The Real Definition of Functional Training

STACK Expert Nick Tumminello explains the meaning of functional training, and shows how he implements it at Performance U.

AJ Hawk performing a Landmine

AJ Hawk performs a functional exercise.

Functional training is a hot-button topic in the fitness community. Problem is...does anyone actually know what the term "functional" means in relation to strength and conditioning?

The definition of functional is highly debated among coaches and trainers. Some of the common definitions you hear include:

  • "Functional training involves three dimensional exercises."
  • "Functional training is anything that resembles movements and activities of daily living or sports."
  • "Functional training is about getting strong, and anything that makes you stronger is functional."

If there's no consistency, how are we supposed to make sense of how to properly program functional exercises?

Defining Functional Training

In school, we were taught to look up a word in the dictionary to understand its meaning, not make up our own definition. That causes chaos and confusion­—hence the current problem with "functional."

With this in mind, our philosophy at Performance U on defining the word functional is based on its dictionary definition: "something that is able to define a purpose."

Simply put, function equals purpose. Training for an athlete always has a major purpose or specific goal. So true functional training is how well exercise and equipment selections transfer to that purpose or goal, not what type of exercise it is.

For example, if your goal is to get bigger arms, performing Biceps Curls and Triceps Extensions are indeed "functional" with respect to your goal.

Types of Functional Exercises

When choosing which exercises to use to increase functional strength, you know that some exercises have an obvious and direct transfer, while others are less obvious. In the Performance U training system, we classify exercises as either "general" or "specific."

General Exercises

Our general exercises include compound and isolation free weight, cable and machine movements. They are used to indirectly improve functional performance by increasing muscle mass, motor unit recruitment, bone density and connective tissue health.

Here are a few examples of "general" exercises that we use to improve horizontal and diagonal pushing strength.

Specific Exercises

We use specific exercises to replicate the force production patterns involved in the standing position to directly translate to how the body is used in athletics.

Below are three of our favorite "specific" pushing exercises, all staples in the Performance U training system.

Single-Arm Push-Ups

The Single-Arm Push-Up heavily involves the core, hips and lower body. They promote unilateral strength, build better left/right side muscle balance and actively engage the core.

They also train the "serape effect"—the force production relationship between an athlete's shoulder and opposite hip (through the torso), which is responsible for actions like running and throwing.

Standing Single-Arm Cable Press

Athletes commonly make the mistake of using too light a weight on this exercise. This is a big mistake.

The video below shows several key Performance U strategies that help an athlete perform this exercise safely and effectively with a challenging load.

Angled Barbell Presses (Landmine Presses)

The Angled Barbell Press complements sports in which an athlete needs to control an opponent's shoulders (for example, MMA) or getting underneath a player's shoulder pads (football).

If you like this exercise, check out Performance U's Angle Barbell Training: The Best Landmine Exercises DVD.


The "general" and "specific" approach develops complete athletes who are prepared for the unique demands of their sport. "General" exercises improve muscles, while "specific" exercises help those muscles work together to form coordinated movements.

At Performance U, we avoid exclusively training muscles or movements. Instead, our motto is, "Train movements and muscles."

Read more:

3 Kettlebell Exercises You've Never Seen

STACK Approved: ViPR Functional Trainer

Crash Conditioning's Functional Training


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock