Training | POSTED March 28, 2022

Falling into the Functional Training Trap

Introduction to functional training

Functional Training is a buzzword phrase you’ll often hear thrown about in the fitness industry. Like many buzzwords, it can refer to so many things that it tends not to mean anything specific at all. I’m willing to bet that if I asked you what you think “functional training” entails, you may envision someone training their balance with special implements (like a ‘Bosu Ball’), performing unilateral exercises (single leg/arm), trying to mimic sporting movements and using a wide variety of free weight implements and suspension trainers, possibly in a circuit fashion while avoiding machines in an effort to be “functional”.

I want to be clear, I’m all for people becoming physically active. However, I don’t like misinformation providing inaccurate expectations to unknowing individuals. Functional Training is often touted as being useful for the following:

  • Injury prevention
  • Sport performance
  • Building muscle and strength
  • “Correcting imbalances”
  • “Toning” and burning fat

The burden of proof however lies on the individual’s making these claims. As we’ll unpack today, you’ll see there’s little evidence showing any particular training style, especially what I’ve previously mentioned is uniquely beneficial or safe compared to standard resistance training. People are already struggling to participate in physical activity. My goal is to keep training as simple and as accessible as can be. To that end, today I hope to unpack the fallacy of functional training and show you how normal resistance training is more than enough for you to reach your goals safely and effectively [1], [2], [3].

It’s all in the word

“Functional” – let’s stop and think about that for a second. What does it mean? It usually refers to two things:

  1. having a special activity, purpose, or task.
  2. designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive.

A special activity, purpose, or task

Last time I checked every exercise is useful and purposeful if your purpose is to get fitter and healthier than you once were in the absence of exercise! Allow me however to expand on this point further:

The weight room is fantastic at making your body more “robust” overall which you then take into your everyday life or sport via “practise” or challenging the tasks specifically that you actually expect to perform. Bastardising regular exercises by making them mimic the sports field not only ruins the practice of the position (as it changes under load) but additionally, means you can’t load your weights optimally and miss out on the output benefits from strength training. 

Now it’s not completely black and white. Here’s what I mean, one study showed that vertical jump improved with regular barbell squats but also showed a robust response with quarter squats which more closely resemble the task [4], [5]. There’s probably a point where more specific work is useful especially with more advanced athletes. However, for the overwhelming majority of individuals who are undertrained, basic, non-specific strength work is sufficient.

Dumbbell Incline Press

Practical and useful, rather than attractive

There may also be times where it can be productive to train specific tasks or activities of daily living that an individual may come across, especially in certain populations with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s [6],[7]. To play devil’s advocate however, as per the principle of specificity, if you devise a program and train individual’s on unstable surfaces, then testing people in unstable environments will most likely show an improvement as opposed to “regular training”. A fairer question would be “does resistance training also improve balance sufficiently for activities of daily living” and to this end, the answer is yes [8]. Resistance training in its basic form is still well established to improve quality of life for all age groups and life stages [9].

It’s the marketing, not the method

My cynical self says that most of the hype about “functional” is a matter of marketing. It simply plays on the fear of “missing out” rather than anything justifiable. So why am I making a big deal about it?

Well, for the following reasons it/s:

  • Fear mongering.
  • Marketing which sucks people into something that looks flashy but doesn’t have much substance.
  • Lacks long term progression and fostering a progression mindset to training.

Fear mongering

In particular I’d like to speak to “fear mongering”: people don’t exercise enough and that’s not good. The last thing the fitness industry needs to do is place up arbitrary barriers to participation on made up requirements around “competency” or “earning the right to lift” (whatever that means). Moreover, it suggests that exercise is unsafe which is a) untrue [10] and b) it means they don’t consider the overall benefit of exercise to outweigh the incredibly small chance of injury.

Flashy, but zero substance

Secondly, it looks flashy. I get it, basic dumbbells, machines and barbells are nothing new (but do they have to be?). It looks cool to balance on one leg, do awesome push-up variations and hang off suspension trainers. In fact – it’s all exercise so I can’t complain. My issue is that many of these movements are incredibly advanced and not very well scalable. In fact, many competent fitness professionals who demonstrate these movements have spent years already doing the “basics”; they didn’t get there in a flash, they got there on substance. They need to teach you the same.

Lacks long term progression

This ties into the last point about long term progression too. Lifts that are overly complicated do not lend themselves well to long term loading potential. We aren’t here to perform circus tricks, we are here to train our body productively. Although there’s nothing wrong with, and, in fact, it’s wonderful to see what the human body can do, incredibly athletic and skilled individuals (athletes, performers etc.) have still built their base of fitness and strength on basic exercise [3].

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

It’s not HIIT, either

Okay one last bugbear of mine. We often hear “functional training” get mixed in with HIIT or some boot-camp style training. This kind of “functional training” is just circuit training, it’s not HIIT. I understand the popularity of classes and and I’m absolutely stoked that they get people moving. But as an exercise professional, at the basic level of science communication and professional standards, it pains me to hear people butcher both the term and usage of HIIT.

Bodyweight or light resistance circuits are not HIIT. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. By nature, HIIT requires a VO2 max above 90% (or 90% of max sprint speed). Resultantly, and due to the “intensity” of the intervals which should be of no surprise, “high”, requires long enough rest intervals to be able to sustain that intensity of effort. What irks me is that again, there’s marketing behind this method of being uniquely superior which is not based on sound reason or physiological principles. These programs do not build substantial amounts of muscle as the resistance is limited and recovery low. Moreover, they do not cause you to burn more fat on the basis of increasing your post oxygen exercise consumption to substantial amounts (the “afterburn”). Again, misleading marketing isn’t helping anyone [12], [13].

HIIT on the Rogue Echo Bike

What is functional training?

I would argue that what’s functional is really either:

a) training that is specific to your goals.

b) training that allows you to push the tasks you actually want to perform, better.

I would probably add that the training you perform should actually lead to an outcome. If you want to build muscle, don’t do aerobic-limited or endurance-limited circuits. If your goal is to increase your cardiovascular endurance, you actually need to challenge yourself, you can’t just lift weights even if it feels like you’re “getting puffed”.

In closing, there’s nothing wrong with resistance circuits for the movement benefits and enjoyment. Moreover, sedentary individuals with a low existing base of muscle mass may put on a small amount of muscle before plateauing but it isn’t a long term strategy.

I care about this topic as many people will be spinning their wheels after exercising for years and they are unsure as to why they aren’t making progress. Now, if we acknowledge that training is useful for a specific purpose and has its limitations then, people should ideally train for the correct reason in an appropriately allocated amount. The gym is where you can work on the “hardware” of your system and is nearly infinitely scalable to varying levels of experience; the sporting field or everyday activities is where we develop the “software” or skills required but may not have scalability as a feature.

Barbell Overhead Press

What do we do at Ivy Training?

Well we’d argue that our training is fit-for-purpose. We do cater to clients with very specific performance outcomes. Some compete in powerlifting, others are marathon runners, others are preparing for particular tests such as the Police Capacity Testing. In these instances, considering which movements and energy systems we train matter more.

For the overwhelming majority of individuals and many “off-season” athletes, the priorities of building muscle, physical resilience and strength will be covered with the basics [3].

To that end, we argue that strength training is completely fine and absolutely “functional”. Most compound exercises strike a reasonable middle ground between balance, range of motion, and overall systemic loading. This makes your time spent training reasonably efficient. Exercises such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts, dumbbell presses, lat pulldowns, leg presses and more are all sufficient for someone looking to get fitter, stronger and healthier.

Clients at Ivy Training