Flaws in “Functional Fitness”

I’ve had the pleasure of being entertained by some of the funkiest exercises you could think of. From faulty “hybrid movements” to “stability exercises”…I’ve seen them all! These people have fallen into the the wide sweeping generalization that elitists use when referring to functional training. Just about every one of these methods have little carry over to being functional in life and sport. So to save you from wasting your time with exercises that don’t offer much, I think its important that we define what functional really means.

Functional gain refers to improvements in physical qualities which can be transferred to sport actions. In other words, the body will work more efficiently in specified movements patterns and planes. Functional gains are mostly due to improved neural factors and can thus happen without a change in muscle mass. But even if one were to solely focus on functional training, there would still be a carryover to the structural aspect (muscle mass). This works vise versa as one will find functional gain in training structurally (body building). For one to say that body builders aren’t strong is complete BS. Are they as strong as a powerlifter or a player in the NFL? Absolutely not! But they’re still moving against a force in various ranges of motion a lot more than your Average Joe. 

(Geek-Speak: non-kinesiologists ought to skip to next paragraph)  

Functional training means that you improve by making better use of what you already have. Improved neuromuscular and intramuscular coordination are two of the most important reasons for that increase in function. Intramuscular coordination refers to the capacity of the nervous system to optimally recruit the motor units within a muscle while performing a motor task. Intermuscular coordination refers to the capacity of the nervous system to use optimal timing between the muscle groups involved in an action.

Functional training is a specialized form of motor learning. The key concept in motor learning is that frequency of practice is the most important determinant of success, not repetitions. Now does this mean we should practice crappy technique? Of course not! This frequency of practice must be performed correctly if one wants to effectively adapt and improve in the movement pattern they are training for. Now what is the biggest factor that effects the performance of an action? Fatigue! So why would you train a functional movement for hypertrophy (7 or more reps)? Functional training requires not doing a lot of reps at any given time, but rather doing less reps (1-3, maybe 4-6) with higher quality (high force production and proper technique).

Earthquake? No problem…we’ve been working on our stability balls!

Now I know some stability and swiss ball advocates will argue that unstable movements are good for functional improvements because of their high level of complexity. From a motor standpoint, yes, these movements are very complex. However, since the potential for strength and speed improvement is very low, I don’t really consider them to be functional for anything other than preparing oneself for an earthquake…

Here are two ways we can incorporate functional training in its truest sense:

1) Multi-Joint Movements

Complex motor tasks require much more from the nervous system than an action that requires minimal joint action. It is key that we use strength training exercises that are complex, therefore, multi-joint exercises are the way to go.  If you want to get “functionally strong”, focus on the big, compound movements. 

When developing a program, always base things around the core exercises: squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, snatches, chin ups, dips, etc. Think big, heavy, and basic, and you’ll be on the right path. Isolation drills should be thrown out if you’re strictly interested in functional gains.

2) Utilization of Non-Traditional Training Means

Want to find a way to solve you lack of “real world functional strength”? Quit your desk job and apply for a moving company…no really!

 On a serious note, if you are really looking for something different and non-traditional, it would be in your best interest to start using strongman training: kegs, heavy sandbags, thick ropes, tires, implement throwing, and pushing/pulling/carrying vehicles, sleds, or whatever else you can! I believe there is a lot to gain from these methods mentally and physically.


Training to be functional should be priority if we aren’t training for a bodybuilding show or preparing for a part time modeling photoshoot (theres nothing wrong with doing a little vanity work every once in a while). So ask yourself what you are trying to be functional for. I highly doubt its to effectively run back and forth through a ladder or to strike the infamous beach scene pose from Karate Kid. If it is, you are just getting really good at looking ridiculous in the gym. Get strong in your compound movements and don’t forget to do your yard work on the weekends…I promise, you won’t be disappointed in your functionality!

Published by Nick Knowles

Nick is a certified personal trainer through the National Strength & Conditioning Association who has worked with hundreds of individuals around the world and coached a wide variety of clients ranging from special forces, active duty, first responders, law enforcement, paraplegics, mixed martial artists, powerlifters, endurance athletes, large group classes, rock climbers, high school and collegiate athletes, youth teams, general population (weight loss), and clients with special needs. Education being at the forefront of his approach, he has been a guest speaker at corporate wellness events, college job fairs, and has also taken on a handful of interns who have found successful careers in the fitness industry. He is also a former NCAA division 1 wrestling and competitive powerlifter.

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