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What is Functional Training?

The fitness industry today has about the same amount of regulations as the wild west used to have, and an instagram model fitness influencer is today's equivalent of the snake oil salesman. Since integrity and reliability are hard to come by, many watered down versions of diets and workout programs are sold to people with very little basis in actual fact. This places a high level of responsibility on the consumer to verify the information that they take in from these individuals. Unfortunately, most people will not take the time to do this, so instagram influencers will continue to flourish online. One of the most common tricks that these charlatans will use is the term “functional training”. They make it seem like their version of training is superior to any other because it will help you be stronger in everyday life activities. However, all training will help you be stronger in your everyday life, and that is not even what the term “functional” actually means.

When you start the deep dive down the training rabbit hole, you will find that there are really only two types of training. These two training types, functional and structural, are very intertwined, and you cannot really have one without the other. Functional training refers to your nervous system and how it interacts with your musculoskeletal system in order to stimulate muscle contraction and demonstrate your strength levels under certain conditions. Structural training is done with the intent to produce muscle and connective tissue hypertrophy, but still requires stimulation from the nervous system to hit a minimum intensity and volume in order to produce these changes (Verkhoshansky, 2009).

When you think about training modalities that are primarily functional, you would have to think about exercises that are used to increase the strength or speed of the athlete (e.g.,heavy back squats with 1-3 reps, the olympic lifts, sprints, jumping, and med ball throws). These exercises are primarily used to make the athlete stronger or faster, and the limiting factor in the performance of these will be the athlete’s nervous system's ability to produce force based on skill, coordination, and speed of movement. In other words, these exercises train an athlete to produce force. While muscle mass is one factor, it is not the primary factor. So, using exercises like these in your training will make you stronger and faster without really making you bigger. Since the primary intention of programming these exercises in training is force development and training the nervous system, these exercises would be more functional as opposed to structural.

Structural training is most commonly used to make your muscles bigger. All styles of bodybuilding training would fit this category, including drop sets, blood flow restriction, single joint exercises, and tempo exercises. This type of training is primarily used by bodybuilders and athletes who need to pack on muscle for their sport. Connective tissue, which includes bones, ligaments, and tendons, can also get bigger and stronger; this is where these two forms of training can begin to overlap. When describing structural training, people tend to just think about getting bigger muscles, but your connective tissues can be just as important to your overall performance depending on your sport. These structures will also increase in size and density through training, and increasing the quality of these tissues can also increase your levels of performance.

Now, we can begin to look at different modalities of training with the intent of figuring out if they are either more structural or functional in nature. For example, a heavy one rep max back squat can elicit functional changes in our nervous system by increasing motor unit recruitment, which in turn will increase maximal strength. However, having that heavy load on your back will also create structural changes by creating microfractures in your spine. With enough recovery, the bone will heal and be stronger than it was before that squat. Sprints are primarily functional because they test and develop an athlete's speed, which is really determined by how much force you can put into the ground quickly. They also place a great stress on your tendons and ligaments, and can increase the mass of these structures. This can be amplifiedby increasing the distance of the sprint. This will allow you to get up to faster speeds, which will not only test your nervous system's output ability more, but will also place greater force across the soft tissues which will increase their strength after they recover.

Now, let's look at this the other way around. When doing a bicep curl, it is pretty easy to see how it qualifies as a structural exercise. The purpose of it is to create tension on the bicep, which, after the process of recovery, will stimulate growth. It is a little harder to see how this exercise is functional, but if you look at the definition at the start, we said that a functional exercise is one where the nervous system stimulates muscular contraction. Since you move your arm during a bicep curl, you perform a functional movement because the nervous system has to engage in order for your arm to work. Every movement we perform starts with your nervous system telling your body to do this movement. So, in turn every movement is functional.

Now, there are two different exercise modalities that seem to throw a monkey wrench into this argument. The first is isometric training. Isometrics are divided into two categories: yielding isometrics and overcoming isometrics. The first is when you pause during a portion of an exercise. Yielding isometrics, just like any other exercise, can be both structural and functional in use. Pausing during exercises is a great way to increase metabolic stress, which is the pump that bodybuilders chase, and metabolic stress is one of the three ways to stimulate muscle growth. This happens because when your muscles contract, blood flow is inherently cut off to the area, which causes a buildup of blood and waste products created from muscular contraction. This buildup is one way your body learns that it needs to build more muscle. Yielding isometrics can also be used for functional benefits, especially on big compound movements. Take a pause squat for example. By pausing at the bottom of a squat where your leverage is the weakest and you are the most unstable, you place more demand on the muscles in your core, back, and hips to create stability. Stability is the ability to resist unwanted movement occurring, and if you are not stable in a position, your body will not let you produce force in that position for fear of injury. So, yielding isometrics teaches your body to become more neurologically efficient and stable in the movement, which will allow your nervous system to produce more force.

The second form of isometrics, overcoming, is when you push, pull, or squat against an immovable object as hard as you can. This leads to maximal recruitment of motor units, because your body is trying to recruit as much as it can to pick up this object, and continues to build up force until the rep is stopped. Just because you are not actually moving during this exercise does not mean that your nervous system stops working. In fact, it is working at maximal intensity. During isometric movements, your nervous system is still producing muscular contraction, even if during a portion of the exercise you are not producing movement. It is this nervous system stimulation that defines a functional movement, and this happens regardless if motion occurs.

The second form of training that appears like it breaks this rule is electrical muscle stimulation. This is when you artificially stimulate muscle contraction through an external electrical signal. Now, this could poke a hole in our discussion slightly, and only if used correctly. ESTIM is most commonly used in the form of recovery. Low level muscle stimulation has the ability to contract the muscles that move waste products through the lymphatic system, without inducing fatigue to the individual’s central nervous system. Using ESTIM this way is less of a training tool and more of a recovery tool, because the level of muscle stimulation is too low to produce strength, or hypertrophy gains, unless you are an extremely untrained person. ESTIM can also be used to produce very high levels of muscle stimulation. In fact, the only thing stopping it from producing maximal force is the individual's pain tolerance. While this can work to produce strength gains, it has been shown to work most effectively in untrained individuals, and the reality is that anything will produce strength gains in an untrained person. In trained people, it has been shown best to work while being used in conjunction with strength training and plyometric training. When used alone without training, it has not been shown to be very effective. The problem with ESTIM for strength gains is that there is very little real world application for an athlete, because there is no learning component. This is due to the inability of the central nervous system to coordinate movement with its new found strength.

When we define these terms in fitness, our industry as a whole starts to make a lot more sense. There is no such thing as non-functional exercise, because all exercise requires stimulation of the nervous system, and this stimulation in turn will produce all of the strength changes we see with training (Verkhoshansky, 2009). When influencers discuss functional training, they are actually talking about structural training and bodybuilding and about how bulkiness does not necessarily translate to everyday activities and strength. While they are correct in a sense, they took a term that was already well-defined and bastardized it in order to sell more programs. CrossFit is not “more functional” than a Westside program, because they are both programs based on adapting the nervous system to produce a certain outcome. It is NOT saying that overhead pressing is more applicable to everyday life over bench pressing because “you would never be on your back pressing something off you in real life”. Snatching is not a movement that you will perform everyday, yet the same people who say overhead pressing is more functional than benching will snatch, walk on their hands, and kip during pull ups. This just shows the poor understanding of well-defined terms. Be careful who you listen to, and educate yourself so you can be discerning when choosing an exercise program and/or trainer.


1. Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Rome: Verkhoshansky SSTM

Author- Coach Joe Zambito

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