What Is Functional Training and How Can It Benefit You?
“Functional training” ranks among the buzziest of fitness buzz phrases. And the term may seem a bit confusing — after all, isn’t all training “functional” in some way?
But functional training refers to a specific type of workout that helps to make everyday activities easier.
“Ideally, functional training conditions you to perform the actions of daily life [more effectively and efficiently],” says Jim DiGregorio, an exercise physiologist based in Norwood, NJ.
Here’s what you need to know about this type of workout.
What Is Functional Training?
In short, functional training helps you build strength, power, and mobility that translates beyond the gym. Think of it as “real world” fitness.
Functional fitness emerged from the rehabilitation of soldiers who returned from World War I with injuries that affected basic daily functions like walking, bending, sitting, and standing.
The physical therapy they received emphasized core strength and mobility, which are essential for virtually all movement.
In recent years, fitness ideology renewed its focus on function, concentrating on compound (multi-joint) movements instead of isolation (single-muscle group) exercises.
As a result, equipment has expanded from more traditional tools like medicine balls, barbells, and dumbbells to also include relatively recent innovations like slosh pipes, battle ropes, sandbags, kettlebells, and suspension trainers.
So what can you expect from a functional training workout?
Functional training focuses on movements, not muscles
Often, strength training workouts train individual muscle groups such as biceps, pecs, quads, or hamstrings.
Here’s the hangup: Human movement doesn’t usually recruit one muscle group at a time.
Functional training focuses instead on movement patterns like pushing, pulling, carrying, stepping, walking, crawling, jumping, and squatting.
Functional training expands range of motion
Strength training programs often emphasize a single plane of motion: the sagittal, which involves forward and backward movements and encompasses most classic exercises like the squat, biceps curl, and even running.
However, everyday movement occurs in three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (rotational).
An effective functional training program typically favors free weights over machines, incorporates instability work, and focuses on working muscles through full ranges of motion (no “half rep” curls or presses).
But there’s more to functional training than simply incorporating more compound movements and “non-sagittal” exercises like the lateral lunge and dumbbell reverse chop into your routine.
Functional training emphasizes unilateral movement
Unilateral (a.k.a. single-limb) training is a cornerstone of functional training.
If you’ve ever done the Bulgarian split squat, single-leg Romanian deadlift, single-arm bent-over row, or alternating shoulder press, you’ve done unilateral training.
Bilateral training, by contrast, trains two limbs simultaneously — think biceps curl, bench press, or back squat.
Not only can unilateral training help iron out muscle imbalances, but it also adds an element of instability that cultivates balance that translates to the real world — unlike using a Bosu ball or wobble board.
Most movements in everyday life are unilateral — even walking is a unilateral movement at times.
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a fitness program that incorporates functional training, check out Job 1 with Jennifer Jacobs. Job 1 features 20-minute workouts, 5 days a week that target multiple muscle groups every single day for a total-body sweat.
5 Benefits of Functional Training
Not only can functional training help you feel stronger during your workouts, but the results will carry over into your everyday movements.
Here are the biggest benefits of functional fitness workouts.
1. Improved core strength
Functional fitness workouts train your body as a unit, so you simply can’t not engage your core.
For example, if you try to do a squat to press without using your core, you’ll lift less and risk injury. Engaging your core during every exercise helps with all movement.
“Without the center of the body having the ability to maintain support of the limbs while in motion, injury and inefficiencies can occur,” explains Jacque Crockford, DHSc, an ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach and senior product manager for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
2. Better stability
When you hear the words “balance training,” you may think of exercises done on a balance board or half ball.
However, those mainly improve stability on unstable surfaces.
That can be helpful if you’re a surfer, slackliner, or sailboat racer.
But if you’re looking to enhance real-world balance and stability, you’ll be better served by keeping at least one foot on solid ground and doing unilateral movement.
Single-leg squats and lunges and single-arm pushing and pulling enhance stability and the body’s ability to move fluidly, Crockford says.
