How Functional Training Has Overly Complicated Strength Training

STACK Expert Lee Boyce weights in on the debate about 'functional training.' What is it and do athletes really need it?

"Functional training" is a term that's been thrown around for as long as I've been a strength coach. Functional training typically refers to exercises that relate to everyday, lifestyle-based movements with similar patterns and therefore have direct application. Does that make any movement that doesn't fit this description a waste of time? Not necessarily. Here are the facts.

The misuse of the term "functional" in training has stimulated plenty of debate among professionals in the industry. Many default to performing ultra-specific movements that are extremely complex in nature, possibly even adding an unstable surface with equipment like the BOSU ball. Though exercises like this may at times be justified, those times are incredibly rare when it comes to the general population.

Exercises with weights primarily train muscles to fire and contract. If a muscle is firing, it's functioning, making it functional. One thing needs to be said. If you want to be functional—that is, someone who is capable of moving well, and is strong, athletic and mobile—you need to choose the exercises that produce the most bang for your buck. The moves that ask the most of your strength, overall muscle engagement and mobility are a good place to start, and those exercises are nothing new. They're these primary movement patterns:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead Press
  • Lunge
  • Row Variations
  • Pull-Ups
  • Twist Variations

These are among the most foundational movement patterns, and they are indeed the most fitting from a functional perspective. It doesn't take Single-Leg Lateral Hops on a BOSU ball while carrying a weight in one hand to become more athletic. The truth is, most people who perform exercises like that don't have a proper foundation to begin with.

If you're having problems with these exercises, your goal should be to do what it takes to get better at them. Whether that means performing the exercises themselves more often, or using other exercises to improve the performance of the primary patterns, choose your assistance exercises wisely.

For an example of an assistance exercise, in the case of Squats, weak, unstable knees can result in a poor performance under the bar. This exercise can definitely help with knee stability, and could help your Squat pattern.

So can this:

Because an exercise is considered "functional" doesn't mean it can't be simple in its execution and still be effective. The primary movement patterns above should comprise the foundation of every program, regardless of your cosmetic or athletic goals. Remember, functional means that the exercise will help you achieve your ultimate goals. Do you think getting stronger in these primary lifts will make you a better and stronger athlete? The answer is obviously yes, so don't overcomplicate things if you don't need to.

Learn to move well and get stronger while moving well. That's what I call functional.

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