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What is functional training?

By Michael Boyle

Over the past 10 years, there has been a shift toward making training more functional. The revolution began, as it often does, with physical therapists, and functional training was slowly adopted by coaches and personal trainers. One of the many signs that functional training would be the wave of the future was when the large manufacturers of strength-training machines began to introduce what they called “ground-based” machines and also to manufacture basic squat racks and weight benches. At this point the handwriting was on the wall. The public had spoken with their wallets, and the popularity of machines, particularly in the athletic training area, was on the decline.

However, over the past few years, a controversy has begun to develop around functional training. A kind of functional paradox has arisen. The gurus of functional training seem to deliver a clear message: Functional training should be done standing and should be multijoint. Surprisingly, however, some coaches who have embraced functional training espouse concepts that, in the initial analysis, appear nonfunctional. This use of apparently nonfunctional exercises by supposed proponents of functional training caused some confusion in the field. The reasoning behind this apparent contradiction is actually simple. Function varies from joint to joint. Exercises that promote the function of joints that require stabilization are different from exercises that promote the function of joints that strive for mobility. The primary function of certain muscles and muscle groups is stabilization. Functional training for those muscles involves training them to be better stabilizers, often by performing simple exercises through small ranges of motion. In many cases, in the effort to make everything functional, coaches and athletes ended up neglecting the important stabilizing functions of certain muscle groups.

The three key groups in need of stability training are

  1. the deep abdominals (transversus abdominis and internal oblique),
  2. the hip abductors and rotators, and
  3. the scapula stabilizers.

Many coaches began to label exercises for these areas as rehabilitative or “prehabilitative,” but in fact, these exercises are just another form of functional training. Function at the ankle, knee, and hip is maximized when the hip displays great stability. For some athletes the development of stability at the hip may initially require isolated hip abduction work to properly “turn on,” or activate, the muscle. Performance expert Mark Verstegen of Athletes’ Performance Institute in Tempe, Arizona, refers to this concept as “isolation for innervation.” At certain times, certain muscle groups--notably the deep abdominals, hip abductors, and scapula stabilizers--need to be isolated to improve their function. For this reason, some single-joint, apparently nonfunctional exercises may in fact improve function of the entire lower extremity. This is one of the paradoxes of functional training.

Function at the shoulder joint is enhanced by improving the function of the scapula stabilizers. Although many athletes perform exercises for the rotator cuff, few exercise the scapula stabilizers. But a strong rotator cuff without strong scapula stabilizers is like trying to shoot a cannon from a canoe. At our training facility, we have found that most athletes have adequate rotator cuff strength but insufficient strength or control of the scapula stabilizers. As a result, we frequently employ exercises to work on the scapula stabilizers that might appear nonfunctional, but the development of these areas is critical to long-term health of the shoulder joint.

Physical therapists are again leading the way in the area of developing the stabilizers of the lower back. Improving abdominal strength to aid in the stabilization of the lower back is far from a new concept, but the specific methods are changing rapidly. Researchers in Australia have clearly established that two deep spinal stabilizing muscles, the transversus abdominis and multifidus, experience rapid atrophy after an episode of low-back pain. Without retraining these muscles, the recurrence of back pain is almost guaranteed. To improve the function of the lumbar spine, a certain degree of isolation is necessary, and this isolation involves simple, short-range contractions of the deep abdominal muscles.

The key to developing a truly functional training program is not to go too far in any particular direction. The majority of exercises should be done standing and should be multijoint, but at the same time, attention should be paid to development of the key stabilizer groups in the hips, torso, and posterior shoulder.

A second functional paradox revolves around multiplanar activity done in a sport-specific position. Advocates of this style of functional training espouse the use of loaded exercises (for example, dumbbell, weight vest) with a flexed posture and foot positions that some strength and conditioning coaches would consider less than desirable. Although athletes find themselves in compromised positions in competitive situations, coaches need to evaluate how far they are willing to go in loading athletes in positions of spinal flexion. As an example, although a baseball player often squats down to field a ground ball with a flexed spine, weighted squatting movements with the spine in a flexed position may not be wise. At what point do you cross the line from safe training into unsafe training? Our position on this is simple. The argument that “this happens in sports all the time” is not sufficient to take risks in the weight room. If we are training for strength (six reps or less), we never compromise back safety to make the body position of the exercise more specific. If we are training for endurance (10 reps or more), we may at times employ exercises in flexed postures while loaded with a weight vest or dumbbell. Physical therapist Mike Clark of the National Academy of Sports Medicine has proposed a guideline of not more than 10 percent of body weight for exercises done with a flexed spine or for forward-reaching actions. This is an excellent guide for most athletes but may be too heavy for larger athletes.

As you begin to explore the concept of functional training for sport, keep an open mind about how and why athletes move in your sport. Think of your training as a vehicle to improve performance, not just to improve strength. Many athletes have neglected strength training because they do not fully understand the performance-enhancing value of strength in sports such as baseball, tennis, or soccer. The key from the athlete’s standpoint is for the training to make sense. The key from the coach’s standpoint is to make the training make sense to the athlete. A training program built around actions that do not occur in sport simply does not make sense. The key is to design a training program that truly prepares athletes for their sports. This can be done only by using exercises that train the muscles the same way they are used in sport, in other words, functional training.

This is an excerpt from Functional Training for Sports.

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