Instructional Guide and Benefits to Functional Training

Have you ever spent hours training hard at the gym, busting out the calf raises, leg presses, and bicep curls, only to find out that you’re having trouble lifting a bag above your head? Maybe the elevator in your building is broken, and you feel tired after climbing six flights of stairs. 

Difficulty performing a normal daily activity, despite regular exercises and programs, typically happens when people focus on isolation movements, or on exercises that isolate individual muscles (e.g., glutes, quads, triceps, biceps, etc.). This type of fitness training is not wrong (it is mostly done by bodybuilders trying to pump up specific muscle groups), but when it comes to everyday life, these movements or exercises won’t be much help to achieve holistic health and fitness. Why?

Our muscles and joints work together as a whole. And when they are fully functional, they help us achieve healthy living, reduce the risk of injury, and allow us to perform physical activities throughout our daily lives. 

Fitness and personal training used to be associated mostly with an athletic physique, big muscles, and low body fat. However, things have changed, and the fitness industry has recognized that beyond the benefits of training, people have different training goals. Not everyone works out to bulk up. Some athletes may need training for sports to improve speed agility or require strength training after recovering from sports injuries. Many who once had bad habits are now looking for a lifestyle change and simply want training systems that help them live healthier, more physical lives. 

Eventually, fitness professionals and professional athletes adopted the philosophy of functional fitness training – a way of training that helps the body become more injury-proof and functional for everyday life or sports performance.

What is Functional Training?

Functional training is a form of exercise or a way of training, which aims to make the body more stable, flexible, agile, stronger, and healthier. Functional training originates from physical rehabilitation where kinesiotherapists, physiotherapists, and other health experts have been using the approach to help people recover and rehabilitate after accidents, injuries, movement disorders, and diseases. 

When a person gets injured, the primary goal is full recovery and restoring the range of motion in the affected joints. That process is called recovery or rehabilitation, and a physiotherapist who leads them through it creates an exercise plan involving strength and conditioning routines that will bring them back to their original level and form of physical fitness and quality of life. 

The functional training plan is comprised of exercises that incorporate different types of functional movements – from joint stability and muscle strength to balance and flexibility. The exercise programming includes body movements that make tendons, joints, muscles, and the body in general functional again. For example, the squat is not an exercise used only in Powerlifting competitions. It has a purpose in everyday life for movements like sitting down, standing up, or picking yourself up from the ground. That might seem easy for a healthy and functional individual, but many people cannot perform a full-depth squat by fully reaching their desired depth.

Typically, functional training mimics the movements we perform every day, and it helps us improve performing those movements, so we don’t get injured in any way. For example, free-weight exercises like one-legged deadlifts or one-handed bent over row are good examples of unilateral functional exercises. If you decide to start with a functional training program, you should join a gym where the coaches or trainers understand the purposes and techniques of functional training.

Benefits of Functional Training

Some workouts promise you toned abs, while others may promise weight loss. As for functional training, it is there to improve everyday life by giving us what really matters in the long run – being able to do the things we want and love to do with ease. This may vary from one individual to another. You might want to be healthy and flexible enough to piggyback your child or grandchild or to finish an obstacle course. Thanks to functional training, you will be able to do the things you like comfortably and safely. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent benefits of functional training in our everyday lives and activities.

  • Improved flexibility

Since we all have our daily routines, it means that we go through the same movement patterns every day. This contributes to the development of certain physical weaknesses, such as stiff joints and tendons. Most of the chronic pain people experience through their life span stem from that (e.g., lower back pain). Functional training helps build flexibility, which further contributes to improved body posture.

  • Improved body posture and gait

Poor body posture leads to back pain, “weak” appearance, and walking that feels more like dragging. If you’ve been thinking of visiting a physiotherapist for that, maybe you should think about functional training. Quality walking gait and upright posture are two things that matter, and functional training can help you strengthen your core and improve body stability to keep the spine in an upright position.

  • Improved speed agility and quickness

Better agility translates into quicker movements and reaction times. Also, it is what prevents sudden falls and saves us from dangerous situations. In case of a sudden fall, an agile person is able to react before he or she hits the ground by quickly establishing balance or grabbing a nearby fence. Also, agility is one of the skills people lose first as they get older, and it is related to cognitive functioning.

