Functional training: what is it and what are the benefits?

If you’ve flipped through the gym’s schedule, chances are you’ve seen a functional workout pop up, but what exactly is it? Well, that’s just it: a workout designed to be functional.

In this case, functional exercises help you perform daily activities and tend to use movement patterns that mimic the way you naturally move. Think squats, overhead presses, and pull-ups; these may initially seem limited to the gym environment, but compare it to sitting and standing in a chair, putting something on a shelf or pulling a cart and you start quickly to see the parallels.

Plus, functional fitness workouts can fit into your schedule anywhere, anytime, and using any equipment. Whether you prefer calisthenics (bodyweight exercises (opens in a new tab)) or increase the resistance with some of the best adjustable dumbbells (opens in a new tab) or resistance bands (opens in a new tab)functional strength training can help you achieve those muscle gains and also improve your cardio.

We spoke to Jeff Hoobler, strength and movement specialist at Wahoo Sports Science, to dive deeper into the benefits of functional training.

Jeff Hoobler

Jeff Hoobler is a cycling and strength coach with over 25 years of experience working with athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions. He holds a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Additionally, he is a MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) Therapist, Basic Training Instructor, and USAC Level 3 Cycling Coach.

What is functional training?

According to Hoobler, the term “functional training” became popular in the late ’90s as people began to get more creative and move away from weight lifting and linear movement patterns.

“Functional training is all about supporting activities outside of the gym,” he said. “It’s become the new standard of what’s possible, using resistance bands, medicine balls, ropes, kettlebells, sandbags and even tires, to move your body through various movement patterns. movement.”

Group of people using exercise balls in class

(Image credit: Getty)

Functional training focuses on compound exercises, a type of exercise that engages multiple muscles and joints together. Take the humble squat, for example. When you perform a squat, your hip, knee and ankle joints are working in flexion and extension, and your “working” muscles (glutes (opens in a new tab) and quadriceps) drive movement along the hamstrings, calves, and spinal erectors (the muscles that support your spine) which act as synergists or “support” muscles.

And that’s before you consider your core muscles (opens in a new tab) are in play to help too!

Benefits of Functional Training

Hoobler told Live Science that one of the main goals of functional training is to distribute the load throughout your body to recruit different muscles. “It’s a big difference from traditional training or strength training which focused on isolating muscles and creating hypertrophy. (opens in a new tab).”

“[With bodybuilding], you end up with overdeveloped muscles, many underdeveloped areas and very poor coordination. This type of training is not very “functional” and bodybuilders tend not to move very well.”

Functional training can be manipulated into HIIT workouts (opens in a new tab) (if you want to up the ante on your cardio class) or done as working sets and reps to mimic a more traditional hypertrophy or strength training session.

Here are the science-backed benefits of functional training.

Woman doing functional training jumping on box at gym

(Image credit: Getty)

Develops strength, balance and endurance

According to a systematic review of nine studies in Borders (opens in a new tab), functional training significantly improves speed, muscle strength, power, balance and agility, and moderate evidence suggests it may also improve muscle endurance and flexibility. No evidence showed improvement in body composition, but this could be partly due to the role of a calorie deficit (opens in a new tab)in body recomposition.

Prevents muscle loss

Wondering how to gain muscle (opens in a new tab)? According to European journal of aging and physical activity. (opens in a new tab)

Another meta-analysis of the effects of functional training on functional movement, published in MDPI (opens in a new tab), supports this. The meta-analysis found that strength training reduces aging of neuromuscular and functional abilities and increases muscle mass, bone density and strength.

Compound exercises traditionally used in functional training could also benefit deconditioned people, as they strengthen joints and muscles and improve the ability to perform daily movements, thus decreasing the risk of strains or injuries, as noted in the journal of Ethnic origin and disease (opens in a new tab).

Improves coordination

Functional training not only offers an improvement in terms of muscle growth, but it can also help with some of the other key components of fitness. (opens in a new tab): balance and coordination.

“With functional training, we’re looking at using resistance that can come from different tools and with it the ability to move those tools in many different directions,” Hoobler told Live Science. “You spread the load across the whole system rather than a narrow path of fibers or a reduced range of joint motion.

“The beauty of this is that you end up with a more resilient system that tends to move with better coordination and timing.”

How to Perform Functional Training

“When it comes to loads and resistance, we’re generally talking about lighter weights than traditional lifting because you’re moving in multiple directions,” Hoobler advised. So don’t start your functional training session by picking up the heaviest weight available.

“Asymmetric loads mimic a sport or activity, such as carrying a fire hose. Functional training has become very popular with firefighters, police and military personnel and is blended into the fold of what this is called “tactical training”, where training your body to be ready for any situation is the goal.

“Functional training is also typically more cardio-heavy than traditional weightlifting. You can have stretch sets or compound exercises where you move in a circuit-like workout, boosting not only muscle strength and endurance, but also cardiovascular capacity.

Free weights vs machines and body weight

Functional training uses your body weight, free weights or machines. Functional bodyweight training, also known as calisthenics, is a popular method due to its flexible “anywhere, anytime” approach. And there are also strength gains to be had from it, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in a new tab).

In a small study of 23 healthy, moderately trained men, subjects were assigned to push-up or bench press groups. Both groups were tested in areas such as muscle thickness, maximum repetition (1RM), bench press and push-up progressions before and after the study, training three times a week for four weeks. Both groups significantly increased their 1RM and push-up progress, but the improvements in the bodyweight push-up group were significantly greater. The study concluded that calisthenics can be used to improve upper body muscle strength.

The fight between free weights and machines continues, but the pros and cons are published in a roundtable published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (opens in a new tab). Free weights generally involve more musculature for support and stabilization and can “easily simulate real lifting movements”. They also need a greater range of motion and muscle activation patterns.

Woman doing functional training push-ups

(Image credit: Getty)

Machines have advantages (they provide resistance through all stages of a lift, for example, and are more beginner-friendly), but tend to be encouraged less often when performing functional exercises.

It’s often best to use free weights or bodyweight to power your functional exercise routines and sprinkle in isolation exercises.

“A well-thought-out functional training plan supports healthy athletic movement, helps your body distribute and accept loads from multiple angles, and also makes you stronger and more resilient – ​​all while reducing the risk of injury,” says Hoobler. “If you want to be able to move in dynamic patterns and improve your balance and coordination, functional training should be part of your game.”

Ready to try functional training? The best home workout equipment (opens in a new tab) can start your foray into functional fitness and our home weights (opens in a new tab)promises to improve your functional strength.

This article is not intended to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or health care professional before adopting any diet or treatment.

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