All aboard the function train!

What is Functional Training and why is it good for me?

by Thommy Chui, PT, MS, OCS, CSCS, TPI CGFI MP2

Simply put, functional training is a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.  While it may seem like the next in a long line of fitness industry crazes, physical therapists have long been performing functional training with their patients.

The human body is designed to move, and on any given day we may ask ours to bend, twist, lift, pull, push, squat, jump and even climb in order to perform necessary tasks at home, work or during sports. Functional training builds the strength and mobility necessary to perform these movements by mimicking the task at hand.  Consider the example of an individual having difficulty standing up from a kitchen chair.  Traditional strength training might have this person performing resisted knee extensions and leg presses to increase strength in her quadriceps musculature.  A functional training approach would have this same individual performing squats with appropriate modifications to range of motion and assistance.

Because functional exercises, like the squat, challenge not only muscular strength but also coordination, speed of movement, mobility and balance, they often produce a superior carryover effect in improving your ability to perform real-life activities.  Exercises performed on most traditional gym machines have less carryover to improving these daily tasks because they generally isolate individual muscle groups and don’t challenge the balance and mobility components which are vital to efficient movement.

Other important points regarding functional training:

  • Functional strength training should serve as a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, traditional strength training
  • “Non-functional” exercises such as those performed on gym equipment can still play an important role in addressing areas of weakness and establishing a foundation of strength, particularly in newcomers to strength training. This will help you participate in functional training activities more safely
  • To perform Functional Training, you should be strong enough to first perform the individual pieces of a movement pattern. For example, a construction worker that needs to press an object overhead from a squat position needs to be able to perform the squat and press individually and correctly before he can combine the movement
  • Proper exercise form is vital–functional training should promote good health, not create injury
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