  • Good endurance and aerobic capacity

In fitness-related discussions, endurance often gets overlooked or pushed aside, while the spotlight stays on stability and strength development. Unlike conditioning training, functional training is often more dynamic, attractive, and fun because it requires you to use different exercises with low or no load at all, combining them in three or more sets with the biggest number of reps. Besides endurance, you will get more functional strength that might save your lower back and knees from injuries and chronic pain.

  • Less body fat

As with any other exercise that you perform consistently, your body will begin to shed those extra pounds. Engaging in functional training will result in less body fat and gaining muscle, but that also depends on your nutrition (what, how, and when you eat).

Besides all the physical benefits, one of the most important results of proper functional training is increased confidence. You start moving and feeling better, but going to group functional training classes is an opportunity to meet new, like-minded people and socialize. The main purpose of functional training is to help improve the overall quality of one’s life, especially people who weren’t active before or the older people who are trying to add some more quality years to their lifespan. Also, more movement patterns and improved agility will allow and motivate people to engage and perform many activities that will make life more fun and fulfilling. 

What Movements Does Functional Training Involve?

An effective functional training session involves using simple exercise equipment. It focuses on key fitness elements and involves a lot of movements. As for the movements, a functional training program incorporates patterns of natural human actions, and some of those are:

  • Pulling
  • Pushing
  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Walking
  • Rotating
  • Squatting
  • Lifting

The elements that are central to every functional training program are:

  • Strength
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Power 
  • Mobility
  • Flexibility

The equipment and tools typically used in functional training don’t include complex fitness machines but basic exercise equipment. If you are just starting with functional training, it is important to have an experienced personal trainer to explain how to use each piece of equipment and its purpose. 

  • Exercise balls. Also known as physioballs or Swiss balls, exercise balls are perfect for routines designed to address muscle imbalance. 
  • Workout bands or straps. Resistance bands and suspension straps are examples of workout bands used in functional training. You can use them to perform different exercises for body parts that involve a lot of extending, pressing, and pulling. 
  • Plyometric equipment. The equipment involves objects or platforms that you jump on, off, and over (e.g., hurdles or boxes) to work out your leg and arm muscles to improve your jumping skills.
  • Free weights. Kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, and sandbags are the most common types of free weights used in functional training programs. They can be used for various functional training positions and exercises because they allow you to have a more diverse and dynamic workout.

For beginners, you can carry out a number of exercises using only your body weight. Remember that weights are not always required to perform certain training exercises.

How Can We Categorize Functional Training?

Before we engage in a functional training program, we first need to identify our level of fitness and needs so that we can adjust our exercises according to physical goals and intensity. To figure out which program is the best for us, we can group functional training exercises according to these two categories:

  1. Physical Goals

Discuss your fitness goals with a personal trainer, and they will help you design a functional training program for improving a specific body part.

  • Unilateral exercises. Unilateral exercises focus on one side of the body at a time. They can help even out the strength between the two sides since both sides of the body rarely have the same strength.
  • Core exercises. These exercises focus on training the abdominal, hip, lower back, and pelvic muscles for better stability and balance due to a stronger core.
  • Plyometrics. Plyometric exercises aim to increase strength, endurance, and speed. Also known as jump training, these are powerful aerobic exercises that require you to exert your muscles to the maximum in short periods of time. It is important that you have the fitness level and strength necessary to perform them effectively and safely because they can cause stress to the lower-extremity joints, ligaments, and tendons.

  1. Intensity

Categorized by intensity, you can choose between LIFT (Low Impact Functional Training) and HIFT (High-Intensity Functional Training).

  • LIFT. Low impact functional training exercises are performed at a lower intensity and are typically used by older or injured individuals trying to maintain or improve their lifestyle.
  • HIFT. These training programs include intense cardio, functional, and strength exercises. Just like HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), it is a powerful routine that includes a series of intense workouts with short periods of rest in between. It is different from circuit training because it has more to do with the intensity of what you are doing and less to do with what you are doing. All in all, this routine produces great results and requires less time to perform.

