All you need to know about functional training
by Sarah Shortt
What is functional training?
Functional training incorporates multi-joint movement patterns to keep us fit and strong for everyday life. “It uses exercises that replicate total body movements and patterns seen in sports and daily activities in general,” says Rob Lee, Physiotherapist and Les Mills Technical Consultant. “Functional training provides strength and mobility that is transferrable to other tasks. Essentially, it’s training that doesn’t work muscles or movements in total isolation.”
Why should you include it in your program?
“Functional training enhances your ability to perform other activities outside the gym, whether that’s simply being able to get up off the couch or improve your golf swing!” says US-based Trainer Kenta Seki. “When you train the right muscles correctly and frequently, you also decrease your risk of getting injured when undertaking everyday activities.”
Chris Wright, Head of Strength and Conditioning at Loughborough University (UK), agrees: “Think about a mother who needs to pick her child up off the floor. That task will require movement of the ankle, knee and hip – a squat-type pattern – to lift the load. You can replicate this movement pattern on the gym floor with a deadlift. We can see that strengthening the muscles around those same joints is going to minimise her risk of injury when it comes to picking up her child.”
It’s not all flipping tyres, handstands and battle ropes…
Contrary to what you might see on the 'Gram, you don’t have to be pushing a heavy sled to be performing functional movements. “The exercises are not all extremely challenging, requiring an elite skill level,” says Lee. “It’s not all dangerous. Good functional exercises use total body movements that replicate relevant movement patterns from your life or sports. The squat itself is a brilliant functional exercise. Functional exercises can be easily adapted to suit different fitness levels."
You can also add elements of functional training into your existing exercise plan. "Deciding to include functional exercises in your training doesn’t mean you need to ditch everything you're currently doing," explains Chris Gagliardi, ACE (American Council on Exercise) Scientific Education Content Manager. "You might be able to incorporate functional training exercises into your warm-up or cool-down, or even into the conditioning phase of the workout."
Is it for everyone?
Within reason, yes. “Like all training methods, the complexity, intensity, frequency, and load help determine its suitability, “says Lee. "If these things are not matched to an individual’s skill and fitness level, it may cause issues. But pitched at a safe and effective level, yes – functional training can be suitable for everyone.”
“The biggest benefit of functional training is that it is appropriate for all fitness levels and can be done in a variety of settings, both with and without exercise equipment,” says Gagliardi. “This type of training establishes postural stability and makes sure that each joint in the kinetic chain is stable or mobile at appropriate times. It’s also not just for beginners. Even elite athletes can benefit from functional training for improvements in postural stability and kinetic chain mobility, helping them move more efficiently.”
Intensity isn’t the most important factor
Despite the rising trend of high-intensity functional workouts, this type of training doesn’t have to leave you sobbing in a pool of your own sweat… “Functional training is often associated with an extremely high intensity and taking people to breaking point but it doesn’t have to be done at our maximal efforts," says Lee. "Understanding and learning good functional training exercises is an excellent way to create balanced strength through multiple ranges and planes of movement.
"The benefits can also be seen when training at low and moderate intensities," continues Lee. "That's when we master these movements. Sure, there is a time to push the intensity and improve your fitness capacity, and we can achieve this with functional exercises, but this should not be done at the expense of losing good movement control."
If your knees are caving in, it's time to drop the weight
“The biggest thing is to do the basics really well,” says Wright. “It’s a great idea to film yourself performing the exercises so you can check your technique. You also need to know what ‘good’ looks like, so it can be helpful to work with a personal trainer who can check your form and explain why certain movements are included in your program."
“Technique doesn’t go out the window just because you're doing functional training!" adds Lee. "I frequently see good technique being sacrificed to do the exercise just for the sake of it. It's much better to try a simpler version of the exercise – whether that's dropping the load or the complexity – to ensure you're moving efficiently and with good form. That's probably the most functional thing you can do!"
“If you’re going to invest your time in functional training, then the biggest thing to consider is – what outcome are you trying to achieve?” continues Wright. “I wouldn’t recommend doing it just because you’ve seen somebody doing it on social media. Whether you’re new to exercise or a performance athlete, you need to understand why you’re investing your time and energy in training that way because, depending on your goals, functional training might not be the most efficient way to achieve them. And when it comes to high-intensity functional training, you probably don’t need to be doing it five to six times a week. You need to allow time for recovery between sessions, so your body can adapt and get the results."
Technology for optimal performance
Whilst wearable sensors can give us data on our heart-rate, calorie burn, steps, etc, how do we know if, for example, we're moving at the optimal speed in our deadlift? Technology could be the answer, says Wright. “In the sports performance world, we already use technology that tracks the velocity in movements. Say I want to get stronger in my back squat: I might be aiming to lift 85kg every day. If technology tells me that I’m losing speed, I might then drop my load down to 78kg to still achieve the strength gains.”
“I would like to see technology that focuses on the feedback of movement technique and loading become more prominent,” adds Lee. “This could ensure exercises are being performed efficiently and effectively for specific individuals, maximising their effects in certain sports and activities.”
