Putting the funk back Into functional training

Yes that's a terrible title and a little misleading because I'm not about to tell you how to incorporate Bootsy Collins baselines into a TRX session.

I am, however going to outline my take on functional training and why more trainers ought to consider doing the same, but first of all let's define what functional training actually means. Here's what the dictionary says:

Functional: Designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. "a small, functional bathroom" Synonyms: Practical, useful, utilitarian, utility, workaday, serviceable...

So, how does this equate to your training? Essentially incorporating movements that are directly related to specific activities. In other words, we're mostly talking sports specific training here so, you know, having a cyclist do split squats for example. The funk is how cleverly you relate the movements to bio-mechanics.

But wait, what if you spend most of your time sat at a desk, or sat in the car? How do you train functionally for that? This is the truly interesting question, but before we talk about something which is actually useful there are some waters to clear – functional training, you see, has a bit of a bad rep.

A couple of years back “functional training” became the latest buzzword in fitness, like HIIT is now. Initially it wasn't a bad thing because it made trainers aware of things like anatomy and movement which can only be of benefit, but that unfortunately led to some ridiculous interpretations of “functional” and some incredibly irritating elitism.

Do we really need to be doing single leg squats on a bosu with a cow on our back? Or balancing on a kettlebell whilst juggling medicine balls? That's the way things seemed to be going. Functional training became a way for gym bros to show off, taking exercises to ridiculous and often dangerous extremes. Moreover, functional trainers would scoff at bench presses, curls, lateral raises, and anything which they deemed to be ‘un-functional’.

Every gym had stability balls, bosu balls, suspension systems and pink kettlebells for the ladies. Then came the inevitable backlash - traditional body building came crashing back through the gym door and blokes wearing vests with “do you even lift bro?” emblazoned across their chest were everywhere.

The argument here was that there is no such thing as “functional”. If you want to look like a cover model you have to lift and do the compound movements - and suddenly “Compound” became the new buzz word. Compound lifts are the most functional exercise because they use multiple muscles and joints and develop true strength, so we're told.

There was even a bit of a war of words between power lifters (and weight lifters, and other ‘performance athletes’) and bodybuilders or physique people. Compound lifts are functional; isolation work is purely aesthetic. Having disproportionately large muscles isn't functional in day to day life and they would never be of use on a sports field.

But it all comes down to priorities.

Here's the thing, if all you want is to be as big and strong as you can be then those compound lifts are one of the most functional movements you can employ. Likewise, if all you desire is to look good on stage in budgie smugglers and spray tan then those isolation movements are pretty functional. What do these people need Olympic rings for?

Common Sense

So, here's the funk. Whether you sit at a desk all day, are busy counting every calorie and weighing every macro to achieve physical perfection or want to compete in a mud run with your work mates you need to perform exercises that are going to provide you with the means to achieve your goals safely and effectively, and that's not going to happen using a cookie cutter programme from a fitness magazine or by doing what someone else who has entirely different goals to you is doing.

You need to get specific and that requires analysis, intelligent programming and periodization. Maybe you just don't like the word “functional” so substitute that for “practical” or “sensible” if you like but don't discount the importance of functional/practical programming.

That desk guy probably just wants to avoid developing the same hunch backed posture as his retired father so he needs a stronger core, thoracic extension, posterior chain strength and shoulder flexibility.

The body builder or power lifter also needs to have a strong core and good joint stability but they also need to address any asymmetries that may develop from overloading certain muscle groups, otherwise they end up looking like the stereotypical gym monkey and you won't win any competitions with terrible posture.

Then there's the mud runners. We've seen some crazy circuit style workouts done for this…they may be fun but are they really functional? Again, they need to be looking at core and joint stability and Range Of Motion (ROM).

A rock climber needs a strong grip and immense hip flexibility, a runner needs to have good cardiovascular conditioning but they also need to address postural deficiencies. Likewise, runners knee often develops due to poor foot mechanics which results in dysfunctional glute action.

