If you’ve flipped through gym schedules, you’ve probably seen a functional training session crop up, but what exactly is it? Well, it’s just that: a workout designed to be functional.
In this case, functional exercises help you do everyday activities and tend to use movement patterns that mimic your natural way of moving. think squats, overhead presses, and pulldowns; These may initially seem restricted to the gym environment, but compare this to sitting in and out of a chair, putting something on a shelf, or pulling a cart and you’ll quickly start to see the parallels.
Plus, functional fitness workouts can be included in your schedule anywhere, anytime, and with any equipment. If you prefer calisthenics (bodyweight exercises (opens in a new tab)) or increasing 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 improve your cardio as well.
We spoke with Jeff Hoobler, a strength and movement specialist at Wahoo Sports Science, to delve into the benefits of functional training.
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 has a bachelor’s degree in Sport Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Additionally, he is a MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) Therapist, Fundamentals Training Instructor, and USAC Level 3 Cycling Coach.
What is functional entreitenement?
According to Hoobler, the term “functional training” became popular in the late 1990s when people started to get more creative and moved away from bodybuilding and linear movement patterns.
“Functional training is about supportive activities outside of the gym,” he said. “It has become the new standard of what is possible, using elastic bands, medicine balls, ropes, kettlebells, sandbags, and even tires, to make your body move through various movement patterns.”
Functional training focuses on compound exercises, a type of exercise that engages multiple muscles and joints at once. Take the humble squat, for example. As you squat, your hip, knee, and ankle joints work through flexion and extension, and the “working” muscles (glutes (opens in a new tab) and quadriceps) drive the movement along with the hamstrings, calves and erector spinae (the muscles that support the 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 WordsSideKick.com that one of the main goals of functional training is to distribute the load throughout the body to recruit different muscles. “This is a huge difference from traditional training or bodybuilding that 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 in your cardio class) or perform them as work sets and reps to mimic a more traditional hypertrophy or strength training session.
These are the benefits of functional training backed by science.
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, muscular strength, power, balance, and agility, and moderate evidence suggests that it might also improve muscular endurance and flexibility. No evidence showed improvements in body composition, but this could be due in part to the role of a calorie deficit. (opens in a new tab)in body reconstruction.
Prevents loss of muscle mass
I wonder how to gain muscle (opens in a new tab)? This style of training is crucial for the prevention of muscle atrophy (avoid loss of muscle mass) associated with age and may be a preventive measure for disability in old age in older adults, according to the European journal on aging and physical activity. (opens in a new tab)
Another meta-analysis of the effects of functional training on functional movement, published in IPDM (opens in a new tab), support this. The meta-analysis found that resistance training reduces aging neuromuscular and functional capacity and increases muscle mass, bone density, and strength.
Compound exercises traditionally used in functional training may also benefit people who are out of shape, as they strengthen joints and muscles and improve the ability to perform daily movement, thus reducing the chance of strains or injuries, as discussed in the diary of Ethnicity and disease (opens in a new tab).
Functional training not only offers an improvement in terms of muscle growth, 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 a resistance that can come from different tools and with it the ability to move these implements in multiple different directions,” Hoobler told WordsSideKick.com. “You distribute the load through the entire system rather than through a narrow fiber path or a reduced range of motion of the joints.
“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 usually talking about weights that are lighter than traditional lifting because you’re moving in multiple directions,” Hoobler advised. So don’t start your functional training session by lifting the heaviest weight available.
“Asymmetric loading mimics a sport or activity, like carrying a fire hose. Functional training has become very popular with firefighters, police officers and military personnel and is mixed with what is called ‘tactical training’, in the one that trains the body to be ready for any situation is the goal.
“Functional training is also generally more cardio-heavy than traditional weightlifting. You can have extended sets or compound exercises where you move in a circuit-type workout, challenging not only muscular strength and endurance, but also the ability cardiovascular”.
Free weights vs machines and body weight
Functional training uses your body weight, free weights, or machines. Bodyweight functional training, also known as calisthenics, is a popular method due to its flexible “anywhere, anytime” approach. And you get strength gains, too, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in a new tab).
In a small study of 23 moderately trained healthy men, subjects were assigned to either bodyweight pushup or bench press groups. Both groups were tested in areas such as muscle thickness, one repetition maximum (1RM), bench press and push-up progressions before and after the study, participating in training three times a week for four weeks. Both groups significantly increased their 1RM and pushup progression, but improvements in the bodyweight pushup group were significantly greater. The study concluded that calisthenics could be used to improve upper body muscle strength.
The fight between free weights and machines continues, but the benefits and drawbacks are published in a round table published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (opens in a new tab). Free weights generally engage larger musculature for support and stabilization and can ‘easily simulate real-world lifting movements’. They also require a greater range of motion and muscle activation patterns.
Machines come with benefits (they provide resistance at all stages of a lift, for example, and are more beginner-friendly), but they tend to be recommended 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, while reducing your risk of injury,” Hoobler said. “If you want to be able to move in dynamic patterns and improve your balance and coordination, then functional training needs to be part of your game.”
Ready to try functional training? The best training equipment for the home. (opens in a new tab) can boost your foray into functional fitness and our weight training at home (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 physician or health care professional before adopting any diet or treatment.