TLDR

Functional training is often championed to the uninitiated by confusing and impressing them with technical sounding language.

Functional training is a bad idea for several reasons, such as decreasing performance, increasing injury risk, prolonging recovery time, and lowering consistency.

Functional training often ignores the principle of specificity.

Functional training is largely marketing hype.

Normal training is already functional. No extra, fancy gimmicks required.


Functional Training Is Dysfunctional Training

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There’s a lot of hype, and somewhat of a craze, going around at the moment that goes by the name of functional training. It’s nothing new, but it’s exploded on social media in the last few years.

The name is pretty descriptive of its intention; the idea is to train in a way that’s ‘functional’ (which is an idea that makes perfect sense). But functional training, insofar as social media’s interpretation of it, is actually a misnomer.

Functional Training Is A Misnomer

As mentioned above, the idea behind functional training is to train functionally. That is, the things that we are doing during training should make us more adept and functional with moving our bodies and interacting with life and the world.

A noble pursuit, for sure, but there’s various problems (covered below) with pursuing functional training techniques in search of this result, though, and functional training itself is superfluous.

To explain, think about function as it relates to living and interacting with the world for a moment… things like sitting down, standing up, pushing stuff, pulling stuff, carrying stuff, hinging at the hips, reaching above our heads, lunging over, etc.

We perform these actions all the time, often numerous times a day.

And what are the basic movement patterns of training?

Squat

Push

Pull

Hip hinge

Lunge

Carry

And this is a large reason why designated functional training is a misnomer; standard training is already functional. Indeed, standard training is functional training (it also leads to greater results and benefits, which we’ll cover below).

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We’ll come back to the problems with functional training a little later, but considering that the whole enterprise of functional training is booming, why have so many people fallen for the claims and started following it?

Why People Follow and Believe Functional Training

There’s 3 things that seem to be at play here:

Letters after the trainer’s name.

Ignorance.

Good, even idealised, physiques.

Letters After The Trainer’s Name

Things such as PHD, masters, etc. What this does in most people’s eyes is give these people authority, and therefore people believe what they say because of that authority.

However, there’s a few problems with this:

First is that just because someone has letters after their name doesn’t mean they are right.

Second, and as much as many of us who do have letters after our name don’t like to admit, there’s nothing special about having letters after your name, and most people could actually get them if they had the opportunity.

What letters after the name actually says is that at some time in the past we had the time, inclination, opportunity, and sometimes money, to study something to a pretty decent level.
It doesn’t say anything about us now, and especially not about any claims we may continue to make (as is evidenced by the seemingly ubiquitous amount of doctors on social media, whether of the philosophy or MD variety, spouting what basically amounts to nonsense).

Lastly, it’s the appeal to authority fallacy. Claims must stand on their own, irrespective of who is saying it.

Ignorance

The people that follow and believe it are ignorant. There, we said it. But that’s a descriptive statement, not a pejorative one.

Most people also don’t have time, and sometimes ability, to research and do background checking on all the claims these trainers make.

Many of the folks following this stuff on social media are also impressionable, whether due to a stint of their age or their level of experience.

It’s actually a good marketing ploy and is sure to get lots of eyeballs and access to credit card numbers. We’ll cover this marketing ploy a little more below, but this is largely what functional training is… marketing.

Physiques

The people that you see doing the exercises, which can be anything from professional athletes to gym bros, have good genetics and already look better than 99% of the people you see in the world around you.

Therefore, not only would they get results and look good no matter what they were doing, the functional training exercises that you see them doing are not actually the exercises that got them into that condition in the first place.

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All these reasons (including the difference and novelty of the moves) gets people’s attention, which, with social media being largely a numbers game, draws more followers, which in turn draws even more eyeballs, which draws even more followers, etc. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, powered by the singular drive of increasing eyeball count.

Moreover, if we add some sophistry and psychobabble (“Hey, this PHD person is using all these sciencey sounding lingo… very technical and impressive… they must know what they’re talking about!”), and use big, complicated words, even sentences, often in a convoluted (sometimes nonsensical) way, especially if we can get away with it, it confuses people and can impress them.

Functional trainers are also not unknown for inventing a laundry list of problems that don’t actually exist. Problems that, of course, you need to fix by using their methods if you want to be healthy and optimal.

Couple this stuff to the other 3 reasons above and we have a very good chance of increasing our audience.

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Why Do We Train?

Let’s get something fundamental out the way:

Training is mostly done for the purpose of improving physical fitness.

[Conversely, and although they could be considered largely synonymous, exercise is often used as something to convey maintenance of physical fitness.]

There are various components to physical fitness, all of which we can improve, but, generally speaking, if you are deliberately ‘training’ then you are almost certainly trying to improve your performance in something.

