What exactly is ‘functional training’?

School Of Personal Training Posted Oct 10, 2013 Future Fit Training

What do fitness professionals really mean when they prescribe functional’ training? The term functional is often mis-used and poorly understood.

What exactly is ‘functional training’?

When devising functional training routines, the following principles can be considered to identify how functional an exercise really is.

It is clear that the human body was not designed to be restricted to moving in just one plane of motion at a time. Relying only on movements that focus too much on working in a single plane of motion is not the best way to improve function, whether it be sporting performance or activities of daily living. Are you training in the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes within a single exercise?

Imagine only being able to move one joint at a time. Think of your favourite sport – imagine the players only being able to move one joint at a time.  Now think about what movements you do every day. How effective would you be if you could only move one joint at a time? As far as neurological pathways, muscle fibre recruitment, proprioception and range of motion are concerned we must remember the principles of specificity and progressive overload – surely it would be naïve to think that we can maximise an individual’s tri-planar, multi-joint physical performance through only training in single plane isolated movement.

Integrating the whole body is a great way increase the time efficiency of a workout as well as combining the benefits of many different components of fitness simultaneously (muscular strength and endurance, power, cardiovascular fitness, proprioception, and flexibility).

Major muscles and movement patterns

In addition to overloading muscles, the current fitness professional should be training movement as well as muscles. In order to maximize function of the human body, exercises should involve major muscle groups. Great exercises such as squats, lunges and deadlifts can be utilised to mimic common everyday movement patterns and then modified and progressed to further match actual movements that your client performs everyday (focus on tri-planar, whole body integration for the best results).

Core stability

We all know the importance of working the core muscles. A good functional exercise will engage the core muscles and teach them to stabilise the spine. Challenging the core muscles is an integral part of a functional training workout.

Power and eccentric loading

It is widely accepted that part of functional training is preparing the body for activity - some need their body to function better to improve sporting performance (Thompson et al, 2007) whilst others need their body to function better to decrease risk of injury (J Am Geriatr Soc. 2004) or make activities of daily living more manageable.  Whichever is the case, we cannot expect slow, controlled movements on fixed resistance machines to prepare the body optimally for function. Throughout the day, we all experience eccentric loading in a dynamic state. Being able to decelerate and change direction quickly is as crucial to the frail elderly client who must avoid a dangerous fall as it is to the competitive squash player who wants to beat his boss on the court!

A word of warning

The world of functional training has challenged the modern fitness professional to scrutinise the isolative bodybuilding approach that focused on muscle gain (hypertrophy). Should we be prescribing training programmes full of isolative, single plane exercises for the mirror muscles to help clients lose weight, maximise calorie expenditure and improve function? Of course not. However, as fitness professionals, we must resist the temptation to do away with the proven training approaches that successful bodybuilders have used for many years. Far too often we hear criticism and dismissal of isolative approaches in favour of ‘functional’ training. Yet is there a place for isolative training approaches that do not tick the boxes of whole body integration, tri-planar, compound and time efficient? Of course there is: consider the training goal. 

So whilst functional training has a very important place: we must remember that there is a time for integration, and a time for isolation. Your job as a fitness professional is to identify when the time is right for each approach.

The bigger picture

Whilst we must never forget the importance of safe and effective exercise, the truth is that even the most effective training programme soon becomes useless if the client doesn’t do it!  So as well as asking yourself ‘is this what my client needs?’, also consider if it’s what they want. It is absolutely vital that clients enjoy their training if they are going to stick with it, so injecting an element of fun will have dramatic effects on the results achieved. Taking this approach will see your reputation as personal trainer soar, so in a future article we will look at how you can put the ‘fun’ into functional. In the meantime, why not find out more about our Integrated Equipment Training course.


1. Thompson CJ, Cobb KM, Blackwell J. 2007. J Strength Cond Res: Functional training improves club head speed and functional fitness in older golfers.

2. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2004.J Am Geriatr Soc. May 52(5): 657–665. :Both Resistance and Agility Training Reduce Fall Risk in 75–85 Year Old Women with Low Bone Mass: A Six-Month Randomized Controlled Trial.






Are you ready to become a Personal Trainer?

Call for more information

0800 458 1388

Free Trial Prospectus & Price List