Per Olof Astrand coined the term functional training in a landmark article titled “Why Exercise?” He stated, “If animals are built reasonably, they should build and maintain just enough, but not more structure than they need to meet functional requirements” (1992, p. 154). Dr. Astrand was ahead of his time in predicting that people would soon be focusing more on why they should exercise, rather than on how exercise changes their physique. In a recent article on trends in fitness and wellness, Archer (2007) suggested that people need more of a sense of purpose for why they exercise and predicted that soon there will be a blending of fitness and wellness. Rather than exercising for aesthetics and to improve how we look, we will be exercising to improve our lives. The term functional training is often used to explain this movement from aesthetics to purposeful exercise.
The great majority of functional training literature has focused on the older adult population due to the link between physical activity or exercise, physical function, and risk for disability. For example, Anders (2007) took a group of fit older adults aged 58 to 78 years who engaged in traditional exercise training and had them focus on functional fitness movements for 4 weeks. The subjects were pre- and posttested using the Rikli and Jones (1999) Functional Fitness Test for older adults. Anders (2007) found that the focus on functional movements versus traditional fitness movements over a 4-week timeframe improved changes in functional fitness test scores even in exercise-trained individuals. Another example is found in the study by deVreede, Samson, and VanMeeteren (2005), who randomized older adults into two groups: a functional task–specific group (using sit-to-stand exercises and functional training) and another group that performed a strength circuit using variable resistance machines. Although both groups improved in strength overall, the functional task–specific group reported that their quality of daily living improved. Quality of life indexes have been shown to improve in both types of muscle conditioning (Fiatarone, O’Neill, and Ryan 1994); however, due to the principle of muscle specificity, we can assume that a functionally based program will have the most significant effect on daily function. Unfortunately, few studies exist in the literature that evaluate functional fitness outcomes in younger adults and non-physically disabled individuals.
In functional fitness training, the muscles are trained and developed in such a way as to make the performance of everyday activities easier, smoother, safer, and more efficient. Functional exercises aim to improve the ability to function independently in the real world. In short, functional training is fitness training for life. Of course, everyone leads different lives; some spend their days lifting and carrying, others work in factories, many others sit all day long at their desks or driving in their cars. Almost everyone performs routine and familiar movements such as walking, standing up, sitting down, and bending over to retrieve something from the floor. The goal of functional training is to train the body to handle these and other real-life situations easily and safely.
Another hallmark of functional training is that exercises and movements are given that train the muscles to work together in a coordinated, whole-body way. Of course, that’s what happens when you perform daily activities. Imagine how the muscles coordinate when you pick up a heavy laundry basket or a full trash can. Leg muscles work when you bend and straighten the hips, knees, and ankles, while the upper body muscles work to grasp and lift the heavy object. Meanwhile, the torso muscles are busy trying to maintain a stable spine. In real life, you hardly ever work just one muscle at a time. The idea of many muscles working all at once to perform smooth and efficient real-world movements is the idea behind functional exercise.
Traditionally, exercise scientists and fitness professionals have focused on standard weight room–type exercises for muscle conditioning, often performed on machines. While these exercises certainly have merit, they have tended to isolate specific muscles; in other words, only a single joint may have been used, while all other joints were kept still. A good example of this is a biceps exercise performed on a standard biceps curl machine. Here, the only moving joints are the elbows; all other joints are stabilized against the chair or strategically placed pads. Although such an exercise can be an excellent way to strengthen the biceps muscles, most of us do not use our biceps in this isolated way in real life.
Functional exercises tend to be multijoint, multimuscle exercises. Instead of only moving the elbow, as in the biceps exercise example described previously, a truly functional exercise might involve the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles. Instead of isolating the biceps muscles, a functional exercise may simultaneously strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, abdominals, and back muscles; an example could be squatting to pick up dumbbells and then performing a standing biceps curl. Such an exercise duplicates the action of bending to pick up bags (with handles) full of groceries and then placing the bags on the kitchen counter. It is worth noting that most truly functional exercises are performed in a standing, or at least an upright, position since this more closely resembles our real-life daily positioning. Another hallmark of a functional exercise is that it tends to be multiplanar, moving the body through the sagittal, frontal, and horizontal planes. Traditional exercises are typically uniplanar; the standard biceps curl, for example, is only in the sagittal plane. In real life we constantly move through a multitude of planes, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to repeatedly train in only one plane.
Functional training also has roots in the area of sport-specific training. This form of functional training was created by fitness professionals who desired to enhance the performance of athletes. Wolfe, Lemura, and Cole (2004) describe functional training as the art of training movements and not muscles. They believe this paradigm shift is what is needed to make a difference in the performance of athletes as well as in the performance of activities of daily living. According to Wolfe, Lemur, and Cole, when exercise programs exclusively use machines or isolated, repetitive movements, your client’s functional needs are not being trained. You have to incorporate balance and speed and work the body through the various planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, transverse) rather than focus on single-plane movements that strengthen the body in only one direction. As a reminder, we are not suggesting that you avoid all isolated muscle actions for all participants. Single-joint and isolated-muscle exercises definitely have value, particularly for beginners, frail older adults, those with poor body awareness, and those with muscle imbalances. At the other end of the continuum, just because an exercise is challenging, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is functional. For example, some kettlebell exercises, such as Turkish get-ups, are touted as functional, but we need to ask, for whom? Getting up off the ground is a good exercise to include for functional purposes; however, lifting a heavy weight with one hand overhead while getting up may not be necessary for life.
Santana (2002) has defined functional training by describing the various movement patterns that people use in their daily lives. His theory on functional training states that because in our daily lives we stand and move about, raise and lower the centers of our bodies, push and pull, and rotate with many movements, our exercise movements ought to mimic these basic daily patterns. Similarly, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), in their Personal Trainer Manual (2010), identified five primary movements that encompass all activities of daily living: bend-and-lift movements (e.g., squatting), single-leg movements (e.g., lunging), pushing movements, pulling movements, and rotational movements.
Underscoring the movement toward functional fitness, Cook (2010), a physical therapist working with professional athletes, created a series of tests to measure functional human movement. These assessments are used in some fitness and strength and conditioning programs and are called Functional Movement Screening Tests. Like the Rikli and Jones (1999) test for senior functional movement, Cook’s tests were designed to measure functional movement for athletes. We have seen that using the functional movement screening protocols in an active-duty military population can enhance training outcomes (Kennedy-Armbruster et al. 2012). Our hope is that functional movement tests that focus on a larger segment of the population will eventually be designed.
Functional training assessments, theories, and recommendations are in line with the idea that participants need to take the benefits of the group exercise experience out of the fitness facility and into their lives. If we provide movements that relate to real life and even name movements after functional daily activities, we will help participants integrate fitness into their real world. For example, an overhead deltoid press exercise may be referred to as an exercise that assists with putting away things in a cupboard. A squat exercise with a bilateral deltoid raise may be a dryer exercise, simulating getting clothes out of a dryer. The more we integrate the importance of training for daily living activities into our conversation during group exercise, the more we teach participants about the relationship between movement and well-being.