STOP USING MACHINES! Train Functionally!


What is functional training and why should you be doing it? In order to understand the benefits of functional training we must first learn what it means to train functionally. When most people hear functional training they either have no clue what that means or they envision a personal trainer instructing a client to stand on a Bosu ball on one leg and touch their nose at the same time. Images of equipment that come to mind are stability balls, wobble boards, resistance bands, kettlebells, battle ropes, tires, and sleds. All of these tools can certainly be functional but lets take a look at what functional training actually means and why you should be doing it.

What is functional training?

    Functional training according to world renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle is “training with purpose” (New Functional Training For Sports pg.1). The concept of what is today called functional training originated in the sports medicine and physical therapy field. As Boyle puts it, “As is often the case, the thoughts and exercises used in rehab found their way from the physical therapy clinic and athletic training room into the weight room” (pg.1 paragraph 1). Trainers and coaches were experimenting with more functional style training to enhance both everyday life and sports performance on the field or court.  He goes on to say that, “the most basic thought was that the exercises used to return an athlete to health might also be the best exercises to maintain and improve health” (pg.1 paragraph 1). So in essence, functional training can be defined as training with purpose. Another way to help define functional training and understand it is to examine the direct opposite of functional training. The direct opposite would be fixed plane, isolation, machine based training. Single joint or muscle exercises such as leg extensions, bicep curls, and tricep push downs are examples of non functional exercises. This is not to say that those movements are necessarily bad for you or ineffective, they’re simply just not optimal.

    Vern Gambetta and Gary Gray, two widely recognized experts on functional training state, “Single joint movements that isolate a specific muscle are very non functional. Multi-joint movements which integrate muscle groups into  movement patterns are very functional” (2002, paragraph 13). Therefore, functional training can also be defined as multi-joint, multi-muscular compound movements. Functional training involves fundamental movements such as squatting, forward bending, deadlifting, lunging, pushing, pulling, and carrying. Boyle explains that “the purpose is to provide a continuum of exercises that teach athletes (and people) to handle their own body weight in all planes of movement” (New Functional Training For Sports pg.3 paragraph 4). He goes on to say that “functional training programs train movements, not muscles. There is no emphasis on overdeveloping strength in a particular movement; instead, emphasis is on attaining a balance between pushing and pulling strength and between knee dominant hip extension (quads and gluteals) and hip dominant hip extension (hamstrings and gluteals)” (pg. 3 paragraph 5). Boyle further explains that “functional training incorporates balance and proprioception (body awareness) into training through the use of unilateral exercises (i.e. single leg)” (Pg.3 paragraph 3). Gambetta and Gray (2002, paragraph 8) also state, “functional training programs need to introduce controlled amounts of instability so that the athlete must react in order to regain their own stability.” In other words, performing exercises with one arm or standing on one leg.

In concordance, we can say that an exercise is functional if the following principles can be applied to it:

1. Mobility and stability

2. multi-joint movement

3. multi-muscle fiber engagement

4. Directly transferable to life or sport

    As a result, functional training is more than just purpose, it’s purpose that is grounded in certain principles. Coach Chet Morjaria form, defines it this way, “Functional training is purposeful training, grounded in universal principles.”

The Advantages

    The advantage of functional training, especially with a qualified coach, is that “people can now train effectively and specifically in order to perform optimally and stay injury free” (New Functional Training for Sports, Preface). The problem with traditional training methods according to Boyle was that although coaches were extremely good at getting adults and athletes very strong, the injury rate and newfound pain experienced by them was the price paid. They were “piling strength on top of dysfunction,” as Boyle puts it. Fortunately Functional training evolved into the preferred training medium over the years for great personal trainers and coaches because it “blends concepts and knowledge from areas such as sports medicine, physical therapy, and sports performance to create the best possible scenario for that particular athlete or person” (New Functional Training for Sports pg.3 paragraph 1).

The Shift toward Functional Training

    In regard to functional training and its’ impact on the fitness industry, Boyle explains that “functional training is now widely accepted as the essential way to train around the world. Big box gyms compete for the functional training client. Every day in health clubs across the world, machines are being moved out to open up space for plyometric equipment, sleds, and kettlebells” (New Functional Training For Athletes, Preface). Over the past 10 years there has been a massive shift in the fitness industry toward more functional based training. The reason for this is simple. Functional training works and is better for you.

