The concept of “functional training” has long been an area of great confusion, at times even heated debate. But simply throwing up our hands and declaring it a meaningless industry buzzword is inaccurate, not to mention gets us nowhere.
As hot button a topic as it is, functional training is a subject worthy of intelligent discussion. But first we must clear the air of past transgressions and start anew.
So let’s start by defining exactly what “functional training” truly is, and especially what it isn’t. From there we may confront the sources of the confusion head on and separate the sense from the training & conditioning nonsense.
What does Functional even mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, functional is described as having a special task or purpose.
So functional training has nothing to do with what the exercise looks like, nor does it have to do with the type of equipment you’re using — functional training is all about transfer into your specific movement task and specific training goal (i.e., the purpose of why you’re training)!
Put simply, if the exercise transfers positively into the target sport, activity or physique goal you’re training for, it’s functional!
Now, some exercises have an obvious and direct functional transfer into the specific training goal while other exercises offer a less obvious transfer. That’s why in the Performance U training system, we classify exercises as either Specific or General based on how they (functionally) transfer into the training goal.
That said, since those looking to maximize sports performance (i.e., the “Go”) have a different training goal than those whose goal is bodybuilding (i.e., the “Show”), what we’d consider a specific exercise application for one training goal would be classified as a general exercise application for the other.
Here’s the breakdown of what we classify as general and what we classify as specific exercise applications for athletes looking go maximize performance, followed by the breakdown for those whose goal is to maximize muscle growth.
Specific Exercises for Sports Performance
As stated in my Functional Bodybuilding article, these exercises have a direct and obvious transfer because they’re based on the principle of specificity.
According to Dr. Everett Harman in the reference book for the NSCA, Essentials of Strength & Conditioning: “The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity).
“The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercise similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occur and the direction of the movements. In addition, joints ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”
Put simply, we don’t load skills with our specific exercise applications — we work on improving specific force generation patterns, which transfer into target movements that commonly occur in the athlete’s sport.
A good example of what we’d call a specific exercise would be rotational medicine ball throws to improve rotary power for a baseball player, golfer, or combat athlete.
General Exercises for Sports Performance
For the goal of maximizing sports performance, our general exercises are basically bodybuilding exercises — compound and isolation movements using free weights, cables, and machines — used to indirectly help functional performance by increasing muscle mass, motor unit recruitment, bone density, connective tissue health, etc.
It’s important to note that many coaches and trainers are uncomfortable with athletes training with bodybuilding concepts. What they fail to realize is that athletes are already getting the most functional (i.e., specific) training they can possible get — through sports practice and competition.
This brings another reality to light, namely that a strength & conditioning program is an opportunity for athletes to work on other important physical qualities not already targeted by playing and practicing their sport; qualities that can positively transfer into improved performance and overall health.
That said, since bodybuilding applications don’t often reflect any specific force generation patterns that may occur in a given sport, their ability to positively transfer into improved performance potential is less obvious and often ignored or misunderstood. This is something that I clarify in my Functional Bodybuilding article.
Specific Exercises for Bodybuilding
As noted, things are flipped around when the goal is to maximize the show instead of the go. So our specific exercises for maximal muscle development are, naturally, the foundational bodybuilding exercises — compound and isolation movements using free weights, cables and machines — used to elicit the three mechanisms of hypertrophy: muscle tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
General Exercises for Bodybuilding
Although bodybuilding exercises have a specific transfer for the goal of bodybuilding, we must not neglect general functional capacity, which can be summarized as how broad one’s range of ability is.
Put simply, the person capable of performing a broader range of specific tasks can be considered to posses a higher functional capacity.
The human body is built to be capable of performing many tasks, not just the movements required in basic bodybuilding exercises. For this reason we sprinkle in some athletic-oriented exercises such as rotational medicine ball throws and standing one-arm cable presses as general exercise applications, to maintain these other important physical qualities neglected by the bodybuilding applications.
Still, the majority of the training time here is focused on specific bodybuilding exercises. Any additional multi-directional type exercises are used sparingly to help our bodybuilding enthusiasts maintain some of their “go” while they focus primarily on their “show.”
We Train Movements AND Muscles
Although we appreciate the advice “train movements, not muscles” for athletes whose primary goal is sports performance (i.e., primarily movement related), we feel this recommendation is off base for athletes, exercise enthusiasts, and bodybuilders alike.
Apart from that muscles create movements — so it’s technically impossible to train movements without training muscles — in the Performance U approach, we train movements and muscles (i.e., patterns and parts) because both types of training offer a positive transfer, as both provide a benefit the other misses.
So it only makes good sense that using both approaches, rather than arguing one versus the other, makes a training program more comprehensive and effective.
Furthermore, we also integrate mobility drills, which we classify as general exercise applications, usually in the warm-up portion of all training programs. These give us the joint end-ranges of motion not used in typical resistance training applications.
Debunking Common Arguments and Approaches to Functional Training
Now that I’ve clarified what the term “functional” actually means and provided a simple, sensible, and principle-based approach to applying it to training, let’s debunk some of the most common practices and beliefs relevant to the subject.