For example, the purpose of weight training is to get stronger, more powerful, or bigger muscles, each of which we can do for various reasons. Moreover, doing so in a gym means we also get these benefits outside the gym.

As such, these improvements in performance carry over into day to day life. We are more able, adept, and yes, functional, when interacting with and facing the demands of life and the world due to the performance improvements we gained in the gym.

Functional Training Is Less Effective

However, on the flip side, functional training doesn’t really do this. The carry over is minimal, and it’s not clear whether it even exists at all.

For example, much functional training is “unstable training”, such as doing exercises, like squats, on BOSU balls, and various imbalanced unilateral movements, like doing a bench press with weight only on one side of the bar, etc.

Stuff like this actually challenges the body less because being unstable (whether due to the setup itself or the surface we’re working on) will prevent your body from generating an amount of force that it’s able to, which therefore results in less adaptations to the body because the stimulus is lower.

If you can squat 100kg but yet on a BOSU ball you can only squat 30kg, which do you think is going to cause more adaptations to the body through that movement pattern (i.e. the hip hinge) and improve the strength and performance of your glutes and quads? Exactly.

Indeed, functional training more than likely leads to less functional adaptations on the body than does normal training.

Functional Training & Reduced Range Of Motion

Much functional training also trains with a limited range of motion (that is, it doesn’t flex or extend joints to a decent degree), often due to some argument around it being ‘better’.

However, mobility is incredibly important, especially for athletes. So important in fact that it’s one of the cornerstones of athletic development. And what is mobility? It’s the ability to exert strength through a full range of motion (ROM).

Ergo, if you train at limited ranges of motion then you’re not improving your mobility as much as you could be. You are, effectively, training sub-optimally, especially as far as athletic performance is concerned.

Reducing ROM For Athletes Is A Bad Idea

Consider some situations that actual athletes commonly find themselves in. They can be weird, uncomfortable, and sub-optimal positions. So if they don’t have full range of motion in a joint then they are actually increasing their injury risk, not decreasing it.

Moreover, athletes are often forced into these positions, often explosively and at speed. What do we think is going to happen when they need to perform if they haven’t trained and used their muscles through a full range of motion, thereby not developed their strength through that full range of motion or even got their muscles used to it?

Their body is going to collapse under the pressure (and have a drastically higher injury risk included).

Further, getting into large ranges of motion, and slowly and carefully beginning to learn how to apply force and tension in those ranges of motion, will, to a large extent, insulate yourself against injury in those ranges of motion (as well as injury in general).

Reducing ROM For Recovery Is A Bad Idea

Reduced ROM is even inadvisable for injury recovery. Sure, immediately after sustaining an injury a reduced ROM might be necessary, even required or enforced upon you physiologically, but the path to recovery and getting again to a full range of motion begins with moving joints through their full range of motion.

Defaulting to a long term reduced range of motion in order to accommodate injury contradicts the advice of physiotherapy (and actually physiological advice in general).

Reducing ROM Generally Increases Injury Risk

One of the surest ways to increase injury risk is to increase weight, and partial range of motion means you have to increase the weight to get the same stimulus as you would with a full range of motion.

Having to use more weight not only means you’re transferring more force through your body, joints, and spinal column, but any misstep in technique or rep means more weight going in a direction that it shouldn’t be.

This can even be dangerous depending on the exercise being performed and the weight being used, such as with squats.

High ROM Is Almost Always A Better Choice

There are at least 5 reasons why a high ROM is better.

Increases resilience.

Increases safety.

Improves consistency.

Improves motor unit Recruitment.

Stretch under tension.

Increases Resilience

We touched on this above (as well as with the next point on safety), but the idea behind training with a full range of motion is that you’re forcing your body to adapt to a high range of motion, under load, in a controlled environment.

As such, when your body experiences this range of motion, not under load, in a uncontrolled environment (such as in life), your body can handle it because it’s already become adapted to it under load in the controlled environment.

Said another way, training at a full range of motion makes your body get stronger and more resilient at these extreme angles and ranges of motion, so when it then experiences these angles and range of motion in life and the world it doesn’t get injured (or at least the chance of injury is reduced).

In effect, training at a full range of motion means your body is harder and more resilient than it would be if you didn’t.

Increases Safety

As mentioned above, this is due to less weight because a higher load always increases your risk of injury.

If you’re using a reduced range of motion, then in order to get the same (or at least very similar) peak tension and transduction of force through the muscle you necessarily have to increase the weight you’re moving, often considerably.

As such, higher ROM means less weight (for the same hypertrophic results), which means increased safety.

Improves Consistency

This is going somewhat into wider territory, but if you want to improve your physical fitness you need to do something called progressively overload.

