What Exactly Is Functional Exercise?
In today’s post I aim to clarify what functional exercise really is. I’m sure you’ve heard of functional exercise or functional training because these terms are thrown around by nearly every trainer and every gym out there today. The problem is that many of them are confusing functional exercise with something it is not. Read on to find out more of my thoughts on this…
In the world of fitness there are many buzzwords that show up in magazine articles and online ads. These buzzwords are often used by trainers and gyms with the hope of standing out from the competition while trying to sell their services to potential clients.
Some examples of these overused terms are:
Long and Lean Muscles
On second thought, maybe I should post that list on the front page of this website. I’m sure my number of readers would quadruple! Why? Because these are the terms that everyone wants to hear. However, there’s often a difference between what people want to hear and what will actually help them.
These terms may sound familiar to you, and you likely have your own ideas about what each of them means. But the problem with buzzwords is that there’s rarely any single definition that’s backed up by scientific research and agreed upon by all those in the industry.
Instead, these words are thrown out there by trainers who hope to sound knowledgeable and want to impress prospective clients. However, when you hear trainers using these buzzwords, it’s a safe bet that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
Unfortunately, buzzwords don’t help people move closer to their goals, they just offer confusion. Instead of using buzzwords and jargon, my goal is to help explain and define what quality training looks like. My goal is to help you truly understand how to get the results you want from your exercise program.
One such buzzword that is misused too often is the term “functional exercise.” It seems that every trainer brags about their exercise programs being functional, but are they really? What does functional exercise really mean, and are they getting it right? That’s what I hope to shed some light on today.
What is Functional Exercise?
Before I can tell you what functional exercise means I must go back several decades and tell you a story of the evolution of fitness.
Prior to 1960 strength training in gyms was almost exclusively comprised of exercises using barbells, dumbbells, or other free weights. Up until that point that was pretty much all there was, apart from bodyweight exercises like push-ups. Classic weightlifting exercises like the squat, the deadlift, the clean and press, the bench press, and others reigned supreme. Also, the exercise shown below was apparently done…don’t try this at home!
Anton Gietl One Handed Weightlifing in 1930
The only problem with this model was that it was not accessible to novices, or people who didn’t have an interest in serious weightlifting. There was no simple way to lift weights without risking injury if you didn’t know what you were doing or have a coach to guide you.
Enter Harold Zinkin, who was a weightlifter and bodybuilder in the 1930s and 1940s. His goal by the time the 1950s rolled around was to make strength training more accessible and safe to the novice lifter, and to do this he developed the “weight machine.” By 1963, the “Universal Gym” weightlifting machine was being mass produced and sold to gyms.
This type of weight machine made it much easier for novices to begin strength training.
Today, the Universal Gym lives on through the many selectorized weightlifting machines currently produced by companies such as Nautilus, Precor, Life Fitness, and more. If you walk into any commercial gym, these machines smack you in the face because they’re practically covering the entire floor!
The development and growing popularity of these weightlifting machines that made it safe and easy to strength train brought about a dichotomy between the weightlifting purists and the weight machine users. The purists believed that proper lifting of free weights (i.e. dumbbells and barbells) was the best (nay, the ONLY) way to improve strength, while the weight machine users loved the ease of use and safety that came along with the selectorized machines.
This debate is still around today, and the selectorized weight training machines are still alive and well in many gyms. In fact, these machines will probably always be popular for two main reasons.
The first is that they are useful in training for body builders where the goal is to isolate a specific muscle or muscle group and focus in on it for maximal burn. Machines take away the need to use the rest of the body for stability and allow you to focus in on one muscle.
The second is that machines support the current business model of most commercial gyms. Machines help optimize the flow of exercisers on the gym floor because it’s much quicker and easier to pull a pin out of a weight stack and move it up or down to select the desired resistance than to set up a barbell for a lift. They also allow you to do one exercise on one machine, and then move to the next machine to allow someone else to take a turn.
On the other hand, with free weights an exercise usually takes more time to perform, and you can do multiple exercises with the same set of weights. This is great for one person lifting weights, but it’s not great for the flow of gym traffic.
