What is Functional Training?

functional training

It is in human nature to divide into camps in regard to important topics.

Training is no exception and although the existing camps are many, today we will focus on two. These always provoke long debates, sometimes nervous arguments, and pounding on the chest “who is the best”.

What are functional workouts?

Is the typical bodybuilding workout functional or does it just make us stiffer, more helpless, away from what our body was created for?

What will you learn?

In this article, we will look at the term “functional fitness” – how it occurs and in what cases it is used, as well as why it is considered misunderstood.

Functional training is an occasion for the division of camps and long disputes – we will pay attention to this, as well as whether there is a reason for it to happen.

You will also understand what are the main functions of movement of the human body and what our skeletal and muscular systems are responsible for.

“Functional” – the misunderstood word in fitness

Do an experiment. Ask 10 of your sports friends what they think is “functional training / functional fitness”.

I can bet you will get at least 6 different answers.

Take a look at our guide about the best headphones for working out.

This is because the very word “functional”, used in the context of modern understandings of fitness, is lost in translation.

Everyone refracts it through their prism, based on experience, knowledge, goals, and kind of sport.

For some, functional training means:

  • That in which you train with your own weight, such as athletics, street fitness;
  • It’s turning the tires on the stadium, pushing a sled, climbing a rope;
  • These are Crossfit complexes;
  • These are NOT bodybuilding workouts
  • For those who practice power sports – these are the Olympic movements of turning and pushing and throwing, power tribe, power all-around;
  • Bodybuilders believe that they are functional enough, training in a split and using the principle of isolation in their training.

Does this mean that everything in the field can be functional?

The function of movement of the human body

To answer the question of what functional training is, it is good to clarify what is the movement of the human body and what is its function.

We, humans, are created to move, and body movement involves the movement of the whole body or parts of it (or joints).

For this to happen, the main culprits are the skeletal and muscular systems.

Basic movements

Often when we read about how to perform an exercise, we may encounter “flexion of the knee joint” or “extension of the spine.” What does this mean?

The main movements can be divided into 7 main groups:

  • Extension (Latin Extensio – unfolding) – there is an increase in joint angle;
  • Flexion (Latin Flexio – folding) – we have a contraction, reduction of joint angle;
  • Adduction (Latin Adductio – approach) – this describes a movement that brings the limb closer to the body;
  • Abduction (Latin Abductio – removal) – the opposite of adduction movement, when we have the removal of the limb from the body;
  • Rotation (Latin Rotatio – rotation) – as the name suggests, we have a rotation around an axis;
  • Pronation (Latin pronatio) – rotation of the limb around its longitudinal axis, inward to the body;
  • Supination (Latin Suppinatio) – here we have a rotation of the limb around its longitudinal axis, but the direction is out of the body.

Musculoskeletal system

We will not go into detail and list the number of our bones and muscles. What The Sized team considers important to note for the purposes of this article is that:

  • The main function of the skeletal system is to provide support for the body – just as the spine provides support for the head and torso. When we are in an upright position, the legs provide support for the whole body.
  • The skeletal system has a protective function for our organs – the skull protects our brain;
  • The skeletal system allows movement to occur – the muscles are attached to the bones through tendon ligaments, and this allows the body to move in different ways;
  • Muscles play a role in every function of the body and we move thanks to them;
  • Skeletal muscles are volitional and we can control them consciously, while the contraction of smooth and heart muscles is involuntary – the movement is performed automatically by the brain;
  • Skeletal muscles control body posture, and flexibility and strength are key to maintaining proper posture.

Functional training

Can we still make a description of what “functional training” is?

What is functional training?

By listing everything from the previous point, there is a logical conclusion:

Functional should be the training that supports and improves the movement functions of the human body in everyday life or in a particular sport.

Training with which we become stronger and more flexible to move in space without pain, with a feeling of freedom in the joints and muscles.

Training, through the use of progressive load and individual approach, improves dynamic and static balance, coordination, and proprioception.

To activate the nervous system, the muscles perform specific movements in the joint, as well as the stabilizing muscles.

In order for the body to move optimally, it must act as a kinetic chain in which energy and applied force can be successfully transferred from one part of the body/joint to another.

Accordingly, if there are weak links in this circuit, these become a limiting force factor for the whole circuit.

In the presence of such units, functional training should be designed to strengthen them.

And here again, we touch on the specifics – who trains, why the person trains, what the person trains, what are his goals and what is his current situation.

Someone may already have imbalances and accordingly, his training should be designed to correct the imbalance.

Another is a professional athlete who wants to develop specific qualities necessary for the sport he practices. His functional training will be the one that systematically works towards achieving the goals. It can be speed, bounce, explosiveness, etc.

For one, the training at the stadium will be functional, for the second – in the gym, and for the third – in the fitness center.

Why is this term used?

If “functional” can be practically all kinds of training and different sports depending on the individual, then, why use this term?

Since a certain physical activity leads to the improvement of the functions of movement and there is a transfer to progress in the achievements/sports qualities of the individual, be it a workout in the gym, why does such a division of camps occur?