Why You Should Do IT

    So now the you have a basic understanding of what functional training is, lets take a look at how you will benefit from it and why you should be doing it. The most compelling thing about functional training is that no matter what your goals may be, functional training is almost always the best way to achieve them. Whether you are an athlete looking to increase your performance, and elderly person looking to increase your mobility, a young man looking to increase your lean muscle mass, or a 30 year old woman trying to lose weight, functional training is the fastest, safest, and most effective way to do it. When we use our whole bodies to perform an exercise in a synergistic manner, we increase strength, balance, neuro-muscular control (motor function), core stability, and mental capacity all in one shot.

    By developing fundamentally sound movement patterns through a structured and periodized functional strength training program, we can better achieve our goals without increasing risk of injury or over-development of muscles. The gist of it is, that by incorporating the use of multiple joint and muscle groups in functional training, you increase your ability to function better in ever day life or sports and are less likely to develop impingements, adhesions, and muscular imbalances. Here are 10 very convincing reasons to chose functional training over other modes or methods of exercise:

1. It’s more fun

2. It’s safer

3. It’s more challenging

4. Requires mental training as well as physical

5. Transfers directly into your every day life

6. Increases coordination, stability, and balance

7. More bang for your buck

8. Requires less or no equipment

9. Better posture

10.Better overall health and well being

How to Begin

    If you have been weight training with machines your whole life and are ready to make the shift to a more functional approach, start with the basics. Begin by simply trying to master your own body weight. Body weight training is called calisthenics. Almost all body weight exercises can be considered functional. A simple functional training routine should consist of squatting, pushing, pulling, lunging, hinging, and carrying. That’s it. Add in a couple of dumbbells and a kettlebell and you’re all set. Your functional routine might look something like this:

Dumbbell Goblet Squats 3 sets of 10

Push Ups 3 sets of 10

Pull Ups 3 sets of 5

Lunges 3 sets of 10

KB or DB deadlifts 3 sets of 10

KB or DB Farmer’s Carry 3 sets of 20 yards

    This routine done 3 times a week will produce incredible results. Simply apply progressive resistance to each exercise each week. Increase the weight you use by 2.5 to 5 pounds each week or every other week depending on your fitness level. It’s as simple as that. Of course functional training can be more complex and periodized into phases. If you are wanting to develop an entire functional program, the idea is to spend 4 weeks in each phase with the goal of mastering the same basic movements in each phase before moving on.

When DO You Have Time For Mastery?

    One of the biggest pitfalls of most people’s training routines, aside from machine based training, is too much variety. There is a saying in the fitness industry that  proclaims that “those with the most variety in their workout routines tend to be the weakest.” It’s that old adage of If you are constantly doing new things, when do you have time for mastery? Ever since the release and wide spread popularity of P-90X, people often misinterpret muscle confusion to mean tons of variety. For some odd reason people started to believe that muscle confusion meant introducing new exercises into their routine every single day or week for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for muscle confusion.

    The idea is that by implementing new movements into your routine you are confusing your muscles, which prevents them from acclimating to the exercise. Therefore, the muscles are unable to adapt and have no reason to change. However, this is only effective if they have time to learn the movement in the first place. It takes the body about 5 to 6 weeks to fully adapt to a new exercise. In fact, research suggests that it takes 200-300 repetitions of a new movement for most people to make a neurological connection (or map) to it. With a structured and periodized functional program you spend 4-6 weeks in each phase. This allows time for mastery of the movements but is not so long as to prevent what is called, the principle of specificity.

    The principle of specificity simply means that by constantly introducing new movements into your workouts, your muscles must learn to overcome or adapt to them, therefore they change. For the most part, especially within phases, the variety in one’s training should come from load and volume. That is, the amount of reps and sets you do and the amount of weight you use. Constantly incorporating new exercises into your routine too soon and too often is a waste of time and will greatly reduce your strength, power, and stability, not to mention your progress.

Stop Using Machines

    I encourage you to make the switch to functional based training if you are one of the millions of people still using mostly machines to work out. Doing so will dramatically increase the quality of your training. There are tons of small functional training gyms across the country now and many personal trainers in big box gyms using this approach for their clientele. Find one and get to work. I can guarantee you that the benefits of functional based training far outweigh the risk of looking silly.

Leave a Reply