machine, for example, provides complete stability and reduces your body's work. While this isn't a bad thing per se, it's not as comprehensive or efficient as compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses.
Compound exercises require multiple muscle groups and tiny stabilizing muscles working in unison to complete the movement. Your body is built to move and uses the same patterns repeatedly.
- You hinge at the hips when you bend forward to pick something up
- You squat when you sit in a chair
- You push a child on the swings
- You pull when opening a door
- You rotate to grab something that's on your side
- You carry your suitcase throughout the airport
- You lunge when you take a knee at a sporting event
Functional training aims to prepare you for life outside the gym, prevent injury, and keep you moving longer. It achieves this by training particular movement patterns with various loads and ranges of motion.
Most exercises in the gym are equally loaded. For example, a barbell has the same weight on each side, and you probably wouldn't grab two differently weighted dumbbells. But the requirements of life are rarely perfectly balanced.
You may be carrying a child in one arm and holding groceries in the other. Or you may be carrying grocery bags of different weights.
You will need strength, endurance, and a strong core to keep you upright while traversing the distance from the car to your kitchen without the weight pulling you to one side.
You develop practical core strength by incorporating anti-rotational exercises.
These are core exercises that strengthen the muscles that keep you upright. Of course, traditional ab exercises have their uses, but preparing your core to resist movement, particularly with unequal loads, is crucial for preventing injuries.
Everyone can and should incorporate functional training exercises into their program. It's particularly beneficial for professionals in physically demanding roles, such as emergency responders, nurses, and construction workers.
But you don't have to have one of these jobs to benefit from functional training. These movements are great for any fitness goal and help with fat loss, strength, muscle gain, and injury prevention.
Many gyms offer functional training classes, and a personal trainer can help you learn these moves. So whether you're training in the gym, at home, in a park, or on the go, you can get a great workout that will improve your fitness using functional training methods.
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Functional Training Benefits
There are many benefits to approaching exercise practically and focusing on strength and physical resilience.
No matter your fitness goal, you surely want to avoid injuries and keep doing what you love for longer and functional training can help you achieve that.
Strength Through Full Range of Motion
One of the main differences between this training style and others is the emphasis on developing strength and stability through a full range of motion.
Think back to carrying groceries as an example. Unlike when you approach a perfectly loaded barbell, you'll have to bend in an awkward, unequal, and cumbersome way to grab those bags while holding your child.
Real-life movements occur in a wide range of motion that traditional training often doesn't prepare you for.
Functional training uses free weights and challenges you in the whole range of motion for that particular exercise.
Healthier Movement Patterns
Because of its emphasis on unequally-loaded compound movements throughout a full range of motion–functional training has wide-reaching impacts on the health of your movement throughout the day.
One of the best benefits of functional training is that chores and everyday activities become more manageable and safer.
Improved Coordination, Balance, and Stability
One aspect of fitness where functional training particularly excels is developing balance, coordination, and stability.
A squat in the weight machine differs from a goblet squat regarding the challenges placed on the primary muscular movers and the smaller stabilizing muscles. This leads to greater coordination and athleticism overall.
Compound movements are the best choice if your goal is to lose body fat. Compound movements burn more calories during exercise than isolation exercises, translating to more significant strength gains and aids in muscle growth.
All of which help you improve your metabolism and body composition.
Functional training decreases risk of injury and increases physical resilience.
Injuries can happen anywhere, and while some are not preventable, we know that improving your strength, balance, and coordination has been shown to prevent falls and fractures and reduce hospital stays.
Getting Started with Functional Training
Because functional training uses free weights and more advanced movement patterns, such as the squat and deadlift, you must learn to perform the exercises correctly to stay safe.
This will take time, patience, and proper instruction, like any kinetic activity.
If you can work with a personal trainer who is experienced in coaching functional movement patterns, you should take advantage.
While functional fitness is very popular, only some instructors are comfortable coaching these advanced movement patterns, so ask.
If you don't have access to a personal trainer, check out the group fitness classes at your local gym.
While you will miss out on the one-on-one instruction of a private training session, you will get education in a group fitness setting and gain familiarity with functional training exercises.
You can get a great workout in as few as 20 minutes, and it does not require heart rate tracking or fancy equipment. The most crucial requirement for functional training is the proper execution of the movements under a challenging load.
'Challenging' will be different for everyone. You can do functional training for all your workouts, but remember that rest is the key to growth.
So no matter what your training split looks like, ensure you're taking adequate rest between your sets, exercises, and training days.
Lastly, regardless of what type of strength training you're doing, you need to perform a warm-up.
A good rule of thumb to prepare for any strength workout is 5-10 minutes of easy cardio to raise your body temperature and get the blood flowing, followed by myofascial release (rolling out), dynamic stretches, or targeted movements using light resistance.
Try This Functional Training Warm-Up
5-10 minutes of walking, light jogging, rowing, or cycling
20 Rows with a light resistance band
[Repeat 2-3 rounds as needed]
Best Functional Training Workouts
Functional training prioritizes the movement patterns you use daily to develop your strength to stay healthy and injury-free for a lifetime.
Below are the critical functional movement patterns everyone should master with beginner, intermediate, and advanced options with and without equipment.
For each movement, start by learning the beginner pattern without weight. Then as you gain competence, you can progress through the variations and slowly add weight.
