What is Functional Training?

By now maybe you’ve heard people going on about functional training and want to know why the hell it’s so important. Why should you be incorporating functional training into your routine is it really necessary? Well before I explain why it’s important we first need to really understand what functional training actually is.

What does it mean to train functionally?

Philosophical Fitness Guru Answer:
Functional training is everything and it’s nothing…

Real Human Answer:
Functional training varies from person to person depending on how they spend most of their time. For example if you have a desk job standing, walking, & performing exercises that have you rotating or moving sideways are incredibly functional because they fill a gap in your daily movement.

However…

If you’re a construction worker, journeyman or perhaps a yoga instructor you spending your day moving bending & reaching so the previously mentioned activities aren’t as functional. Instead including movements that involve static movements, bracing and slow controlled activity work best to fill gaps in your movement. Now of course it’s but more of a grey area for people with active jobs because workplace injury preventive is also a priority. Meaning mobility work, grip training and movements that mimic your work activities in a controlled environment should also be incorporated. The distribution is simply different between active workers and desk jobs.

By now you’re probably starting to see the validity in the “functional training is everything and nothing” as pompous as it may sound.

Why is Functional Training Important?

So maybe you’re thinking ok sure, if I had a job that was physically demanding or dangerous functional training seems necessary, but what if I have a desk job, or I’m a nurse or a teacher, am I really at that much risk?

In short…yes. In fact it’s virtually the same degree of risk, the aches and pains may be different, but the risk is the same. Constructions worker (risk of falling objects aside) are at risk of dislocating their shoulder or straining their knees, whereas nurses, accountants or teachers are at risk of bulging and herniated disks or spinal deviations resulting from a static or poor posture. Comparing the two categories of injury it’s easy to see one doesn’t really sound more favorable than the other.

What actually qualifies as a functional training workout?

Now that we’ve figured out what exactly it means to train functionally, what actually classifies as a functional training workout?  There are several different factors to look at here:

Lifestyle
How do you spend the bulk of your time?  Are you primarily sitting all day? Are you on your feet? Are you bending,twisting and lifting all day long?

The focus here is all about balance.  If you sit all day leaning forward in front of a computer, incorporate large movements that lift and extend, exercises that involve moving in all directions to prevent injury. Think side lunges, deadlifts, reaches and rotational ball passes.  

On the other hand let’s say you’re a teacher, you’re on your feet all day, you lean over your students desks when answering their questions, if you sit it’s not for long before you’re up again.  In this case it’s important not only to balance, but also to make you as efficient as possible at the movements you do every day. Teachers often experience back pain similar to people that sit all day, but not for the same reason.  Leaning forward over a desk or a students desk without the core control takes a toll on your spine after a while. So yes teachers will include movements to help create balance in there movement just like someone that sits all day, but emphasis on proper bending, lifting and hinging posture will go a long way. Again, this means deadlifts and hip hinges of all kinds are your friend!

Goal
Do you want to run a marathon?  Lift a 1000lbs? Complete a spartan race? Learn high level calisthenics?

This of course is usually the exciting part!  Now it’s time to blend your lifestyle needs with your goals’ needs.  So let’s say you want to be like those calisthenics athletes you see at muscle beach or on instagram that are strong, muscular and incredibly flexible, but you sit at a desk all day.  If you walk into the gym and start working on the typical process to learn a 1-arm push-up or a pistol squat, chances are you’re going to get frustrated before you reach your goal. This isn’t because you’re incapable it’s just because your workout should meet your body where it is.  First and foremost we have to pull you out of your desk posture and gain some mobility. Your joints have to be prepped for movement to avoid pain and injury, the last thing we want is for you to feeling down about yourself. So before your start setting up for assisted 1-arm push-ups, start with strengthening your back & core and mobilizing your shoulders. The may sound frustrating but these small steps are the fastest way to reach your goal without pain or injury. To get a better understanding let me paint a picture, or rather 2:

You find the instructions online to learn to do a pistol squat and a 1-arm push-up. Awesome! You add this to your upper and lower body workouts respectively.
Weeks pass and you’re now able to successfully pistol squat down to a low box but you’ve been stuck here. You read that core control might be the problem so you add some weight to make it harder and hopefully push past this plateau
Meanwhile you’ve gained nothing but frustration with your push-up. Regular push-ups still feel too hard and you’re having to use a lot of assistance just to do a single arm push-up on an elevated surface.
A few more weeks go by. Still no progress but now you’re getting aches and pains in your low back and shoulders. Maybe you’re just stressed at work.
You take a week off from the gym to let your body relax.
When you return the pains are still there and now everything feels even harder.
This is way too frustrating and you’re making little progress.
Eventually you abandon those goals assuming you’re just not built for those movements.
And now you’re left with new pains that are carrying over to all your other workouts…

Alternate Ending…
The pains start you take 2 weeks off, you keep pushing through after the 2 week break because it hurts a little less. The first week back is slow but you’re going to power through
3 weeks later it happens again. 2 more weeks off.
This cycle continues until finally your determination pays off! It’s 2 years later and you can complete 3 reps of each!!

