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What is Functional Training?

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Again with the buzzwords! What does functional training mean, and how do we do it?

Functional strength training has been all the buzz recently in the strength and conditioning world, but what does it mean and should you be doing it?

I’m gonna start and I’m gonna say it right here, squatting on a bosu ball doesn’t make it functional!!

Let’s break it down a little bit:

strength training

Strength training involves moving the body against resistance to build


Okay, easy.

Weight training and resistance training are both strength training!

Weight training generally means strength training specifically with weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells, while resistance training refers to strength training using a variety of things to provide resistance, including but not limited to gravity, exercise bands, body weight and weights.

In “traditional” strength training , we’re more likely to see individuals doing movements that isolate certain muscles or muscle groups, such as bicep curls or leg extensions, for the purposes of shaping and absolute strength development.

Functional strength training, on the other hand, refers to strength training that strengthens more specifically for movements of every day living or for a specific sport. It is for the function of the individual who is training.

So which is better? What should I be doing?

This is very dependent on you and your goals!

Do you want to build muscle mass and/or shape your body for an aesthetic competition or just your personal preference? Then heck yah a traditional strength training program is for you. 4 - 5days per week with a split program focusing on a different body part daily is going to be the better option for your goals.

But what about an athlete, who has one or two days a week of strength training, and whose main goal is strengthening for their sport? This is where functional training is the better option. Rather than spending time in their workout for an exercise that benefits one movement that may or may not be applicable to their sport, (e.g. a bicep curl, or a leg extension) we choose exercises that either mimic the skills they need or that build strength applicable to those skills. A properly designed program will use their gym time more efficiently and allow for better gains for their sport.

Let’s take this to an example:

strength training

A college aged gymnast starts strength training. Is it more beneficial for her to do a tricep extension exercise or a push up? The tricep extension will train the triceps virtually in isolation. The push up however will train the chest, triceps, shoulder and core to work together. The push up also more closely resembles and builds strength for skills such as handstands, and handsprings. So in this case, the push up is the better option.

How about a 15 year old ballerina? Do we want to do a leg extension to develop the quads or should we choose a front squat? While leg extension will no doubt help build strength and mass in the quads, here a front squat is the better option as it will help to develop not only the quads, but also works the core, and co-contraction of the glutes, calves and hamstrings. Both the multi-joint requirement of the squat, and the motion itself are more related to the needs of the ballerina and the motions they perform, so the squat is the better option.

What are functional movements?

We can break down our movements into 8 categories:

  • Squat

  • Lunge

  • Hinge

  • Horizontal push

  • Horizontal pull

  • Vertical push

  • Vertical pull

  • Carry

For functional training, our workouts should be a mix of 4-6 of these movements. A program with these kinds of exercises is shown to decrease risk of injury and improve markers of performance such as speed, jump height, and strength.

I’m saying it again: SQUATTING ON A BOSU BALL DOESNT MAKE IT FUNCTIONAL. Are there times when this may be a functional thing to do? For sure. It is necessary for everyone? Big nope.

I hope this helps you better navigate the ever booming amount of information there is available online regarding strength training. Still not sure where to start? Message me here and let's chat about a program that fits your needs and goals.


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