Remember that while there are guiding principles you follow for all exercises, everyone's form will look a little different due to the natural variations of our bodies. So take these directions and apply them how it feels best for you. Your feet may be slightly narrower or wider than described for example–and that's ok!
One of the foundational movements that humans are designed for is hinging at the hip. You probably hinge hundreds of times daily and don't even realize it. But every time you bend at the waist, and your hips shoot back–you're hinging.
While this exercise is foundational, that doesn't mean it's easy to perform with weight. So check out three options to incorporate the hinge into your program.
- Feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed out at 15 degrees.
- Soft break at the knees (never lock them).
- Hips go back, and shoulders track forward together. Imagine you're a see-saw, and your body moves together as one unit. Then imagine trying to hit the wall behind you with your butt.
- Back stays flat, don't let the weight pull your shoulders into a slouch.
- Go down until you feel a pull in your hamstrings, then stand back up.
Beginner: Glute bridge
Intermediate: Romanian deadlift with dumbbells
Advanced: Barbell deadlift
Often called the king of exercises, the squat is another basic movement pattern you should master. After all, you squat whenever you get into a chair or out of bed. It's vital, then, that you develop strength through the complete range of motion.
- Stand with feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and toes pointed out 20-30 degrees.
- Lower yourself to the ground with your chest up and your eyes forward. You can raise both arms to chest level to help with balance if you'd like.
- You want to squat to parallel, meaning your thigh bones are parallel to the ground, and if you cannot get that low, squat as low as you can comfortably. (If you're new to squatting, try squatting to a box or a chair. This will provide you with added safety and peace of mind as you build your strength).
- Drive your knees out while you stand back up.
Beginner: Bodyweight squat
Intermediate: Goblet squat
Advanced: Barbell back squat
Pushing is yet another essential movement pattern that you perform throughout your day. Shoulder injuries are one of the most common injuries as people age, so you want to gain strength and stability in your shoulders, which starts with pushing exercises.
- Start in a plank position with your hands under your shoulders. You can work from your knees or your toes.
- Squeeze your abs, glutes, and retract your shoulders.
- Slowly lower yourself with your elbows tracking at a 45-degree angle until your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
- Keep your body moving as one unit, don’t break at the waist.
- Press yourself back to the starting position and reset your form after each repetition if needed.
Bench Press Tips
- Your head, shoulders, and butt should all make firm contact with the bench. Your feet should remain flat on the floor. Start with a braced core and your shoulder blades retracted.
- Lower the weights in a slow and controlled way at a 45 to 60-degree angle.
- Lower the weights until the weights reach chest level without bouncing. Pause for 1-2 seconds.
- Push the weight back up, ending with the weights over your chin.
Intermediate: Dumbbell seated shoulder press
Advanced: Barbell bench press
Pulling exercises mirror pushing exercises, using the opposite muscle groups as the primary movers. Therefore, pulling is just as important as pushing and should be in your program.
- Maintain a braced core, retract your shoulder blades, and keep your body in a neutral position.
- Pull the weight toward your chest with your elbows at a 45-degree angle.
- Ensure your shoulders aren't jumping up to your ears throughout the movement.
- Lower the weight slowly back to your starting position.
Beginner: TRX row
Intermediate: Single-arm dumbbell row
Being able to twist at the waist without injuring yourself is essential in many sports and everyday life. Strength in only a few planes of motion does not translate to strength and resilience in life. Therefore you must train strength in rotation.
Beginner: Thoracic rotation
Intermediate: Partner ball pass
Advanced: Standing woodchopper
Lunging is the third functional movement pattern that primarily focuses on your legs but is an excellent workout for your core too. Check out a few of the numerous lunge variations you can try.
- Imagine your feet on train tracks, not a tightrope, when performing a lunge.
- Take a big step forward (or backward) and lower your body slowly to the ground while keeping your body completely upright.
- Do not drop your knee to the ground; instead, lower yourself a few inches above, then push straight up to return to your starting position.
Beginner: Forward lunge
Intermediate: Weighted side lunge
Advanced: Overhead lunge with dumbbell
The last functional movement to add to your program is the carry. This movement has many variations, all challenging your anti-rotational strength and stability.
More than the others, this move directly translates into real-life strength and function. Just wait to see how many grocery bags you can carry in one trip after training these.
- Start with lighter weight until you master your form.
- The main task you perform during any carry is to resist movement.
- Stand up tall, walk slowly, and resist letting the weight pull you out of that position.
Beginner: Farmer's carry
Intermediate: Suitcase carry
Advanced: Waiter's carry
Functional training is an excellent training modality that benefits almost everyone. Those benefits include injury prevention, improved movement patterns, and fat loss.
However, if you're new to functional training exercises like the hinge, squat, push, pull, rotation, lunge, or carry–work with a coaching professional who can help you learn the proper form so you can stay safe and keep moving.
If you’re interested in a personal training app where you can get one-on-one personalized coaching from anywhere, you can try Future for free.
More Functional Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Functional Training?
- Functional Training vs Cross Training
- HIIT vs Functional Training
- Functional Training Benefits
Precision Nutrition. All About Strength Training.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Injury rates from walking, gardening, weightlifting, outdoor bicycling, and aerobics.
The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community.