What is Functional Training

What is Functional Training

“You are right to be wary. There is much b.s. Be wary of me too, because I may be wrong. Make up your own mind after you evaluate all the evidence and the logic.”
Mark Rippetoe

The most important thing you should be doing in the gym is improving your strength – and weightlifting is one of the most effective ways to make that happen. The point I was attempting to make is that our goal in this gym is to improve functional strength (or your ability to perform work) through ground-based, total body exercises. Put another way, we want you to train like an athlete, not a bodybuilder. And guess what, athlete’s have been known to pick up a heavy weight or two.

My motto has always been “Train to live, don’t live to train”. What I mean by that is the point of training in the gym is to help us be an active participant in our lives outside of the gym. Being the strongest guy or girl in a health club doesn’t mean much if you are too stiff to do anything else. I’m not impressed when you tell me how much you can lift but I am impressed when you tell me you were able to hike through the Himalayas because of the work you did in the gym (that actually happened recently). One of the first (and most important) lessons I ever received in the realm of functional training came from legendary coach Vern Gambetta, he said: “Train movements, not muscles”. That’s why we organize our workouts into movements like horizontal pulling instead of back and biceps. Muscles are merely slaves to the brain. When we train in the gym, we improve movements by training your brain’s ability to recruit the right muscles at the right time and with the right amount of force. But this is an important point: your brain will only recruit your prime movers (big muscles) to the degree that you can maintain postural and joint stability. How do you stabilize your posture and joints? Either through a strong core or by locking your body into a machine. Your brain doesn’t care where the stability comes from, if it senses a stable trunk it will recruit a lot of muscle for you. This is why you can leg press more weight than you can squat – and why some big benchers have a hard time doing push-ups!!

Why is all this important? Isn’t the point to be able to lift the most weight possible? Why does it matter where the stability comes from? Remember, the point of training is to improve function. If all of your training has been on machines than you have never really demanded that your core do the job it was designed to do – stabilize your spine and pelvis!

Let’s compare two similar exercises.



These two exercises are both overhead pressing movements but they utilize two different strategies. In the first picture, the machine is providing the postural stability through the use of the seat and back support. The exerciser simply has to push the handles over her head. In the second picture we have something very different occurring. Because the feet are on the floor and the exerciser is supporting his own weight the demand is on the core to stabilize posture. Which of these two exercises has more of a direct correlation to daily activities? If you wanted to pick up your grandkids, which exercise do you think would be more beneficial? If you have to lift your longboard over your head to get it on top of your truck, do you think you should train on your feet? Unless your are confined to a wheelchair, I think it’s time to stand up.

On the other hand, just because someone uses “functional” exercises doesn’t mean they are improving function. In fact, we actually need to think more about proper form when we get away from machines. When using free weights, since the path of movement and range of motion is not dictated by a machine it becomes imperative that we choose exercises that are appropriate for our particular situation. I ran into a former member a while back who had left us for another gym that was into super-intense training. He told me how much he loved it and how strong he was getting and in the same breath why he wasn’t surfing anymore due to chronic shoulder and low back problems. But hey, at least he could do twenty kipping pull-ups! (That’s what I meant earlier about Train to Live, Don’t Live to Train). While it’s important to choose exercises that train for functional strength it’s equally important to apply those exercises appropriately. This is why we strongly believe that everyone should go through a Functional Movement Screen. Not only will this assessment help you understand exercises you should avoid but it will provide you with corrective exercises to improve dysfunctional movement patterns.

The term “functional” gets used and abused a lot in the modern fitness world. Standing on something squishy that causes you to lose your balance doesn’t mean it’s functional training, nor does the use of elastic bands automatically qualify an exercise as functional. Most people don’t need fancy exercises that require you to be an acrobat. Actually, the more complicated the move and the more props involved the less likely it is truly functional training. Squat, press, deadlift, pull – these “functional” moves have been around for decades and have been the cornerstone of strength programs long before the term “functional training” was coined. So when you tell me you like to lift weights, it makes my job a lot easier. Now I just have to get you off of the machine and on your feet.