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What Is Functional Training, and Should You Add It to Your Workout?

Woman doing squats in her living room.

Functional training is one of those buzzwords we hear in the fitness community, but what does it actually mean? Is it right for you? Let’s find out.

What Is Functional Training?

Functional training was developed to train the muscles in a way that supports someone’s everyday movements, so he can perform them with ease and an increased level of safety. It practically mimics the movements someone makes every day, like lifting a box from the floor, grabbing a heavy suitcase from an airplane’s overhead compartment, carrying grocery bags, or simply playing fetch with the dog.

It’s designed to work multiple joints and muscles together, which, in turn, promotes better joint stability, improves balance, encourages proper muscle engagement, and prevents incorrect alignment and posture. That’s where the word “functional” comes in: all the exercises have a functional purpose to help you perform daily tasks with greater ease and less risk of injury.

Examples of Exercises

When you start browsing through functional training exercises, you’ll most likely see some familiar moves, such as squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, ball throws, and sled pushes. That’s because these all mimic your everyday movements. For example, you squat down in a store to get an item from a lower shelf. You lift your baby from the floor and swing her into the air. You throw a ball for your dog to catch. You lift and carry heavy bags of groceries.

Functional training focuses on compound exercises, in which multiple muscle groups and joints are activated and involved simultaneously, making the movement more powerful. It drives the force from the entire body, rather than just one isolated muscle group.

These movements replicate natural human movements, as it’s extremely rare that we do anything that isolates our bicep or hamstring without us purposely trying to do so. When you stand up from your chair at work, you’re using your abs as much as your legs. If you didn’t properly engage both areas, you’d be stuck sitting there forever.

Even when you reach for the remote, you’re not just using and extending your arm; you’re also engaging your core, back, shoulder, and, sometimes, even your lower body (depending on how far away the remote is).

Compound exercises help your body learn how to perform these movements with more ease by building a solid foundation. This way, whenever you do them outside the gym, your muscles and joints will already know what to do.

Benefits of Functional Training

In addition to the benefits we’ve already covered, there are larger, long-term benefits functional training exercises can offer including:

  • Reduced risk of injury: The more you strengthen and tone your body through compound movements, the lower your risk of straining or pulling a muscle. It will prevent you from overexerting your joints or using the wrong muscle at the wrong time. We move through our lives on autopilot, and it can set us up for careless injuries. Functional training helps prevent these by keeping our body prepared and alert—even when our minds are in the clouds.
  • Creates synergy and balance between all muscle groups: When you work with a variety of muscles and joints simultaneously, you teach your body how to function better as a whole. You train it to be one entity, rather than a bunch of individual parts that work independently. This way, your body will know how and when to activate multiple muscle groups to help you perform a specific activity without having to rely on just one.
  • Improves mobility and flexibility: As we get older, our range of motion starts to decrease. We tighten up in places that make it impossible to touch our toes or reach for something far behind us. Functional training helps you build strength and improve the flexibility of your muscles and joints. It also removes limitations on your daily movements, so you won’t end up with a shoulder injury if you spend the evening throwing a Frisbee, or throw out your back while lacing your sneakers.
  • Enhances coordination and balance: As your body moves as one system, instead of a sum of its individual parts, it acts more compact and tighter, not allowing any part to move by itself. This greatly diminishes the risk of falling off balance or leaning and relying on the wrong body part.
  • Increases your mind-to-body connection and improves overall awareness: Learning how to properly engage specific muscle groups in any given situation helps you develop kinesthetic awareness, or the ability to understand how your body moves. Which muscles, when activated, impact which specific joints, and cause your body to turn, lift, drop, and move in which specific way. This is greatly due to the proper mind-to-muscle connection mechanism functional training builds.

It’s easy to see how including functional exercises in your fitness routine can be beneficial. If you’re just starting out, though, be sure to have someone guide you. It’s important to maintain the correct form to maximize the benefits of functional training.

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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