Sports Specific Exercises
Many trainers and coaches have their athletes and clients add load to their specific sports skill — such as attaching a resistance band to the end of a golf club or hockey stick and swinging it, or having a boxer shadow box while working against bands that are strapped around their back — and call these “sports specific exercises” or “functional exercises for (insert name of sport).”
Put simply, loading specific sports skills is a misapplication of the principle of specificity.
The reality is that improving one’s ability to perform certain sporting skills isn’t about replicating what that specific movement looks like — it’s about replicating the specific force generation patterns involved within that movement pattern.
In other words, when the focus is only on what the exercise looks like, one can easily make the mistake of loading sports specific skills (like attaching a band to the end of a golf club) instead of working on improving the specific force generation patterns used to perform sporting movements.
The problem with this is that the movement skills required in sports have accuracy components that are exact. Not similar — exact!
Case in point: Research examining the validity of baseball players swinging a weighted bat before taking their turn to hit found that although a weighted bat does not influence actual swing speed, it may alter the batters’ perceptions of bat heaviness and swing speed (1).
Another study found the normal swing pattern of experienced batters was altered and their swing speed slowed down for up to five swings following a warm-up with a weighted bat (2).
You can test this yourself: Try shooting 10 free throws with a regular basketball. Then try taking 10 more with a 4-5 pound medicine ball. You’ll quickly find that the motor pattern used to throw the heavier ball is completely different, as your first few throws will come up short until you hone it in.
Finally, after shooting 10 shots with the 4-5 pound ball, go back to a normal basketball and shoot 10 more shots. Your first few shots will go over the backboard because shooting the much lighter basketball involves a much different motor sequence than shooting the medicine ball.
As stated earlier, we don’t load skills with our specific exercise applications; we work on improving specific force generation patterns, which transfer into target movements.
For example, instead of trying to load the specific skill, we’ll use a variety of rotational medicine ball throw variations to replicate the force generation patterns of rotation. Logic being, the sequencing of rotation required in swinging an implement (like a racquet, club or bat) or to throw a punch, is the same. In that, when we take out the arms, which are responsible for the accuracy component of striking the target, they all involve force production from the ground-up, beginning with the hips, followed by the trunk, and terminating with the arms.
Unstable Surface Training
Trainers and coaches who promote performing externally loaded exercises while standing on unstable surfaces need to (better) understand Science, Specificity and Safety in regards to strength training on unstable surfaces.
Science – According to 2004 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “The diminished force output suggests that the overload stresses required for strength training necessitate the inclusion of resistance training on stable surfaces” (3).
This is reflected in a 2004 paper published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal, which states, “Resistance exercise performed on unstable equipment may not be effective in developing the type of balance, proprioception, and core stability required for successful sports performance. Free weight exercises performed while standing on a stable surface have been proven most effective for enhancing sports related skills.”
Specificity – Since functional training is all about transfer into a specific goal, some training applications have a direct transfer while others have an indirect transfer.
Yet field, court, and combat sport athletes compete on stable ground, not with the ground shaking underneath them. So it’s more “functional” to train on the same (stable) surface one lives, plays, and practices on.
Note: Don’t confuse a slippery surface (like playing in the rain) with an unstable surface.
From a general transfer perspective, to improve strength you must produce high amounts of force, and to build muscle, you must overload your muscles. Neither of these can be done effectively on an unstable surface. As the saying goes, “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”
On the other hand, some studies have shown increased core muscle activity when lifting weights on fitness balls. Still, if maximizing torso muscle activation is your goal, exercises like standing one-arm cable presses and one-arm push-ups create higher amounts of core muscle activation as they’re limited by the activation and coordination of the torso muscles.
Better still, these exercises also have a much higher (functional) transfer to the force generation patterns used during standing pushing actions of life and sports.
Safety – Training is all about risk versus reward. The scientific evidence demonstrates there’s not much, if any, reward to lifting weights while standing on unstable surfaces. Yet the risk of lifting weights while on a Swiss Ball can be very high. In fact, even just lying or sitting on a Swiss Ball while lifting weights can unnecessarily elevate risk without offering additional reward.
Case in point: In 2009, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings starting forward Francisco Garcia, whose contract was worth $29.6 million over 5 years, missed a huge chunk of that season after an exercise ball accident broke his right wrist. Garcia, who weighed 195 pounds, was performing dumbbell presses using 90 pounds dumbbells when the ball burst.
Following this event, the Sacramento Kings’ removed all the exercise balls from their weight room and Kings co-owner Joe Maloof ordered an e-mail sent to the NBA’s other 29 teams, hoping to spread the word about unforeseen dangers that can arise when performing even basic workouts with an inflatable exercise ball commonly found in many gyms and homes.
In short, if your goal is to improve overall strength, core strength, or gain muscle, it’s more “functional” (i.e., has a greater transfer) and safer to lift weights on stable ground.
