Functional training workouts feature exercises that mimic everyday movements (squatting, hinging, lifting weight overhead, etc.).
Regular functional training can help you perform daily activities (such as walking, sitting, standing, reaching) safely and easily. These workouts are also highly effective and target all the body's major muscle groups.
Below, you’ll learn more about this type of training, why it’s beneficial, and how you can get the most out of every session.
An Introduction to Functional Training
In an interview with Live Science, strength and cycling coach Jeff Hoobler defined functional training as a workout focused on “supporting activities outside of the gym.”
Hoobler also explained that this type of workout became popular during the 1990s. At this time, people wanted to be more creative with their fitness routines and move away from strict bodybuilding-style training.
Types of Functional Training Exercises
Most exercises classified as functional movements involve multiple muscle groups. Here are some examples of movements you might see in a functional workout:
- Squat variations (bodyweight squats, dumbbell squats, barbell squats, kettlebell squats)
- Deadlift variations (Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell deadlifts, barbell deadlifts)
- Lunge variations (reverse lunges, walking lunges, lateral lunges)
- Plank variations (forearm plank, side plank, mountain climbers)
- Kettlebell swings
- Overhead press variations (dumbbell press, barbell press, kettlebell press, push press)
- Medicine ball throw variations (slams, rotations throws, chest pass, lateral throws)
Functional Training vs. Other Workouts
Functional training workouts differ from other types of exercise in a few different ways, including the following:
Functional training tends to focus on compound exercises (exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at once), like squats and deadlifts.
Bodybuilding workouts include compound exercises as well. However, they also emphasize isolation exercises like biceps curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises.
In some cases, too much focus on isolation work can result in muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances, in turn, can interfere with your coordination and exercise performance and increase your injury risk.
Planes of Motion
Functional training also differs from many other types of workouts because it includes exercises performed in all planes of motion.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the body moves in three different planes:
- Sagittal plane: This plane divides the body into right and left halves. Exercises like squats and lunges, in which the body moves forward and backward, are considered sagittal plane exercises.
- Frontal plane: This plane divides the body into front and back halves. Exercises like lateral lunges or lateral arm raises, in which the limbs move from side to side, are considered frontal plane exercises.
- Transverse (horizontal) plane: This plane divides the body into top and bottom halves. Rotational exercises like twisting lunges or medicine ball rotational throws fall under the transverse plane category.
Functional training provides opportunities to train in all three planes. Regularly practicing a variety of movements helps you to be more adaptable and increases your ability to perform activities of daily living safely, efficiently, and painlessly.
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Functional Training Benefits
- Increased Strength
- Better Balance
- Improved Endurance
- Reduced Risk of Muscle Loss
- Improved Coordination
- Better Joint Health
- Reduced Injury Risk
- More Efficient Workouts
- Improved Athletic Performance
- More Opportunities for Mindfulness
Benefits of Functional Training
Whether you’re new to the fitness world or have been training for years, you can benefit from including more functional training in your workout regimen. Some of the top benefits are discussed below.
Functional training is one of the best ways to build strength.
It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a functional workout with dumbbells, resistance bands, or just your body weight. You can utilize the principle of progressive overload (gradually increasing weight, number of reps, time under tension, etc.) to gain strength.
In addition to helping you build major muscle groups like the legs, chest, and back, functional training also gives you an opportunity to strengthen smaller, stabilizer muscles that might not get as much attention during other types of workouts.
You'll likely notice that your balance improves when you regularly train and strengthen your stabilizer muscles — including the core muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis.
Many functional exercises also naturally require you to practice your balance. For example, when you perform walking lunges, you have to engage your core to avoid wobbling and falling to one side.
Your muscular and cardiovascular endurance will likely get better with consistent functional training.
When you regularly train your muscles, you’ll find that over time, you can do a higher number of reps or lift heavier weights than you could at the beginning of your fitness journey. You’ll also find that you get winded less easily and that it takes longer for your heart rate to increase.
Some people assume they must do conventional cardio exercises like running or cycling to improve their heart health. That’s not actually the case, though.
Because functional movements require you to use multiple muscles at once, you’ll notice that your heart rate rises fairly soon after you start exercising.
Reduced Risk of Muscle Loss
As people age, it’s common to experience muscle loss (this is known as sarcopenia). After age 30, muscle mass decreases by about 3-8% per decade. This rate of loss also increases after age 60.
If the idea of losing 3-8% of your muscle per decade scares you, it’s time to start doing functional training. Functional training will help you strengthen your muscles, gain more muscle mass, and reduce the amount you lose as you get older.
Improved Muscle Coordination
Muscle coordination describes the way muscles work together to perform a specific movement and produce force.
Functional exercises require you to use multiple muscle groups simultaneously. When you improve your muscle coordination with functional training, you’ll likely have an easier time performing exercises correctly and safely, allowing you to get the most out of them.
Better Joint Health
The human body consists of 360 joints.
Joints connect bone to bone and prevent them from rubbing against each other (creating friction and pain).
Functional training enables you to utilize multiple joints at once. For example, squats involve the hip, knee, and ankle joints, whereas push-ups involve the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints.
