What is Functional Training?

You walk into your local fitness club and see a woman balancing on top of a physioball while doing a dumbbell bicep curl.  You think to yourself, “What the heck does that have to do with real world fitness?”

physioball curls
Fig 1: Is this REALLY a functional exercise?

The truth is…it doesn’t.

So why do we see people doing these circus-like exercises in the gym?  Most of these exercises are the distant relatives of the term “Functional Training.”  Functional training is a buzzword that has emerged in the past decade or so in many fitness facilities and gyms, but what does it really mean?

There are many scientific definitions of “Functional Training” but I am going to highlight some of the keywords in the definitions:

  • Unstable
  • Multi-joint, Multi-planar
  • Body weight
  • Specific



Of all the key words of functional training, I think this one is by far the most misinterpreted.  Doing any exercise on a foam pad, physioball, dense foam roller, or Bosu ball does not make the exercise “functional.”  To me, “unstable” means the body is relying on its internal musculature for support, not machines or some other object to provide external support.  For example, let’s look at a hack squat and front squat.  While both exercises have the same basic movement patterns (hip flexion, knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion), the front squat utilizes more total body muscle recruitment because the core, arms, and hips need to balance the weight.  The person doing the hack squat is relying on the machine to guide the movement, not the person’s own body.

Hack Squat
Fig 2: The Hack Squat
Front Squat
Fig 3: Front Squat








Multilti-joint, Multi-planar

Multi-joint exercises are exercises that use two or more joints to complete the movement.  Basically this means that “isolation” exercises such as seated knee extensions and calf raises are not included here.  A multi-joint exercise could be a lunge with a dumbbell bicep curl-to-overhead press.

Anatomically speaking, the body is generally divided into three planes: coronal, sagittal, and transverse.  Multi-planar exercises are exercises that span more than one plane of the human body.  A multi-planar exercise could be a high-to-low cable woodchop because the torso rotates in the transverse plane, the knees flex in the sagittal plane, and the arms pull down through all three planes.

High-to-low cable wood chop
Fig 5: High-to-low cable wood chop