If you’ve browsed for new group fitness classes to try lately, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the phrase “functional training” in a workout description. Like most health and fitness phrases, it may seem like a meaningless buzzword on first glance. But unlike marketing speak meant to confuse you and sell you the latest and greatest product, functional training actually refers to a legit type of training. In fact, it’s something every single person should be doing as part of their fitness program.
Yes, really, everyone should be doing functional training (though you may not need to shell out for a trendy workout class to do it). Here’s why.
Functional training is training that has a purpose and translates to an activity beyond your workout.
“The main word here is function. Function is purpose. So functional training is just training that has a purpose,” says Eric Salvador, a certified personal trainer at the Fhitting Room in New York City. More than that, functional training is training that’s focused on movements patterns that have a purpose.
That purpose can be related to anything from helping your body perform everyday activities better—like walking, squatting down to pick up something heavy, pushing a revolving door, or getting in and out of a chair—to preparing you to compete in a sport, like soccer, football, or tennis. A functional workout is simply one that trains you to get stronger moving in particular ways that directly translate to an activity beyond the weight room. For most people, the practical application of functional training is to make daily activities easier to perform, says Dan Henderson, co-founder of the Functional Training Institute in Australia.
Increasingly, fitness studios are focusing programming around functional movements that can help people get stronger in their everyday movement patterns. Henderson says that functional training has become more popular because “a lot of studios and gyms are making it very accessible for the consumer to try this form of training.” Some fitness studios even have “functional” built into their names, like F45 and Fhitting Room (FHIT stands for functional high-intensity training). When you add social media to the mix, it becomes something people hear more about and decide they want to try.
A functional workout typically consists of compound exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts.
Compound exercises are movements that require more than one muscle group to work together, like a squat, deadlift, lunge, or push-up. Because of that, they typically mimic everyday movement patterns—like pull, push, squat, hinge, rotation—better than isolation exercises, like a biceps curl. Think about it: How often are you simply standing in place and lifting something from waist-level with pure biceps strength? Probably rarely, if ever. Now, how often do you squat down to lift something up off the floor? Or lunge to tie your shoe? Or push a door open?
“A majority of functional training movements are multi-joint, and a functional training program should incorporate movements in multiple planes,” says Henderson. That means moving forward and backward, side to side, and incorporating rotational movements.
For this same reason, functional exercises require free weights, not machines. Machines have you moving in a very specific and rigid way, says Tara Teakle, head trainer at F45 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Which doesn’t mimic how your body actually moves IRL. “For example, think of the leg extension machine,” she says. “You’re never going to just use your quads, they’re going to work with the glutes, hamstrings, and core.” Doing a functional movement like a squat instead is much more efficient from a strength-training perspective and also allows you to train the muscles to work together seamlessly—since they’re never really operating completely alone.
That’s not to say that isolation exercises don’t ever have a purpose, says Salvador. “If a client came to me with an acute injury and I needed them to strengthen a particular muscle group, I might have them isolate that muscle group,” he explains, “but that wouldn’t be my primary area of focus.” Most people’s workouts—if you’re working out to be in shape and improve overall health—should consist mainly of compound and functional movements, with isolation exercises peppered in as needed to address a weakness or improve stability in a certain joint (like your shoulders).
Functional training improves your body’s ability to work efficiently as one unit.
By training multiple muscle groups at the same time, you are helping your body function better as a whole, says Teakle. You’re training it to be a system, and not just individual parts that work independently. “Training [different parts of your body] to work together is going to keep you safe,” Teakle says.
Part of that is because both your mind and muscles will learn how to recruit multiple muscle groups to get a job done instead of relying on just one. “Recruiting multiple muscle groups is going to prevent strain injuries that happen from using one muscle group,” says Teakle.