When you do functional exercises regularly, your flexibility and mobility will improve. You might also notice that you experience less joint pain.
Reduced Injury Risk
Stronger muscles and joints, paired with better balance and coordination, can help you reduce your injury risk when exercising and going about your daily life.
Say you do lunge variations several times per week. These exercises strengthen your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and ankles while also challenging your balance and improving your core strength.
If you practice lunges regularly, you might be less likely to injure yourself while walking down the street or climbing the stairs.
More Efficient Workouts
Functional workouts are highly efficient. Because they allow you to target several muscle groups at once, you can complete a full-body workout in less time than it would take you to strengthen all of those muscles individually.
You can also incorporate functional training into various types of workouts. For example, you can combine functional exercises like squats and lunges into High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and circuit training workouts.
Improved Athletic Performance
Many athletes notice improvements in their sports performance when they incorporate functional training into their routines. This study published by the Turkish Journal of Sports Medicine backs up their observations.
This study observed 28 basketball players divided into a test and a control group. The results showed that the participants who completed a functional training regimen saw significant improvements in their upper and lower body strength, as well as flexibility, vertical jump height, and agility.
More Opportunities for Mindfulness
Picture yourself doing a biceps curl. Then, picture yourself doing a dumbbell squat.
Which exercise requires more attention and mindfulness?
For most people, the dumbbell squat is going to challenge them more than the biceps curl.
Functional exercises require more awareness of your body’s movements and the muscles you’re engaging. This type of training asks for much more mindfulness to help you maximize your results and avoid injury.
If you’re looking for more ways to experience the benefits of mindfulness but don’t want to sit and meditate for several minutes per day, try incorporating more functional movements into your routine. This type of training allows you to strengthen your mind and body.
How to Prepare for Functional Training
If you’ve never done functional training before but want to enjoy the benefits discussed above, check out these frequently asked questions. They’ll help you prepare for your first functional training sessions and ensure you get the most out of your workouts.
What Equipment Do I Need?
Technically, you don’t need any equipment for functional workouts. However, if you have access to dumbbells, a barbell, kettlebells, a medicine ball, or resistance bands, you can incorporate them into your training for more variety.
What Should I Wear?
Wear comfortable clothing you can easily move around in.
As for shoes, pick a lightweight pair with minimal padding and a relatively flat sole. Too much padding can throw off your balance and increase your injury risk when doing squats or deadlifts.
Should I Take Any Safety Precautions?
Start with lighter weights than you might initially think you need. When doing new-to-you exercises, it will take some time to get used to the movement—don’t make it harder by bringing a heavy weight into the mix.
Be sure to warm up before jumping into a functional workout, too. A proper warm-up further decreases your injury risk and helps you get in the right headspace for your training session.
If you’re confused about how to do an exercise, don’t guess. Seek a personal trainer or another fitness professional who can demonstrate the movement and ensure you do it properly.
It’s also always a good idea to consult your physician before starting a new workout routine.
How Much Space Do I Need?
You don’t need much space to do an effective functional training workout at home.
As long as you have room for exercises like squats and push-ups, you’re in good shape. If you have a hallway or walkway for lunges, that’s great, too.
What to Look for in Functional Training Gyms
If you want to do functional training at a gym, look for a space that offers plenty of room to move without worrying about bumping into anyone.
It’s helpful if the gym has a variety of equipment, such as kettlebells, bands, and medicine balls. However, remember that you can also make significant progress with your body weight, dumbbells, and barbells.
If you’re new to functional training, consider joining a gym that offers personal training or group training. These options allow you to learn from an expert and gain confidence before striking out on your own.
Is Functional Training Right for You?
Functional training is an excellent option for almost anyone who wants to increase their fitness, gain strength, or improve their athletic performance. However, some people might not be ready to dive straight into the functional training world.
You might need to work your way up to functional training if you fall into one of the categories listed below.
If you’re a beginner, you might find some functional training workouts intimidating or difficult to execute.
Working with an experienced trainer can help you learn how to do essential exercises like squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and pull-ups correctly. A trainer can also introduce you to different types of equipment (dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, bands, sandbags, etc.) and ensure you use them correctly.
People Recovering from Injuries
Functional training also may not be ideal for someone recovering from an injury.
Say you have a broken ankle or a sprained wrist. Certain functional exercises might not be accessible to you while you recover.
In those cases, sticking to isolation exercises or relying on machines can help you stick to a workout routine without worsening your injury.
When preparing to compete in a bodybuilding competition (or are thinking about doing so in the future), you will still include functional exercises in your routine. However, you also need to include isolation exercises to develop specific areas of the body.
If you’re in this group, your coach will help you decide what kinds of functional exercises to perform and how frequently to do them.
Functional training can help you build muscle, increase joint mobility, enhance coordination, and improve your ability to perform everyday activities safely and easily. Remember the tips and suggestions mentioned above to experience all the benefits of functional training and make your workouts more enjoyable.
More Functional Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Functional Training?
- 8 Functional Training Workouts
- Functional Training vs Cross Training
- HIIT vs Functional Training