So, weight lifting machines allow people to get through their workouts quicker, which allows gyms to get more people in and out of the door in a single day, and thus they can make more money while keeping their membership prices low. They also allow gyms to let more people strength train safely without the need for qualified trainers to teach each person how to properly lift free weights.
You can see then why weight lifting machines have gained mass popularity, and why it’s probable that they’ll continue to be used in many gyms. However, there is one huge, undeniable problem with these machines: they’re not functional.
What I mean by this is that machines don’t allow you to train your body in a way that replicates how it works in real life. When you move your body, many joints and muscles must work together not only to move the body, but also to stabilize the body during movement. That’s how the body functions in real life.
Because of this, there has been a shift in mind-set by most trainers in the fitness industry over the past several decades. They now understand the need to shift away from the isolated, selectorized machines towards more functional exercise. This means that people are realizing the value of exercising the body in a similar way to how it moves in real life. This is a good thing!
However, like many good things, the shift towards functional exercise has been taken too far. The idea that if some is good, more is better abounds in many areas of the fitness industry, but nowhere is this more prevalent than in the concept of functional exercise.
Like I mentioned before, functional exercise is simply training the body to exercise in a manner that replicates how it needs to function in real life. This means that performing exercises involving multiple joints and muscle groups working together, as in a squat, deadlift, press, or row, is preferable to performing exercises that involve only one joint and one or two muscles working, as in a biceps curl.
Squats are a functional exercise; biceps curls…not so much.
But the problem is that many trainers take this way too far. In other words, they take a functional exercise and try to super-size it. If a squat is considered a functional exercise, then performing a squat on a BOSU ball while holding weights overhead and performing a leg-kick must be functional exercise on steroids!
Many people also wrongly think that functional exercise means using functional exercise equipment, but this isn’t the case. Many companies have profited from the shift towards functional exercise by producing equipment like BOSU balls, stability balls, balance boards, wobble boards, bands, kettlebells, etc. etc.
Not all of these pieces of equipment are bad, but they don’t automatically make exercises functional. Functional exercise should make you better at functioning in real life, and the last time I checked, the ground doesn’t usually shift and wobble under you in real life (unless you’re in an earthquake!).
Like many other fitness buzzwords, functional exercise can mean different things to different people. However, true functional exercise helps to improve how you function in real-life. So the next time someone tries to sell you on how “functional” an exercise is, just ask them: “how exactly will that help me function in real life?”
It’s easy to get caught up in how flashy an exercise looks, but the only effective exercises are the ones that actually help move you toward your goals and perform better in real life.
Machine based strength training will help you get stronger, there’s no doubt about it. But it doesn’t mimic how your body stabilizes and moves in real life. Because of this, the strength you gain on a machine won’t transfer as well to the strength you need in real life.
By that same token, standing on a BOSU ball may challenge you (I never said it was easy!). But that challenge doesn’t correlate to the challenges your body faces in real life.
So, the truth behind functional exercise is that it’s somewhere between the two extremes of sitting on a weight machine and standing on a BOSU ball. Truly functional exercise helps you improve how your body functions. If an exercise doesn’t mimic how you use your body in real life, and it doesn’t help improve how you function during normal movement, then it’s not functional.
Recently, I was at a commercial gym, and I got to experience being caught in the middle of these two extremes.
There I was foam rolling as part of my warm-up (before I did some actual functional exercises of course!), and to my left someone was sitting on a leg-extension machine maxing out their quads, while their low back was rounded and their core was doing absolutely nothing. To my right, someone was standing on a BOSU ball performing literally the worst squat I had ever seen, and probably thinking “man this exercise is functional!”
I was in the middle figuratively performing face-palms at the irony of the situation.
What’s the moral of the story? Just because something is trendy doesn’t mean it’s good for you. I love functional exercise, but not what some people might think of as “functional exercise.”
An exercise’s usefulness should be rated by how much it helps you improve, not how cool it looks. So, make sure the exercises you’re performing are helping your body perform better in real life. If they’re not, then they’re not functional exercises.