Fitness

What Functional Training Is and Why It's Important

If you’ve browsed for new group fitness classes to try lately, chances are, you’ve seen “functional training” in a workout description. Like most health and fitness terms, it may seem like a meaningless buzzword at first. But unlike marketing speak meant to confuse you and sell you the latest and greatest product, functional training actually refers to a legit type of workout. In fact, it’s something every single person should do as part of their fitness program.

Yes, really, everyone should do functional training (though you may not need to shell out for a trendy workout class to do it). Here’s why.

Functional training has a purpose and translates to an activity beyond your workout.

“The main word here is function. Function is purpose. So functional training is just training that has a purpose,” says Eric Salvador, a certified personal trainer at the Fhitting Room in New York City. More than that, functional training is focused on movement patterns that have a purpose.

That purpose can be related to getting better at everyday activities—like walking, squatting to pick up something heavy, pushing a revolving door, or getting in and out of a chair—or preparing to compete in a sport, like soccer, football, or tennis. A functional workout is simply one that strengthens you in a particular way that directly translates to an activity outside the weight room. For most people, the practical application of functional training is to make daily activities easier to perform, says Dan Henderson, cofounder of the Functional Training Institute in Australia.

Increasingly, fitness studios are adding classes that can help people get stronger in their everyday movement patterns. Henderson says that functional training has become more popular because “a lot of studios and gyms are making it very accessible for the consumer to try this form of training.” Some fitness studios even have “functional” built into their names, like F45 and Fhitting Room (FHIT stands for functional high-intensity training). When you add social media to the mix, it becomes something people hear more about and decide they want to try.

A functional workout typically consists of compound exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts.

Compound exercises require more than one muscle group to work together, like a squat, deadlift, lunge, or push-up. Because of that, they typically mimic everyday movement patterns—like pull, push, squat, hinge, rotation—better than isolation exercises, like a biceps curl. Think about it: How often do you simply stand in place and lift something from waist level with just your biceps? Probably rarely, if ever. Now, how often do you squat to lift something off the floor? Or lunge to tie your shoe? Or push a door open?

“A majority of functional training movements are multijoint, and a functional training program should incorporate movements in multiple planes,” says Henderson. That means moving forward and backward, side to side, and incorporating rotational movements.

For the same reason, functional exercises require free weights, not machines. Machines require you to move in a very specific and rigid way, says Tara Teakle, head trainer at F45 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That doesn’t mimic how your body actually moves IRL. “For example, think of the leg extension machine,” she says. “You’re never going to just use your quads. They’re going to work with the glutes, hamstrings, and core.” Doing a functional movement like a squat instead is much more efficient from a strength-training perspective and also allows you to train the muscles to work together seamlessly—since they never really operate alone.

That’s not to say that isolation exercises don’t ever have a purpose, says Salvador. “If a client came to me with an acute injury and I needed them to strengthen a particular muscle group, I might have them isolate that muscle group,” he explains. “But that wouldn’t be my primary area of focus.” Most people’s workouts—if you’re working out to be in shape and improve overall health—should consist mainly of compound and functional movements, with isolation exercises peppered in as needed to address a weakness or improve stability in a certain joint (like your shoulders).

Functional training improves your body’s ability to work efficiently as one unit.

By training multiple muscle groups at the same time, you are helping your body function better as a whole, says Teakle. You’re training it to be a system and not just individual parts that work independently. “Training [different parts of your body] to work together is going to keep you safe,” Teakle says.

Part of that is because both your mind and muscles will learn how to recruit multiple muscle groups to get a job done instead of relying on just one. “Recruiting multiple muscle groups is going to prevent strain injuries that happen from using one muscle group,” says Teakle.