Now this is where it gets interesting. If you want your core to be stable while climbing a wall or running on uneven surfaces then holding a 3 minute plank isn't going to do that for you. Your core needs to learn to stabilize and protect the spine through multiple planes of movement. In other words we're not looking for core stability, but core MOBILITY.

Funking It Up

I've worked with all kinds of people with all levels of fitness from individuals with spondylolisthesis to people who want to lose weight and get fit to professional cyclists. All of these people had different needs and different levels of fitness and stability with various limitations.

If a cyclist wants to improve their lactic threshold they need to do some strength training and then those split squats are pretty functional but let’s look at the bigger picture. They're already quad dominant and I bet my house that their glutes aren't engaging correctly.

A cyclist works solely in a saggital plane and, therefore, develops weaknesses through the frontal and transverse planes. They don't train their upper body because they don't want to gain size, it's all about power to weight ratio. Not to mention the fact that if they ride drop handlebars their natural posture will start to resemble Mr Burns from the Simpsons.

This stuff soon stacks up and before you know it there's all sorts of compensation and dysfunction going on because one weak link will eventually weaken the entire kinetic chain. Do you see what I'm getting at now? Functional training has to address ALL aspects of the physique in order to reduce the risk of injury.

How is the power lifter going to keep breaking his PR if he has an undetected leg length discrepancy and has a mild scoliosis because his internal oblique isn't engaging correctly and his quadratus lumborum has become hyper-tonic to compensate for that lack of stability and each time he does a 1 rep max on his back squat his spine flexes laterally. Sooner or later he's going to break down.

In addition to corrective exercise I also do bike fits and being in such close contact with people's feet has given me a new insight into bio-mechanics. The foot is god when it comes to functional movement. For instance, we're told that the knee should track in line with the second toe. I have never seen a “normal” or “neutral” alignment of this nature.

Almost everyone I have come into contact with has at least one over pronated foot. When this occurs the tibia and talus internally rotate which means the knee moves towards the midline. From my experience “normal” is when the knee and talus line up closer to the big toe than the second toe, there's no such thing as neutral.

If the foot over pronates common compensations include, an out turned foot, tight calves, tight hamstrings and dysfunctional glute engagement. Basically, the extensor chain muscles are not engaging in the eccentric phase to decelerating pronation of the foot as they should.

This might be the reason why our power lifter above has that mild scoliosis. So, my advice is to start at the foot and work your way up.

"Functional training does strengthen weak areas that are often neglected".

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Leave Your Ego At The Door

If you don't have a good understanding of anatomy and how your anatomy works through movement, if you don't know what posture you have or what imbalances there are then you cannot address those imperfections. Maybe it's time to get a coach or a trainer, someone who knows how to do a posture analysis or movement screen and who can set you a “prehab” routine that is entirely specific to your physique.

What does that mean? It's simply tackling any asymmetrical imbalances in a warm up routine. A warm up routine that should also incorporate muscle activation exercises for any muscle groups that you are about to train.

Functional movement is something that is hard wired into us so it's not so much a case of learning functional movement patterns, but re-learning them. For this the body has to be able to perform basic multi-dimensional bodyweight movements. Not everything can be fixed with goblet squats and farmer carries.

Sometimes you might have to reel the training in for a few weeks until you have balanced any of the asymmetrical dysfunctions in order to take your performance to the next level. Don't let your ego get the better of you, whatever you're training modality you don't have to be that guy who, at the age of forty, is being told by his doctor that he needs to stop running because his knees are “gone”. You also don't need to do pistol squats on a stability ball unless you plan to join the circus.


  • Functional training isn't a bunch of poorly programmed silly looking exercises that serve no real purpose
  • Functional training does address asymmetries
  • Functional training does strengthen weak areas that are often neglected
  • Functional training does ensure that your training doesn't compromise other daily activities
  • Functional training does improve posture and flexibility
  • Functional training requires assessment, intelligence and timing
  • Every exercise program regardless of the goals should be practical and safe
  • Bootsy Collins baselines are optional

Blog by Troy Martin