For example, think about the act of lifting a heavy suitcase. If you do it incorrectly and just bend over instead of squatting or deadlifting, you’re likely to use—and potentially strain—your lower-back muscles. You may even end up really hurting yourself by, say, rupturing a disc (an extreme but not unheard of result of improper lifting). But if you’ve been focusing on functional movements in your training, you’ll be way more comfortable lifting that suitcase properly: by using your entire body. You’ll squat down and deadlift it from the floor, using your glutes and legs and keeping your back flat and chest up like you’re used to doing with a weight in the gym.
It also improves coordination, balance, and body awareness, which will help you avoid unnecessary injuries.
Moving your body in a way that recruits multiple muscle groups at once requires a certain level of coordination, focus, and core strength (which is why compound movements are so good for building core strength and stability). The more you train functionally, the better you’ll become at working your entire body as one system, says Salvador, ultimately helping you improve your coordination.
Functional training also gives you an excellent kinesthetic awareness (awareness of how your body moves) and teaches you how to move safely, says Teakle.
All of these skills are pretty important in everyday life and in the gym, allowing us to move purposefully and confidently and helping us stay sturdy, strong, and safe.
Here are a few functional movements you can incorporate into your routine:
What makes an exercise functional varies a bit for each of us and our specific fitness level and goals, but fitness professionals do agree that there are a handful of basic movement patterns that everyone should be working on. (As always, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise program if you’re unsure of whether it’s safe for you.) Below are some specific exercises that will get you started working on those patterns. You can do them with just your bodyweight or a variety of free weights, like dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and more.
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms resting along the sides of your legs, palms facing in. This is the starting position.
- Bend your knees and push your hips back as you lower down into a squat.
- Drive through your heels to return to standing and squeeze your glutes at the top. That's 1 rep.
- Start in a high plank with your palms flat on the floor, hands shoulder-width apart, shoulders stacked directly above your wrists, legs extended behind you, and your core and glutes engaged.
- Bend your elbows and lower your body to the floor. Drop to your knees if needed.
- Push through the palms of your hands to straighten your arms. That's 1 rep.
- Stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips. This is the starting position.
- Take a big step (about 2 feet) out to the right. When your foot hits the floor, hinge forward at the hips, push your butt back, and bend your right knee to lower into a lunge.
- Pause for a second, and then push off your right leg to return to the starting position. That's 1 rep.
- Do all your reps on one side, then repeat with the other leg. You can also alternate legs if you prefer.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides.
- With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, push your butt back, and bend your knees slightly, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend so far over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.
- Do a row by pulling the weights up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blades for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest
- Slowly lower the weights by extending your arms toward the floor. That's 1 rep.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your arms relaxed by the front of your quads with a dumbbell in each hand. This is the starting position.
- Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees slightly as you push your butt way back and keep your back flat. Slowly lower the weight along your shins. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
- Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight and return to the starting position. Keep the weight close to your shins as you pull.
- Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. That's 1 rep.
- Stand with your feet together, holding a weight in each hand in front of your legs. This is the starting position.
- Shift your weight to your left leg and while keeping a slight bend in your left knee, raise your right leg straight behind your body, hinging at the hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and lower the weight toward the floor.
- Keep your back flat. At the bottom of the movement, your torso and right leg should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the ground. (If your hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to lift your leg as high.)
- Keeping your core tight, push through your left heel to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to the starting position. Bring your right leg back down to meet your left, but try to keep the majority of weight in your left foot.
- Pause there and squeeze your butt. That's 1 rep.
- Do all your reps on one leg, and then repeat with the other leg.
Medicine Ball Rotational Throw
- Stand with a wall to your right (a few feet away) with your feet about shoulder-width apart, holding a medicine ball in front of your body with both hands.
- Twist your torso to the left and slightly bend your left knee. Let your arms and the ball follow, so that you're essentially winding up to toss the ball at the wall.
- Twist your torso back to the right and swing your arms to the right, throwing the ball against the wall. Catch the ball again, twisting back to the left and bending your left knee again to absorb the force of the ball. That's 1 rep.
- Do all your reps on one one, and then repeat on the other side.