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A new day, a new fitness trend, you simply can’t live without! On the menu today, we’ll try to debunk one of the latest crazes in the fitness community – functional training. Before we go into what that is and why it may or may not be good for you, it’s important to get one thing straight. The fitness industry thrives on buzzwords, trends, ’new’ workouts and people who always want to try something that will get them better, faster and more noticeable results. So before you pay for a 3-month gym membership that’s 50% higher than your regular gym because it offers ’functional’ training, let’s talk about what that really entails. 

What does functional actually mean?

For starters, no one really knows what functional training is. ’Functional’ is an adjective used to describe something that has a special activity, purpose, or task, or it might refer to something that’s been designed to be practical and useful. If you ask Wikipedia, it’ll tell you that ’Functional training is a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.’ Other sources will state that ’Functional training helps provide you with the strength, stability, and mobility you need to thrive in your life and sports.’ But does that really say anything? Don’t we all, to an extent, really just want to do exercise in order to go through life easier, without having daily obstacles due to our physical inactivity? As for the term ’functional training’, it was first used in 1949 in The Physical Therapy Review by a physiotherapist Edith Buchwald. 

Medical origins vs. fitness programs 

This type of training did, in fact, originate from rehabilitation of patients with certain movement disorders. This process was conducted and closely monitored by physical therapists and chiropractors, and is still used throughout the world. Those functional exercises mimic natural movements that the patients have difficulty doing in real-life situations, and serve the purpose of either correcting movement dysfunction or recovering from injury.

From this form of medical treatment supervised by medical professionals, stemmed a new fitness trend: lo and behold, the functional training in your local gym! All of a sudden, you’ll find people who swear by doing squats on an unstable surfaces, or various rehab-targeted exercises involving resistance you can do while seated, focusing on the movement rather than incorporating weight into their routine.

Conversely, other people claim they do functional training as well, but despise the rehab-centred training while seated, and will inform you that real functional training could only be done while standing and lifting heavy weights in a functional manner, thus strengthening your muscles.

What both of these fitness philosophies fail to realize is that they’re basically two sides of the same coin. Strong muscles won’t give you functionality in everyday life if they’re not supported by quality movement, and vice versa – strengthening your muscles will allow for a high-quality movement. One cannot go without the other.

The root of the problem

The basic issue with functional training as a fitness trend is that it disregards the essence of its roots in functional therapy. The original medical purpose of functional training was to enable injured or otherwise disabled individuals to one day do regular training, whatever that entails for each specific person. 

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that our body learns through repetition. Your muscles remember the movements they repeat over and over again and become better in those specific movements. For a healthy individual, the best way to say, improve your running is by actually running, not balancing yourself on a BOSU ball. If you have a job that entails lifting heavy weights, the best way to become better at that is by doing it exactly that, and not doing a Turkish get-up over and over. The movements you do are the ones your muscles will become better at over time. It’s that simple.

What most trainers seem to ’forget’ is that the point of functional training is to stop doing it eventually, and start doing your everyday activities and other exercises, be it running, swimming, strength training or HIIT. Functional training benefits people whose bodies, for one reason or another, are not fully functional.

The solution

In the end, there isn’t a right or wrong way to do functional training. In truth, a functional workout is any type of specific workout that makes you – you guessed it – more functional at what you do. If your kid loves to sit on your shoulders while you walk in the park, then, by all means, do squat lifting. If you’re a tennis player who has difficulties with tight hamstrings, then yoga might be very functional for you.

It’s clear by now that any type of training can be functional if it accommodates a person’s specific needs. But if that’s true, then what’s the difference between functional training and training, you might ask?

There is none. My best advice is – ditch the fancy buzzwords and just go train #ditchthebuzzword.