What IS Functional Training?

Whenever I'm describing what it is that I do as a personal trainer, I'm always hesitant to use the adjective '"functional." It's not because functional training doesn't appropriately describe what I do with my clients, but because "functional training" has become such a buzz term in the fitness industry. People and programs use it left and right as a marketing tool, and even though what they do may not actually BE functional training, many are none the wiser. 

But, this morning it really hit me -- as I was trying to zip up my boots while standing on one leg and holding three too many bags over my shoulder -- how important it is, not only to provide functional training programs to people, but to help them understand what exactly it means. 

So, imagine you're me this morning. You've got two bags and a lunch box slung over your shoulder, and you're bending over using one hand to zip up your boot and one hand to keep the bags from falling all while wobbling around on one foot. Though this rather ungraceful display is a regular morning ritual for me in the winter time, it's actually not something that everyone can even DO. There was a lot going on under the surface allowing me to complete the task of putting on my boots. My hips needed to be able to stabilize themselves as did the sole ankle I was standing on. I needed the core strength and balance to keep from tipping over, and I needed the appropriate amount of spinal flexion to allow me to bend down to reach my boot. That's quite a laundry list of requirements for what I, and many others, consider a simple daily task. It's also a perfect example of what functional training has allowed me to do. 

In short, functional training is comprised of exercises that restore or improve -- depending on what condition you're in -- your ability to interact with the world around you. It allows you to do things like balance on one foot to zip up your winter boots, or for a simpler task, to sit down on the toilet and be able to get back up again, to bend over and pick something up, to open a door, to put on a jacket, to reach to the top cabinet on your tip toes, etc. etc. 

Everything movement we make is comprised of one or more of the following: pushing, pulling, flexing, extending, and/or twisting. Functional training builds the strength and the ability to move through these ranges of motion easily and without pain. Functional training progresses appropriately so that the exercises you're doing are well-matched to your abilities; challenging but achievable. It's the kind of training that has a purpose beyond just looking good. It helps to make you FEEL good too. This article does a great job of explaining what functional training is in reference to being able to simply load and unload a suitcase. "I just don't know of anyone who wouldn't be happier if it were easier to pick up their suitcase."

The basic formula for a functional program includes the appropriate variations of "primal patterns," which are the cornerstone of functional training:

1. Squatting
2. Lunging
3. Pushing
4. Pulling
5. Lifting
6. Twisting
7. Bridging
8. Planking

And as your abilities increase so to will the intensity of the exercises. You may go from a basic two-leg bridge to a weighted barbell bridge, for example. Or, if you're like me, and you develop a love for powerlifting, your squats will become back squats, your pulls will become deadlifts, and your pushes will become bench presses!