In Defence of…. Functional Training


Everyone seems to talk about functional training, yet no one knows what it is.

Ask your personal trainer, you know the one who calls himself a “functional training expert” to define what he does. Stand and listen to him waffle for about half an hour without ever actually making a valid point. I’ve had people do this when I used to work in a commercial gym, it always made me smile.

Then, watch the “functional training expert” as he trains his clients. Watch in wonder at the odd drills and even odder reasoning for these drills. I watched on guy put an elderly gentleman onto a Bosu ball and then hand him a barbell to perform bent over rows, a passing gym bunny actually tripped over my jaw as it hit the floor! I’ve seen other trainers completely rearrange exercises to “make it more functional”

So what is functional training?

First off, if there is a such a thing, there presumably there is also Non-functional training. I’d like to see that on someone’s business card,  “Come to Curves gym, the ultimate in Non Functional Training”

Functional training, two words. First word – Functional, or “to perform a function” This is where it all goes wrong, no one ever asks what the function is. They’ll tell you what isn’t functional (I covered many of them in previous In Defence of…. posts) but they rarely tell you what function they are training you for.

Any training program must be reverse engineered. The client comes in and sits down for a chat. During this chat the trainer should listen and make notes,  he should also ask a few intelligent and pointed questions based on what he is hearing. Somewhere in this conversation the “Function” of the training program will be revealed. Maybe the function is aesthetic, get bigger/get smaller. Maybe its athletic, get faster/get stronger. Maybe it’s more holistic, get more mobile/prevent injury.

From here the training program can be determined. The most functional exercises are the ones that bring the client to their goals the fastest. Isolation exercises are functional training if aesthetics or rehab are the goal but not if mobility is the goal. Low reps with very heavy weights are very functional for strength and athleticism, but not for injury rehab. Circuit training is functional training for body composition but not for max strength.

Functional training equipment is the best equipment to bring a client closer to his goals. Bosu balls have their place, mainly for Rehab/Prehab. But strength training drills on them is about as far from functional as you can get.

Same for standing on Swiss balls. I love the Swiss ball, it’s a great bit of kit, but standing on it and doing squats? Why? Tell me how is that functional? Is the core activation of a Swiss ball squat really greater than that of a Barbell Front Squat? Which has the greatest real world carry over, a squat atop a ball or a Barbell front squat?

Think about it.

The ends must justify the needs. Functional training is training that serves a function. Anything else is just the coach feeding his ego.

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