Initially, the term was used for activities that belong to some form of physical rehabilitation, corrective movements, and others. Over time, however, it has become one of the most popular in the fitness community and one of the most misunderstood.

Its followers believe in the idea of ​​practicing movements that carry over into everyday activities. These are multi-joint free-weight movements and in the context of functional training, they have a greater impact than single-isolated movements.

And in whose trainings the latter occupy a considerable part? That’s right – to bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding-oriented workouts are often labeled “non-functional” by supporters of “functional”.

Can simple movements be functional?

Despite the misunderstood term and the stigmatization of isolation exercises as non-functional, in practice, they can also have benefits in improving the function of body movement.

It depends on the individual case, the chosen program, and the goals.

For example, in one study, 10 adult patients (90 ± 1 years) from nursing homes underwent an 8-week training program.

It included what is considered one of the least functional exercises – thigh extensions, although the scientific work does not mention that the exercise is the same as the one we perform in the gym on leg extension machines.

The training was 3 times a week. During this time, muscle strength increased by an average of 174%, and participants’ walking speed improved by 48%.

Even more impressive is that the two of them were then able to walk on their own without having to use their canes.

That is, these people have shaved off one of the most important functions (and even the most important) of the human body – that of walking, using an exercise considered non-functional.

They have become more functional through non-functional training. Isn’t that ironic? Or proof that the term loses its meaning when taken out of the specifics of a person.

Everything (can be) is functional

A disadvantage of the above study is that it was conducted on elderly individuals leading a stagnant lifestyle.

In practice, the addition of any physical activity would have a positive effect on functionality.

Therefore, we will consider a second study, in which participants are 22-24 years old, and the comparison is between squats, leg presses, and a combination of the two movements.

Squats are considered to be one of the most functional movements, apart from being one of the most natural for humans.

The leg press, on the other hand, is classified, like the hip extensions, as non-functional.


They were twenty-six healthy men without musculoskeletal disorders who have not used anabolic steroids or other illegal muscle-inducing substances in the past year and had not practiced resistance training in the past six months.

They did not take nutritional supplements that improved performance during the study period.

They were divided into three groups in terms of lower body training:

  • Doing only squats;
  • Performing only leg presses;
  • Combination of squats and leg presses.

Training protocol

The study lasted 10 weeks, and each participant performed 2 exercises for the lower part per week, respectively:

  • 6 series of squats;
  • 6 series of leg presses;
  • 3 series of squats and 3 series of leg presses.

Repetitions were in the range of 8-12 for all three groups. The first two weeks were adaptive and the series was stopped 1-2 times after the refusal.

The remaining 8 weeks were until muscle failure in the concentric phase and the inability to perform another concentric recurrence.

Breaks between series were 90-120 seconds.


In all three groups, in terms of body composition, there was an increase in body weight and lean mass, with no significant differences between the groups.

There was a tendency to increase adipose tissue in all three groups but in small degrees. A disadvantage of the study is that due to the inability of the participants to keep an adequate food diary, the food was not tracked. They were instructed to adhere to their usual regime.

I assume that it is possible, due to increased physical activity, to have a corresponding increase in appetite and caloric intake.

In terms of sports performance, which is an interesting part of this article, the results showed that all three groups improved in squats, but – logically, it was highest in the group practicing only squats, followed by the combo group (squats + leg press) ) and thirdly – the one that performed only leg press.

In the leg presses, progress was observed in all three groups, with no significant differences between them.

The vertical rebound was also tested – again, improvement was observed in all three groups, but the squatting, followed by combos and leg press performers (in this order) had the greatest effect.

The results in terms of balance were interesting – the highest result was in the combo group, followed by the leg press, and the lowest (although the differences are not so significant) – was in the squat group.

What does all this tell us?

The aim of the study is to compare the effect of machines on free-weight movements.

The results tell us that both free weights and machines can improve performance, but the degree is specific and depends on the specific tools chosen to achieve it.

Squats significantly improve squat strength (logically), which also contributes to improving vertical bounce. For these purposes, squatting is a better choice than the leg press or a combination of squat and leg press.

On the other hand, contrary to popular belief, strength training involving machines could improve dynamic balance.

In short:

Every workout is (can be) functional. It depends on what it is, who makes it, and why it is made.

Strength training in the gym can be functional if it is programmed smartly and tailored to the individual if fundamental movements are put in the first place and work is done on developing specific qualities.

Of course, there are completely inappropriate programs, but the mistake is in the choice of the practitioner – due to ignorance, lack of experience, or confusion in the sources of information.

This is also the case with what is considered “functional” training – these could be both productive for a person and traumatic.

Your training program does not have to be complicated. It is more important to include movements suitable for you.

Its functionality will be characterized by whether it helps you become better in sports performance and daily activities.

Dividing the camps on the topic of functionality is unnecessary because we are talking about the same thing. The paths and goals are different, so that’s why “functionality” has a different reading.

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