What is Functional Training (And Why Does It Matter)?

by | Jun 26, 2023 | 0 comments


I was recently asked a great question about the definition of functional training (thank you, Shelia!) and thought it might be a great idea to share more about this concept in case you have been wondering about it too. 

“Functional training” has become a popular term in the fitness industry, and it can be confusing regarding what exactly we mean when we refer to something as ‘functional’ and why it matters.

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), functional training is defined as “a type of training that focuses on movements that help you function better in your everyday life.” The example they provide here is a deadlift, which can help you build strength and mobility to pick up a heavy box from the floor. Often we see functional training refer to multi-joint, multi-muscle compound movements (like the deadlift) since they more closely mimic the type of movements we do in our daily activities. 

For example, our “Functional Strength” session featured in our “Fitness Training for Functional Aging” program (now available on DVD here!) is a total body strength workout based on the five primary movement patterns of the body. It’s companion, “ABC (Agility, Balance + Corrective Exercise) Routine,” is also designed to help improve performance and functionality by focusing on movement patterns that may assist in developing reaction time, balance, and supportive strength for daily activity. Regularly incorporating training sessions that build movement patterns (along with our muscles) may enhance our strength and overall performance in our workouts and everyday life. 

So is functional training the only type of training we should do? In my opinion, the most ‘functional’ kind of training we can do focuses on building and maintaining muscle and mobility, which are the keys to staying as functional as possible in all areas during all decades of our life. Meaning that we don’t always have to prioritize compound moves over isolated moves or vice versa. 

Both types of exercises (isolation and compound) and varied movement patterns are essential in a balanced routine designed for longevity and vitality. Since isolated movements (such as biceps curls) give us an excellent opportunity to build muscular endurance and strength (that we can then use to hold a child, for instance), and compound moves can help create mobility and integrated strength (that we can use for picking up boxes, lifting luggage into overhead bins, etc.), I think both types of workouts and training are vital (even if one isn’t necessarily deemed as ‘functional’ over the other). 

You’ll often see a mix of both types of movements incorporated into our sessions, though sometimes it’s best to focus on one or the other within a specific training, depending on our primary goal for the session. 

And what about cardio? Can it be ‘functional’?

While maintaining strength and mobility is vital to being able to ‘perform’ better during your daily activities, cardio is an essential element in the equation too! Having an overall level of cardio fitness is not only healthy for your heart and lungs, but it can certainly be functional, too. If you have ever had to outrun (or sprint) a thunderstorm to make it to safety, having a solid level of cardiovascular fitness helps tremendously (right, Jenny? :). Or, if you enjoy traveling and visiting new places, having the stamina to walk for hours while exploring is invaluable.

The bottom line

In my opinion, all exercise can be considered functional training because you are improving so many aspects of your body’s capabilities, strength, resilience, and more, which in turn helps you be more ‘functional’ in all areas of life! 


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