Note: Unstable surfaces can be great for improving balance and for rehabbing ankle, knee or hip injuries. So if you also want to improve your balance, or simply enjoying using unstable surfaces, there’s no reason you can’t incorporate some balance training using unstable surfaces in-between sets of strength training exercises, or as part of a cool-down at the end of your workouts. Just don’t blend strength training while standing on unstable surfaces for physique or performance goals.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that for men and women, the single-leg vertical, horizontal and lateral jump tests are, for the most part, measuring different leg power qualities and shouldn’t be used interchangeably (4).
In other words, power and agility are direction specific. And since strength is a major component of power, strength is also task specific. This is the principle of specify at work, and reinforces the need to use specific exercise applications that match the force generations patterns of the activity one seeks to improve in.
Again, the principle of specificity states that the adaptations to training will be specific to the imposed training demands. So the further an exercise gets away from the specific force generation patterns of a given movement, the less direct carryover it will have to that movement.
That doesn’t make the exercise bad, and it certainly doesn’t make an exercise nonfunctional. It simple means that the less specific an exercise is, the more general it becomes.
However, one school of thought argues that just about any combination of 3D movements involved in an exercise makes it a “functional” exercise. But doing a variety of 3D exercises for the sake of moving in three-dimensions is the opposite of specific (functional) training — it’s general training.
Not to mention, trainers and coaches in this camp often fail to realize that just because the body may not appear to be moving in multiple planes of motion during a given exercise, doesn’t mean it’s not a multi-planar exercise.
For example, although a single-leg squat visually displays movement in the sagittal plane, the individual performing the exercise is also controlling the transverse plane to prevent the hip from internally rotating, and controlling the frontal plane to keep the hips from adducting into knee valgus (inward) collapse, and torso from shifting laterally. So the single-leg squat is absolutely a 3D exercise.
As we’ve seen, when focus is placed on coming up with random 3D movement permutations for the sake of creating a 3D training stimulus, we not only lose focus on training specificity (i.e., the training goal), but also fail to appreciate the internal, multi-planar complexities of basic exercises.
So we get caught up in attempting to manufacture multi-planar complexity by using peculiar movement combinations that may resemble what happens 1% of the time in life or sports (if they ever happen at all) instead of focusing on the movements that happen 99% of the time.
Not to mention, such misapplied emphasis usually leads to less focus being placed on foundational training principles, like overload. That’s why, more often than not, the load being used by trainers who think simply moving in 3D is “functional” is often too light to create any sort of meaningful strength adaptions.
At that point, it’s just moving around to simply move around and get a sweat going. And one certainly doesn’t need to pay a fitness professional for that.
Just Get Strong!
Some coaches and trainers, usually those with a powerlifting bias, say, “Don’t worry about replicating any force generation patterns of your sporting movements, just get strong in the basic lifts you’ll be more functional.”
Improving strength in basic powerlifting and bodybuilding exercises absolutely contributes to improved performance, which is why we use them as “general” exercises with athletes. So let’s quickly discuss what some coaches would have me do if they wanted to improve my strength in, for example, the bench press:
They’d have me do lots of bench press variations like close grip presses, wide grip presses, fat bar presses, 2 or 3-board presses, pin presses, and use chains/band, etc., in various speeds, loads, and rep ranges. These exercises are all commonly called “assistance exercises” because they assist in improving the bench press by replicating the specific force production patterns of the bench press.
The same applies for assistance exercises used to increase strength in the squat or deadlift — they all replicate the specific force generation patterns of the movement they’re supposed to be “assisting.”
As I said in my Truth About the Bench Press article, “Surely you don’t believe that using assistance exercises to improve strength in a specific movement pattern only applies to the squat, deadlift, and bench press?”
What we do with our specific exercise applications for athletes is apply this same wisdom used successfully by powerlifters to improve the bench, squat, and deadlift; to improve everything else! These movements are essentially “assistance exercises” for the specific movements we want to improve.
In short, using general exercises to get bigger and stronger does help you to become more “functional.” But it has its limitations, which is why we also incorporate specific exercises to gain benefits in the areas where the general exercise falls short.
Lastly, many who preach to “just get strong in the basic lifts” and “don’t worry about replicating any force generation patterns of specific movements of life and sport” are the same coaches who tell athletes to avoid using machines as they don’t resemble any of the movements involved in sports. Now, if that isn’t the king of all training contradictions I don’t know what is!
1. Otsuji T, Abe M, Kinoshita H. After-effects of using a weighted bat on subsequent swing velocity and batters’ perceptions of swing velocity and heaviness. Percept Mot Skills. 2002 Feb;94(1):119-26.
2. Southard D1, Groomer L. Warm-up with baseball bats of varying moments of inertia: effect on bat velocity and swing pattern. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2003 Sep;74(3):270-6.
3. Anderson KG, Behm DG. Maintenance of EMG activity and loss of force output with instability. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):637-40.
4. Meylan C, McMaster T, et al. Single-leg lateral, horizontal, and vertical jump assessment: reliability, interrelationships, and ability to predict sprint and change-of-direction performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1140-7.