But, if you had started with 2-3 months of mobility work, followed by 6 or maybe even 9 months of focused training on those movements you would have had the foundation to progress more quickly. You could have reached this goal in a year or less pain free.

Injuries
Are you recovering from a torn ACL, rotator cuff or tendinitis?  Do you have chronic back pain?

I know this can feel frustrating and limiting, having personally dealt with everything from fractured vertebrae to minor tendinitis it can feel like there’s nothing you can really do anymore.  The truth of this is just that you might not be to do exactly what you were doing previously in exactly the same manner, but to be honest in some cases what you were do might actually be the cause of your injury.  Take my back injury for example, all I did was jump off a cliff into a river, something I had done dozens of times, and something 2 people did only seconds before me. I didn’t hit anything and I landed only slightly poorly, it was purely the impact alone than cause the injury.  But why? Well the year before that I had a major lifestyle change, I went from beating a college student on a large campus that required long walks between classes to having a desk job. I also went from working out 5 days a week to 2-3, this is not to say 2-3 isn’t enough but at the time, for me, it was a change.  More likely than not my injury occurred because I had locked my lumbar into an unfavorable position and it was only a matter of time before it gave out one way or another. I just happened to go way too far pushing that limit.

Now that example was more related to inactivity then activity, but you can see the connection.  Perhaps you absolutely love Olympic lifting but now. You have back pain and/or a shoulder impingement.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop entirely, it simply means that maybe you skipped a step as you progressed to that level of activity.  We all do it, things are going well we get excited and move a little too fast. I know I’ve done this plenty of times and tweaked some thing here and there.  So how does this relate to functional training? Simply put, do your best to take a step back, look at your activity and your injury/pain objectively. Is there anything you could adjust, temporarily avoid or perhaps even add.  Another example, let’s say you’re determined to get your yoga handstands that it seems like everyone else at your studio can do, but now your shoulders, neck or back hurt and they just seem to be getting harder. Is it possible that you got so excited about the new movement that you skipped some of the foundation.  Maybe it’s just a matter of breaking the movement into pieces to perfect the parts before attempting the whole. You can try starting with shoulder mobility drills specific to overhead movements, combined with core stability & posture exercises. Then after you have the shoulder mobility add overhead movements and finally move on to L handstands.

This is just one way to approach injury focused functional training.  

I know that might be feeling like information overload at this point, there’s a lot to consider and what seem like a ton of grey area.  So let’s look at an actual program to see how this all pieces fit together.

This client is a hairdresser in her 20s,  so she’s on her feet all day but she’s also always looking down, leaning forward and reaching.  

Her program focuses on posture correction by strengthening her mid to upper back, and her core to pull her out of her working posture.  On the other hand you’ll also see emphasis on loaded reaching movements during which I stress a relaxed neck and shoulder position. This portion is meant to mimic her daily movement to increase efficiency making it less likely to cause pain from work.  And last we’ve included a great deal of rotational movement, bending and extending in her lower extremity. Because she spends her time on her feet, though it’s more active than sitting, it’s still a locked and relatively immobile position creating balance and stretching her lower body is vital to prevent future aches and pains.  

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

From looking at this program you can see that nothing seems to be skipped or missing just because of some pains or imbalances, it’s simply a matter of adjusting and substituting, NOT ignoring.

Creating a functional program is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle, just find the missing parts and fill in the blanks to the best of your ability.  So are CrossFit, callisthenics and plyometrics part of a functional training workout? Of course! But can Lunges, yoga and planks be functional as well? Absolutely.  Just try to take a step back and look at your life, your habits and your movements objectively. Find whats missing and get to work!

Bonus Info:
These are a couple of books that you can find on Amazon if you want to learn a bit more about balanced and functional training.  Fair warning the second book listed is very in depth and dense so just brace yourself for that one 🙂
The Functional Training Bible
The Supple Leopard

Online Personal Trainer
Cassie Therrien | Certified PT Nutrition & Life Coach

“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” – Rikki Rogers
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