The future looks functional
The trend towards functional training looks set to continue, with many workouts (including BODYPUMP® and LES MILLS CORE™) already incorporating these types of movements in their programming. “I think many methods of training will begin to incorporate exercises that are considered functional,” predicts Seki. “Even some bodybuilders I know are starting to include some compound functional exercises into their routines! I’m sure we’ll also continue to see the emergence of new training equipment and brands that focus on functional training.”
“I expect to see it more universally applied across exercise in general,” agrees Lee. “I think a lot of people are doing functional training without really knowing it! We will get better at understanding its effects on and how it relates to not only performance but other health outcomes.”
“Right now, functional training is where it’s at for me,” says Glen Ostergaard, Program Director for BODYPUMP®. “I’ve been adding functional exercises into BODYPUMP® like push-ups mixed in with the bench press, or mountain climbers in with tricep extensions. Throwing full body exercises into the mix means that, when you get back onto the bench to do a more isolated exercise, it’s a whole lot harder and you get more out of it as a result. I’ve been very deliberate in the way I’ve introduced the functional moves and it’s definitely where BODYPUMP® is right now. I can see us staying in this phase for a while.”
The most effective functional exercises
With many exercises falling under the umbrella of "functional", which will give you the most bang for your (training) buck?
If you're just getting started, Gagliardi suggests you try exercises which allow you to achieve core stability first before progressing to more advanced options. Good options include a glute bridge, bear crawl, spider walks, inchworm and stability ball walk out.
For those who are a little more confident, Lee advises: "Choose exercises that incorporate large movements while challenging your trunk stability and incorporate more than one movement pattern". Here are some of our favorites:
Squat to Overhead Press: Move the weight from below head height to above the head using the fundamental squat pattern.
Deadlift to Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: Combining the hip hinge pattern of bending and lifting with an offset weight-pull.
Offset Kettlebell Lunge: Mimics a common movement pattern of a lunge/run stance, total body challenge; you can mix up the kettlebell position.
Offset Weight Walk: Like a Farmer’s Carry with a heavy weight (e.g., a heavy suitcase) in each hand.
Medicine Ball Throw: Lifting the ball off the floor and pressing to replicate moving objects of varying speeds.
Box Step-Ups and Box Jumps: Full body step pattern that adds an explosive and force-absorption element.
Sled Pulling and Pushing: Pushing and pulling objects – using your entire body to create momentum – challenges structural integrity and increases your total body capacity.
Burpees (you knew they were coming!): Nothing like getting up and down off the floor for total mobility and strength!
Glen Ostergaard (NZ)
Glen Ostergaard was born with a love of fitness. Before he even entered this world, his father was lifting weights in an old garage with his friends. As Glen grew up, he spent hours watching his dad and his mates training, and he knew he wanted to follow in those footsteps. At age 16, his father gave him his first training program: three times ten reps of all the basic exercises. From there Glen moved into competitive bodybuilding, before progressing to powerlifting and CrossFit. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand, where he is Program Director for BODYPUMP®, RPM™ and LES MILLS SPRINT™.
Rob Lee (NZ)
Rob Lee is the Technical Consultant for LES MILLS GRIT™, LES MILLS TONE™, Les Mills Ceremony and Les Mills Conquer. He is an internationally experienced physiotherapist, having worked in professional sports, private practice, and many high-performance training environments. Combined with his competitive training background, Rob has a passion for creating effective exercise to benefit people’s health, no matter their ability. One of his favourite things about working with Les Mills is being part of the process that influences people’s lives through exercise on a global scale. He adds: "With the right environment, program, and guidance, people will always achieve more than they think they’re capable of.”
Chris Gagliardi (US)
Chris Gagliardi is the Scientific Education Content Manager for ACE (American Council on Exercise). He's an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor, and Medical Exercise Specialist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NBHWC certified NBC-HWC, and NASM Certified Personal Trainer who loves to share his enthusiasm for fitness with others and is committed to lifelong learning. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Kinesiology from San Diego State University, a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology from A.T. Still University, and a certificate in orthotics from Northwestern University Fienberg School of Medicine.
Chris Wright (UK)
Chris Wright is the Head of Strength and Conditioning for Loughborough University. He is a UKSCA accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach whose career incorporates extensive experience overseeing the design, implementation and monitoring of tailored strength and conditioning programs. Combining expertise across areas of fitness coaching, strength and conditioning and performance monitoring, Chris plays a key role in optimising physiological output, rehabilitation and injury prevention for athletes competing in a high-performance environment. Over the past decade, Chris has worked with a variety of athletes, ranging from youth development all the way through to full internationals, both in the UK and overseas.
Kenta Seki (US)
Kenta Seki is a health and fitness Trainer based in Los Angeles. He is a Reebok Sponsored Athlete, a Fitness and Nutrition Trainer for GNC, and lead trainer for the fitness app FitOn.