What is Functional Training and Why is it Important?
by Phil Jelinowski CSCS
What is all the hype about functional training? Functional training is a catch phrase that gets tossed around quite often in the fitness industry but it’s meaning is somewhat ambiguous. Officially it is defined as: “a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life”. People often think of Crossfit when they hear it.
In recent years there has been a shift in the fitness industry away from bodybuilding and power lifting forms of training that use freeweights and machines and into more movement or bodyweight oriented forms of training like Crossfit and TRX which are thought to be more functional. Does this mean that training with freeweights or machines isn’t functional or that you can’t build muscle and strength using bodyweight exercises like pushups and pullups alone? People who are indoctrinated with a specific approach and who have been training for years using that approach might think so. You will probably not have much luck convincing a hardcore powerlifter about the benefits of calisthenics. Similarly most gymnasts have no interest in lifting weights. However these subgroups are more interested in improving their athletic performance and in order to do that their training must be specific. When it comes to your average person just looking to get in shape one approach is really not superior over the other. Both have their distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Crossfit integrates bodyweight exercises and freeweight exercises into one training program so you reap the benefits of both but the exercise selection and training format may be somewhat circumscribed and subject to dogma. There is often an attitude of “if you don’t do things our way then you are doing it wrong”. I find that even machines, which have no place in Crossfit and are not considered to be a very functional form of training, have their advantages- especially when it comes to strength training. You can load a machine exercise with maximum weight to really challenge the muscles and perform the movement in a controlled manner without risking injury. This is not the case with freeweight exercises where limbs are free to move and there is not much stabilization of joints. The point is not to limit yourself to any specific training approach and to evaluate your goals. If you want to get stronger, build muscle and be able to perform any exercise and have freedom of movement in real life then do freeweights, machines and calisthenics. If your goal is only aesthetic and you want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, by all means hit those weights and stick to them because you are not going to look more vascular by lifting tires or pushing sleds.
My approach to functional training which works well with people from the general population who are looking to build muscle, lose weight, get stronger and improve their overall health and fitness focuses on freeweight exercises like deadlifts, back squats and bench press and additional bodyweight exercises like inverted rows, pullups, pistol squats, leg raises, L-sits and pushup variations. The freeweight exercises build a strong foundation in strength, function and muscular development; there is also no way to substitute them with any other exercise while reaping the same benefits. The bodyweight exercises work the remaining muscle groups further adding to the foundation and they also complement movements in the freeweight exercises; this further increases strength at all points in the range of motion, emphasizes muscular development and allows the person to move freely and do more in real life. This combination works well because a person can develop a truly balanced, ripped and functional physique, reap all the benefits of freeweight and bodyweight exercises and not be limited in any way when it comes to movement.