If you are into fitness or work out at a gym on a regular basis, you have probably heard the term “functional training” being used. Unlike much of the fitness equipment and exercise routines that are advertised on late night television, functional training is not a gimmick or fad but rather a philosophy based on scientific research that combines the principles of physical therapy with the fitness regime of personal training.

Functional training is a training method that focuses on movements, not muscles. What does this mean? Well, it certainly does not mean that you will not develop and tone your body’s musculature. Not only will you develop a beautiful physique, but you will also create efficient and effective movements. What good are the muscles we develop if they don’t work properly or do not help us to move better in our daily and recreational lives?

The rows and rows of fitness equipment you see in a gym, with their seats, backrests, and handles isolate body parts. Most of these exercises are also performed in a seated position, which really limits our fitness capabilities (sitting and exercising seems to be a contradiction).

This is where functional training becomes so effective and efficient. Functional training does not isolate muscles but rather integrates movements. All systems of the body (muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems) work together all the time to produce smooth and efficient movement. The body is a kinetic chain that moves fluidly, calling on various muscles and joints to accomplish tasks all controlled by the nervous system. In fact, the body stores, remembers, and calls on movement patterns—not individual muscles—when performing activities. This is why we can do so many things without consciously thinking about the movements. For example, the body will store a rotation pattern within the nervous system. When we go to swing a tennis racquet, throw a punch, turn to see someone behind us, or pass a grocery bag from the cart to our car the rotation pattern is employed unconsciously. We hone our skills for the sports element but the rotation is natural.

If we limit our fitness regimen to seated machine training only and thus train our body parts in isolation, we do not teach the body to work as one unit the way it is designed to, and we begin to store improper movement patterns in our nervous system. This type of training does not improve our everyday movement patterns, does not allow the body to communicate with itself, and can eventually set us up for injury. Imagine only training your legs on a seated leg extension for several months before a 5k race. The quadriceps may look nice but the moment you start to run your legs are not going to know what’s going on.

When we train functionally we begin to strengthen movements and postures that allow our muscles to not only develop but also talk with each other. When this happens all our muscles can become stronger and more powerful as they learn to work as a team. Think about this teamwork when designing your exercise routine. Think about how your body operates when you are being physical OUTSIDE the gym. We are on our feet, we bend and twist and reach. We use our legs for strength and support while we are pushing and pulling with our arms. Therefore, we need to train this way IN the gym. We need to train in a vertical position (standing up) so that our body can deal with ground reaction forces and gravity which are always present. We need to combine lower body movements with upper body movements so that a full body connection is made. In making this connection, the core is engaged to transfer energy form the lower to the upper body. Thus, as you can see this type of training is all encompassing and therefore, extremely effective and efficient.

The next time you are in the gym, ask a trainer to help you with one of these functional exercises:

  • Squat and row (cable system)
  • Lunge and press (resistance tubing)
  • Step up and curl (dumbbells)
  • Split squat and overhead press (dumbbells)