Think about lifting a heavy suitcase. If you do it incorrectly and just bend over instead of squatting or deadlifting, you’re likely to use—and potentially strain—your lower-back muscles. You may even end up really hurting yourself by, say, rupturing a disc (an extreme but not unheard of result of improper lifting). But if you’ve been focusing on functional movements in your training, you’ll be way more comfortable lifting that suitcase properly: by using your entire body. You’ll squat and deadlift it from the floor, using your glutes and legs and keeping your back flat and chest up like you’re used to doing with a weight in the gym.

It also improves coordination, balance, and body awareness, which will help you avoid unnecessary injuries.

Moving your body in a way that recruits multiple muscle groups at once requires a certain level of coordination, focus, and core strength (which is why compound movements are so good for building core strength and stability). The more you train functionally, the better you’ll become at working your entire body as one system, says Salvador, ultimately helping you improve your coordination.

Functional training also gives you an excellent kinesthetic awareness (awareness of how your body moves) and teaches you how to move safely, says Teakle.

All of these skills are pretty important in everyday life and in the gym, allowing us to move purposefully and confidently and helping us stay sturdy, strong, and safe.

Here are a few functional movements you can incorporate into your routine:

What makes an exercise functional varies a bit for each of us and our fitness level and goals, but fitness professionals agree that everyone should work on a handful of basic movement patterns. (As always, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise program if you’re unsure it’s safe for you.) Below are some exercises that will get you started working on those patterns. You can do them with just your body or a variety of free weights, like dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and more.

Katie Thompson

Suitcase squat

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand with your arms resting along the sides of your legs, palms facing in.
  • Bend your knees and push your hips back as you lower into a squat.
  • Drive through your heels to stand, squeezing your glutes at the top, for 1 rep.
Katie Thompson

Push-up

  • Start in a high plank with your palms flat on the floor, hands shoulder-width apart, shoulders directly above your wrists, legs extended behind you, core and glutes engaged.
  • Bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor. Drop to your knees if needed.
  • Push through your palms to straighten your arms for 1 rep.

Lateral lunge

  • Stand with your feet together, hands on your hips.
  • Take a big step (about 2 feet) out to the right. When your foot hits the floor, hinge forward at your hips, push your butt back, and bend your right knee to lower into a lunge.
  • Pause for a second, and then push off your right foot to stand back up for 1 rep.
  • Do your reps, switch sides, and repeat. You can also alternate legs if you prefer.
Katie Thompson

Bent-over row

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides.
  • With your core engaged, hinge forward at your hips, push your butt back, and bend your knees slightly, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend over that far.) Gaze at the floor a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.
  • Do a row by pulling the weights toward your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body and squeezing your shoulder blades for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back.
  • Slowly lower the weights by extending your arms toward the floor for 1 rep.
Katie Thompson

Deadlift

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, a dumbbell in each hand in front of your quads.
  • Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees slightly as you push your butt way back, keeping your back flat. Slowly lower the weight along your shins. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
  • Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight. Keep the weight close to your shins as you pull.
  • Pause at the top and squeeze your butt for 1 rep.
Katie Thompson

Single-leg deadlift

  • Stand with your feet together, a weight in each hand in front of your legs.
  • Shift your weight to your left leg and keep your left knee slightly bent as you lift your right leg behind you, hinging at your hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and lower the weight toward the floor.
  • Keep your back flat. Your torso and right leg should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the floor. (If your hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to lift your leg as high.)
  • Keep your core tight as you push through your left heel to stand up straight. Bring your right leg back down to meet your left, but try to keep the majority of weight in your left foot.
  • Pause and squeeze your butt for 1 rep.
  • Do your reps, then switch sides and repeat.
Katie Thompson

Medicine ball rotational throw

  • Stand with a wall a few feet to your right, feet shoulder-width apart, a medicine ball in both hands in front of you.
  • Twist your torso to the left and slightly bend your left knee. Let your arms and the ball follow.
  • Twist your torso to the right, swinging your arms and throwing the ball against the wall. Catch the ball, twisting back to the left and bending your left knee to absorb the force of the ball for 1 rep.
  • Do your reps, then switch sides and repeat.

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