Functional exercise, or functional fitness, is a very interesting term. It’s used frequently to describe movement and training patterns. It’s also a phrase that’s both adored and despised. Let’s give functional exercise some attention today.
I guess I’m not gonna redefine functional fitness. I’m just going to revisit the concept. By definition, the adjective “functional” suggests that something is designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. Taking this further, most would say a functional exercise is not necessarily flashy, but is basic and effective at enhancing overall movement proficiency in the exerciser. We tend to think that functional exercises have a high degree of transfer in that they improve specific fitness or athletic capacities better than those which may be somewhat more esoteric.
If you go to the extreme in the argument, you might say that athletes should only do their sport and nothing else, because that is actually most specific and most functional. This is true to an extent, especially when we are giving consideration to the acquisition and maintenance of motor skills. Getting better at throwing, catching, hitting, cutting, and running (to name only a few) in the setting of court, field, ice, or track is primarily accomplished via practice, play, and competition.
But on the other hand, developing athletic (and human) versatility, durability, and resiliency can often be facilitated with exercise training in gym-like environments (whether in a building, out on a playground, or directly on the playing field with simple equipment). This is “part to whole” methodology and in many cases can be useful, or functional, for any athlete.
I don’t believe we really need to exist in camps regarding this subject. There is a time to do almost no supplemental training and simply play your sport (and then just rest). This is especially true in a peak season (as opposed to an off-season). A backpacker hikes, a cyclist rides, and a tennis player goes 5 sets on the court. Equally valuable is a time period during an off-season in which an athlete shores up deficiencies and polishes competencies in specific strength, power, and mobility components.
Focusing more closely on the gym training topic, the argument over exercise functionality often boils down to two questions.
- “Should you only do free-weight, whole body, compound movements that train major composite movement patterns?”
- Is there a place for machines, single joint isolation exercises, and things that don’t look like sports movements?”
The answer is decidedly “YES!” to both questions. The point is not to unequivocally state that an exercise is functional or not – or good or bad – but to determine its usefulness to the individual exerciser/athlete.
There are many examples of this situation. Look at the bench press. As far as variations go, you can perform this horizontal pressing motion on a flat, incline, or decline bench, with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags or bands. The motion can be done on a machine in sitting or lying, in standing with cables or elastic resistance, or you could even just bang out pushups in different styles. All of these variations have some unique qualities, but they all represent horizontal pushing. Changing the load, the tempo, and the range of motion can also be a part of the programming.
First of all, if you are a powerlifter, the bench press is one of the most functional and critical parts of your training. That’s because the bench press is your sport, or at least ⅓ of it along with squats and deadlifts.
Next up someone might say “If you are a football lineman or a wrestler who uses that movement pattern a lot it is a functional exercise.” Or what if you are a strength athlete such as a thrower or strongman/woman who needs maximum strength in the upper, and entire, body? Seems functional to do bench presses. How about a bodybuilder who is using the exercise to maximize chest and shoulder muscle development. Pretty functional.
But getting away from those examples there will still be the naysayers who state that outside of the aforementioned conditions the bench press is useless and nobody needs to do it. To that I ask “Have you ever had to move a refrigerator, safe, or large file cabinet? Or have you ever needed to crawl under a vehicle on your back and replace the starter?” Be careful saying that an exercise pattern is nonfunctional if leaving it out of your movement tool box ends up making you weak, fragile, and helpless. Or at least less capable.
The preceding part of this discussion was intended to make a point. It’s this…if any exercise helps YOU to be capable of doing what YOU need to do, just a little bit better, it’s functional for you. I’m not saying everybody has to bench press, but some form of horizontal push exercise (as only one example) can be useful for most of us. This may not be a big part of our training unless we are a strength athlete, but that’s where the art of functional training comes into play. We usually want to place the major emphasis of what we do in training on our primary assets and sport requirements. But we also need to make sure we don’t ignore our deficiencies to the point that they become problematic and overall function-limiting.
Another example or two just came to mind. Let’s look at curls. Bicep curls, hammer curls, reverse curls and the like are often described as “beach body” exercises which are all show and no go from a functional standpoint. But have you ever noticed that we humans are constantly lifting and carrying stuff in front of our bodies in the zone between our hips and heads. Suddenly doing a curl seems incredibly functional. How about running? The whole argument about running or not running as a fitness activity has myriad angles. But in a simplistic sense, shouldn’t everyone (barring orthopedic barriers) be able to run a little? Catching a bus, or escaping one if you are in the middle of the street, seems pretty functional to me.
I’m going to end our discussion here today. Hopefully it just got you thinking. If most of your exercise program seems “fluffy” and you are not really getting the results you want, you may need to examine your life and sport requirements and make your training program more functional. Match it up more closely to the specific demands you face or the goals you have. But also, if you are feeling and performing great, don’t worry if everything you do is functional or not. If you like your training, are having fun with it, and getting good results, change may not be necessary. The only thing functional fitness really means is that your exercise should help YOU to function better in whatever it is that you do.
Thank you for joining me today. If you need assistance making your training more functional and specific to your needs, sign up for some coaching sessions with me. Have a fantastic day!