Basically, you continually and incrementally increase the difficulty of whatever exercises you’re performing so as to force your body to get better.

However, to know if you are actually improving you need to monitor things, such as weight, reps, sets, etc., so you have a record of things going up, down, or sideways.

But if you’re not using a full range of motion then you may actually be using a different range of motion with each rep and/or set, in which case how do you know you’re actually improving or not? Well, you don’t.

For example, you may set out to achieve 10 reps on a bench press, but you half rep 2 of them short because you know that if you don’t you won’t be able to get through all 10 reps.

This is more common than it sounds because when things get hard people can resort to cutting their reps short so as to ensure they still achieve whatever amount of reps they’ve targeted.

A full range of motion negates this as it allows us to standardise a range of motion. A bench press, for example, can be from the bar touching your chest to full lock out of the arms, and if you were doing 10 reps like this before with a certain weight and are now able to do 11 reps then, well, you’ve improved.

Improves Motor Unit Recruitment

A motor unit is comprised of the neuron, the neuromuscular junction, and the muscle fibres, and not all motor units are recruited throughout the entire range of a muscle’s contraction.

So if you’re only training something with a partial range of motion then you’re only recruiting the motor units responsible for that range of motion. The rest of them aren’t stimulated at all, which means you aren’t training the whole muscle.

Doing quarter squats or something will mean you’re only training some fraction of the muscles of your quads and not all of them.

A full range of motion will mean you activate all the muscle fibres in the target muscle during a contraction.

Stretch Under Tension

Stretching a muscle under tension appears very hypertrophic (think Romanian dead lift for a good example), but if you don’t move a joint through a full range of motion you’ll seldom get to experience this stretch under tension. Therefore you’ll be leaving a lot of potential benefit untapped.

But that said, it’s worth being a little careful here as there is definitely too much range of motion, especially under tension, as over-stretching a muscle can increase injury risk.

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Functional Training Is Dysfunctional Training

Given all this, what use is much of the advice on social media about functional training? In truth, it’s actually worse than this because much functional training found on there is dysfunctional training. To prove this, let’s ask what dysfunctional training would look like.

It would be training that didn’t have good (or any) carry over into normal life, training that incorporated convoluted exercise patterns that brought about sub-optimal performance improvements than already available more simple exercises, and it would be training that increased the risk of negative side effects (such as injury).

And much functional training achieves all of this. Take unstable training for example, such as squatting or lunging on a BOSU ball. This only makes you better at one thing… squatting or lunging on a BOSU ball.

No carry over into real life, no challenge to strength (one of the corner stones of athletic development), and a marked increase to injury risk.

This is surely dysfunctional. Radical instability is also not a feature in sports so it’s not even functional for transference to this domain of activity. You will truly never need to be good at performing squats or lunges on a BOSU ball (save for satisfying some functional training peer).

For sure, squatting on a BOSU ball or something may be awkward and challenging, but this is awkward and challenging for the nervous system only. It’s not gut-wrenching HARD on the body, which is what it needs to be for the body to adapt and get, say, stronger.

To make your body stronger you need to force it to adapt by providing a stimulus that’s threatening.

To be fair, unstable training can have benefits, such as it feels challenging and may make you feel like you’re getting benefits, and it can certainly make you alert due to lighting up the nervous system. But that’s it, and you don’t need to perform these circus acts to achieve these things (nor should you because of the increased risk of injury).

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Given the dysfunctional nature of functional training, and the efficacy of normal training, why doesn’t everyone just follow normal training methodology?

The Problem with Normal Training

Let’s be honest… normal training is kinda dull. It doesn’t look cool, or hip, or trendy, or gimmicky, or flash, or chic… insert various other adjectives that catch people’s attention. As such, it doesn’t sell.

Yep, this functional training stuff is done almost exclusively for the purpose of catching people’s attention (most notably on social media) in order to make money.

More attention generally translates to increased follower count, which translates into increased advertisement and/or endorsement revenue (as well as whatever other products the influencer is selling as well).

Some functional trainers have also seemingly just coined the term to catch people’s attention and then proceeded to give us ‘normal training’ anyway, interspersed with the odd (but rare) functional training fluff—maybe for the purpose of just being able to say they’re staying true to their name.

Some functional training stuff just likes to give us normal exercises (like single leg RDL’s, multilateral lunges, step-ups, etc), but try and sell it to us as functional training. Hell, I’ve even seen woodchoppers (an exercise that works the obliques) touted as ‘functional training’ to an audience. Honestly, who is this meant to be functional for? People who chop wood?

Selling Unrealistic Expectations

Let’s also not forget that most people don’t like the idea of exercising and training, never mind being interested in dedicating the significant amounts of time to it that’s required in order to see the results.