“Without stability, the joint, its surrounding musculature, and/or the joints above or below can become injured or movement compensations may develop,” she adds.
3. Boosted calorie burn
The more muscles you work at once, the greater your caloric expenditure, Crockford says.
And since you do compound movements in functional fitness workouts, expect to burn more calories compared to doing a routine of biceps curls and leg curls on a machine.
4. Enhanced movement
“Functional training can improve our mobility, overall strength, and endurance when programmed and executed correctly,” says Crockford.
“By including movements like squat, lunge, push, pull, and rotate into exercise plans — and programming these movement patterns through different planes of motion — the exerciser will enhance their overall ability to function and perform in both sport and life,” she explains.
5. Reduced risk of injury
Core strength and stability aren’t the only ways that functional fitness makes you less susceptible to injuries.
“By strengthening the body’s ability to work as a unit, the transfer of energy throughout the kinetic chain is more efficient, therefore reducing the risk of injury or movement compensations,” according to Crockford.
7 Functional Training Exercises You Should Try
These exercises will all help you sculpt head-turning muscle — but more importantly, they’ll help you become stronger and more powerful in movement patterns that go beyond the mat or weight room.
Dumbbell reverse chop
Operating in the transverse (rotational) plane of motion, this total-body move targets the core, shoulders, and quads.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a single dumbbell with both hands in front of you at arm’s length.
- Keeping your back flat and core braced, bend your knees and rotate left, lowering the dumbbell to the outside of your left knee. That’s the starting position.
- In one explosive movement, stand and rotate to the right, pivoting your left foot as you lift the weight above your right shoulder.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Do equal reps on both sides.
It’s tough to beat the push-up when it comes to building functional upper body strength.
- Start in a high plank position with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Clench your glutes and brace your core to lock your body into position.
- Keeping your elbows tucked, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor.
- Pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.
There’s a reason why the squat is known as the king of lower-body exercises. No other move engages more muscle below the waist — if you do it with perfect form.
- Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides.
- Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body (as if you were sitting in a chair) until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position.
Unilateral exercises like the step-up target one limb at a time, helping to iron out muscle imbalances while introducing an element of instability that boosts muscle engagement throughout the body. You might feel it most in your quads, but you’ll appreciate the effect it has on your glutes, calves, and core as well.
- Stand tall holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides, and place your left foot on a bench or step so that your hip, knee, and ankle are all bent 90 degrees.
- Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, push your body up with your left leg until it’s straight. (Keep your right foot elevated.)
- Pause, then lower your body back to the starting position with control. Perform equal reps on both legs.
This dynamic core exercise mimics the cross crawl pattern that we learn as kids and lose as we get older. By synchronizing the actions of opposite limbs (right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg) it can have a positive effect on neuromuscular communication, balance, coordination, and mobility.
- Start on hands and knees with your arms straight, hands below your shoulders, and your knees bent 90 degrees. Lift your knees so they hover a few inches off the floor. (Only your hands and toes should touch the ground.)
- Keeping your back flat, crawl forward and backward, moving opposite hands and feet in unison (right hand and left foot, left hand and right foot).
Bulgarian split squat
Another powerful unilateral exercise, the Bulgarian split targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but builds strength and enhances stability from head to toe.
- Stand facing away from a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides. Place the toes of your left foot on the bench behind you.
- Keeping your torso upright and core braced, lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the ground (don’t let your left knee touch it).
- Pause, then push back up to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both legs.
Single-leg foot-elevated hip raise
By engaging your glutes and opening up your hips, this exercise can help counteract the consequences of spending most of your waking hours in a chair. You’ll also feel it in your hamstrings.
- Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, your right foot on a bench (or other immovable object), and your left foot elevated.
- Squeeze your glutes and push through your right foot, raising your hips until your body forms a straight line from your right knee to your shoulders.
- Pause, then return to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both legs.