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What Is Functional Training and How Can It Benefit You?…

Functional training. It ranks among the buzziest of fitness buzz-terms. But what the heck do trainers mean when they call training “functional?” Isn’t all training performing some sort of function?

In a word, yes. But functional training as it pertains to improving your fitness is a bit more nuanced than that. “Ideally, functional training conditions you to perform the actions of daily life [more effectively and efficiently],” says Jim DiGregorio, an exercise physiologist based in Norwood, New Jersey.

In short, functional training helps you build strength, power, and mobility that translates beyond the gym. It’s “real world” fitness.

The History of Functional Training

What-Is-Functional-Training-and-How-Can-It-Benefit-You-bodyFunctional training as it’s more widely known today emerged from the rehabilitation of soldiers who returned from World War I with injuries that had cost them basic daily functions such as walking, bending, sitting, and standing. The physical therapy they received emphasized, among other things, core strength and mobility, which are essential for virtually all movement.

Over the years, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other fitness disciplines have drawn the focus away from improving real-life movement to serving specific fitness objectives, such as creating defined, muscular physiques. But modern fitness ideology has renewed its focus on function, focusing on compound (multi-joint) movements instead of isolation (single muscle group) exercises. In so doing, it has expanded its equipment arsenal to include relatively recent innovations like slosh pipes, battling ropes, sandbags, kettlebells, and suspension trainers along with more traditional tools like medicine balls, barbells, and dumbbells.

Focus on Movements, Not Muscles

There are two primary problems from a functional perspective with most typical gym routines. The first is that they they train individual muscle groups (biceps, pecs, quads, hamstrings, etc.) instead of movement patterns (e.g., pushing, pulling, lifting, stepping, walking, crawling, jumping, squatting). Second, they typically occur in a single plane of motion: the sagittal, which involves forward and backward movements and encompasses most classic exercises like the squat, biceps curl, and even running.

Here’s the thing: Human movement doesn’t usually recruit one muscle group at a time, and it certainly isn’t limited to one plane of motion. Indeed, it occurs in three planes of motion: the previously mentioned sagittal, the frontal (side-to-side), and the transverse (rotational).

But there’s more to functional training than simply incorporating more compound movements like the squat, and more “non-sagittal” exercises like the lateral lunge and dumbbell reverse chop into your routine. An effective functional training program also favors free weights over machines, focuses on working muscles through full ranges of motion (that means no “half rep” curls or presses), and incorporates plenty of instability work.

Embrace Instability

When Bosu balls came along in the late ’90s, they immediately became one of the go-to tools for functional training. The thinking was that performing movements like squats and presses on an unstable surface—be it a Bosu ball, wobble board, balance disc, or similar device—would build greater stability and balance. And that thinking was correct—to an extent.

We now know that balance training on unstable surfaces really only improves balance and stability on unstable surfaces. So if you’re a surfer, slackliner, or sailboat racer, carry on with Bosu ball squats. But anyone else wanting to enhance real world balance and stability is better served keeping at least one foot on solid ground.

That brings us to unilateral (single limb) training, a cornerstone of functional training. If you’ve ever done the Bulgarian split squat, single-leg straight-leg deadlift, single-arm bent over row, or alternating shoulder press, you’ve done unilateral training. (Bilateral training, by contrast, trains two limbs simultaneously—think biceps curl, bench press, or back squat.)

Not only can unilateral training help iron out muscle imbalances, but it also adds an element of instability that cultivates the kind of balance that translates to the real world (where the ground generally doesn’t wobble beneath you).

7 Exercises for Functional Fitness

These exercises will all help you sculpt head-turning muscle, but more important, they’ll help you become stronger and more powerful in movement patterns that transcend the gym.

Dumbell reverse chop

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