As such, when these charlatans tell you that if you just follow their gimmick plans for a couple of weeks to see drastic real world results—results that, of course, carry over into every realm imaginable—people can’t wait to jump at the opportunity and sign their money over.

Then, after spinning their wheels for several months and not making much improvement—which, due to their ignorance, they’ll think is because they didn’t do something correctly, or good enough—they’ll hand over yet more money for the next instalment in the program that promises to fill in the gaps left by the previous one.

Like a perpetual money making machine that provides minimal results so you keep giving them money in order to get some more minimal results from the next program.

Functional training is, in large part, a big con. A con to get your money by promising big and delivering little.

Of course, those who promote it say the opposite. Indeed, they’ll often say functional training improves a whole bunch of stuff in a single exercise, such as strength, power, hypertrophy, flexibility, stability, speed, agility (the list goes on).

All you could ever want or need in one simple gimmicky exercise that they threw together in what we can only assume was a mushroom powered dream.

But this is really not how it works and basically ignores the time-tested principle of specificity.

Specificity

Specificity is that which teaches us that:

Well programmed training for any activity matches the goal.

For sure, many things are a function of strength, so strength is generally the foundation upon which many other things are built.

But once you’ve got a sufficient amount of strength you then work on transferring that strength into the activity in question. Gymnasts will perform gymnastic movements. Bodybuilders will lift weights in moderate to high sets to build bigger muscles. High agility sports, like squash, will do plyometrics and ghosting. Etc.

Doing that which you want to get better at is specificity of movement.

Functional training often ignores this idea because, in truth, you don’t actually need to get better at any of it… unless of course you’re training to get better at the specific activity in question.

Again, for the sake of redundancy, performing squats on a BOSU ball only makes you better at performing squats on a BOSU ball.

Moreover, and in case you missed it above, decreasing stability of the surface you’re working on will decrease the amount of force you can generate, therefore decreasing the amount of weight you can lift, which will (as far as any real world carry over is concerned) decrease the efficacy of the exercise.

Of course, proponents disagree, and will argue that it ‘increases balance’ (or something). And yes, it does, it increases your balance on, say, a BOSU ball.

But if you want to actually get better at balance then, first, get stronger, then work on balance training by performing the specific activities that you want to have high balance with. Increasing your strength will itself increase your balance.

The same arguments apply to the other domains that functional trainers say they’re targeting, such as core stability and anti-rotation work. Nearly all of it should first start with increasing your strength, something for which unstable training is ill-fitted.

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Functional Training Often Wastes Time

The gym can have many purposes, but the general idea is to make the body (tissues, structures, and general physical abilities) tougher, stronger, more robust… better in some way.

Given this, we should want to be training in a way that maximises our time in pursuit of our goals.

Performing these gimmicks and circus acts just takes time, time that could be better spent performing something more focused and improving your physical fitness in a shorter time-frame—spend it getting stronger, playing your sport, practising your movement patterns, etc.

Remembering specificity is a good idea because it informs you on how to train for your goals.

Don’t try and ‘throw everything together into one exercise’, thinking you’re getting the best of all possible worlds. You’re actually getting the opposite due to half-arsing each area of specificity that you’re after.

Trying to maximise multiple components of physical fitness with one exercise means you’re half-arsing your training. Click To Tweet

Build your foundation, then specialise. If you need more of something in order to continue to improve (strength being a common one), then focus on getting more it. Then, after you’ve improved upon your foundation, specialise again, bringing your new capability to bear on the activity in question.

Doing the opposite just means you’re getting minimal benefit to each component of any ability or fitness that you’re trying to harness; you’re getting 2% to your strength, 2% to your agility, 2% to your balance, 2% to your coordination, etc (which are actually generous numbers). This is sub-optimal and, let’s be honest, a daft way to train.

Not Just Functional Training

Trying to throw a bunch of stuff together is not just limited to functional training either as it’s commonly seen all over social media in something called ‘complexes’.

The idea is to string multiple exercises together while carrying something like dumbbells, then performing various movements back to back, such as an overhead press, then a row, then a triceps extension, then a squat—where 1 rep of each exercise is then 1 rep of the complex.

It’s generally done to save time and/or work on aerobic fitness as well, but it’s often just wasting time again.

If you’re holding a weight that’s suitable for, say, triceps extension, then there’s little chance it’s also suitable for OH press, squats or rows. And if it’s suitable for squats then good luck doing the others with it (of course, a somewhat balanced body is assumed with these remarks).

Unless you’re only picking movement patterns that are completely compatible (which isn’t without difficulty) then you’re largely wasting your time with stuff like this.

If you want to maximise your improvements then you’re mostly better off just focusing.

Conclusion

Training is already functional. So just train and largely forget about this deliberate ‘functional training’ hype.

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