What Functional Training Exercises Should You Try?

There are so many functional exercises you could try, so it’s no wonder that you’re not sure which ones to include in your workout routine. For those who are starting out, we strongly recommend signing up for a gym membership. With access to a professional gym, you will have an experienced trainer by your side to show you the movements and help you create and change your routine. Functional training exercises are challenging as they are rewarding and practical.

Again, this all depends on your level of fitness and physical goals. Some of the basic exercises you should try include:

  • Strict toes to bar
  • Hanging knee raise
  • High/low boat
  • Plank
  • Wall plank
  • Dead bug
  • L-sit
  • Ball push-away
  • Jackknife
  • Single-leg jackknife
  • Hollow body rock
  • Body saw
  • Butterfly sit-up
  • Dumbbell plank drag
  • Side bend
  • Panther shoulder tap
  • Leg raise
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Half-kneeling wood chop

To plan your workout easier, knowing different functional training exercises is important. However, if you want more than just to strengthen your core and increase agility (but something specialized), it’s important to know what movements are involved there and where you should improve. Let’s take a closer look at some of the exercises you should try:

  1. Double lunge and reach

Performing this exercise overloads the hips, thighs, and buttocks. It also increases your heart rate, meaning that it’s a quite tiring exercise. To perform this exercise, you should combine both the forward and reverse lunges. For the movement to happen (reasonably) quickly, the foot should not touch the floor between lunges. Practice both the lunges before trying to combine them together. Perform 5 double lunges right, 5 double lunges left, rest for one minute, and repeat 4-5 times.

  1. Dumbbell reverse lunge and press

During this exercise, you combine two movement patterns – the lunge and overhead press. Don’t try to do lunging first and pressing second, but combine them – as you perform the lunge, use the forward momentum when coming out of the movement to drive the dumbbells above your head. To ensure that you use as many muscles as possible during this exercise, alternate legs after each press. Perform 15-20 alternating repetitions, rest for one minute, and repeat 3-4 times.

  1. Yoga squat

If you’re looking for exercises to develop overall mobility and leg strength, yoga squat is probably one of the best squatting movements to achieve that goal. The exercise has 4 parts – squat down into a deep squat (breathe out), hands down and straighten the legs (breathe in), return to a deep squat and hands up (breathe out), and stand back up tall (breathe in). Be sure to concentrate on your breathing and make sure you move as fast as your breathing allows. Perform as many repetitions as possible with proper breathing.

  1. Breakdancer push up

Take a regular push up to another level by performing the breakdancer push up. It activates everything but mostly helps increase hip mobility and improve shoulder stability. When you get the hang of it, try to increase the speed, and you’ll get some cardiovascular benefits from it. Perform as many repetitions as you can in one minute. To see how it should be performed properly, see this instructional video.

  1. Side lunge with reach

As you overload one side of the body, side lunge is an exercise that works into the buttocks and strengthens the back extensors. Also, as the legs are kept separated during the lung, you increase hip mobility. During the lunge, make sure to keep your chest high and keep your weight back on the heels (not on the toes). Perform five lunges right, five lunges left, ten lunges right, ten lunges left, five right, five left. Try to get deeper towards the floor with each rep to get added hip mobility.

Physical discomfort and work challenges are present all the time. Even if your work requires nothing but sitting at the desk for 8 hours, this could have detrimental effects on your body (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains, and other work-related musculoskeletal problems). It is often about how you do your activities or work, and not how heavy it is. Functional training trains your body to improve strength, flexibility, mobility, agility, speed, and endurance so your body can do things the right way. It improves the overall quality of your life by allowing you to work more comfortably and efficiently (lessening the risk of sudden injuries). 

When starting with your functional training, it is essential to find the right trainer to guide your through the process. At Total Fitness, you can find experienced professionals who are qualified and competent for the job. Find our training centers in Utah County (Salem and Payson areas) to talk to our trained staff about the benefits of functional training, types of programs, your current level of fitness, and how long it would take to achieve the results you want to.

Sign up for our Newsletter