To define what functional training is, sometimes it’s easier to begin describing what it is not and then go into detail about what it is.
Most people think of bodybuilding, powerlifting, and machines when they think of weight training. Does weight training make you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the Hulk? Or did you see some of the weightlifting competition at the last Olympics? Or how about the rows and rows of color-coordinated weight machines in those sassy new $19/month gyms that make it look so fun and easy?!
To be fair, bodybuilders work hard to enhance the aesthetic quality of their physique. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters are strong competitors testing their limits in a specific set of barbell exercises. These weightlifting styles are good for developing bulk and power. And if that’s what you’re after, that’s cool.
Purpose and Practicality
Functional training differs however, in that its purpose is the practical outcome of the training. While it might include some elements of bodybuilding and powerlifting, it’s far more comprehensive. It’s a program that improves performance in activities of daily living and athletic performance. In this case, it doesn’t matter if you’re a middle-aged parent, an office dweller, a retired business person, an outdoor recreational enthusiast, a triathlete, or an NFL wide receiver. Functional training is the practical solution to your purposeful goals.
Functional training is further defined by its customization for you. Perhaps the most important aspect is that everyone starts out with their own unique experiences, skills, and genetic influences. No matter what your starting point or your goals, your functional training program will get you from where you are to where you want to go taking into consideration everything that’s relevant: who you are, what you’re capable of and what you want to accomplish.
Patterns vs. Parts
Functional training focuses on multi-joint movement patterns. Develop these patterns to improve real-life activities by making them better, safer, more athletic, or more powerful. For example: a kettlebell racked lunge is a compound movement that requires harmonious cooperation from the feet, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and arms while maintaining a strong and stable torso. The applicability to real life is how it improves running and changing direction (like on a playing field), or how it improves carrying children and heavy bags of groceries with one arm while using the free arm to unlock doors.
Furthermore, most functional movements can be placed in one of three categories: locomotive, manipulative, or striking. Locomotive movements include walking, running, jumping, climbing and swimming. Manipulative movements include lifting, carrying, and throwing. Striking movements include swinging golf clubs, bats, and rackets, hammering nails, and/or wrestling for sport or with your kids. In a functional training program, we select exercises specifically to improve these types of movements. And to pile on the greatness, we include considerations to develop speed, endurance, and skills.
Simply stated, purpose and practicality are what define functional training. There should be a natural relationship between the work you’re doing with what you’re trying to accomplish.