You’ve probably heard the term “functional training” used by fitness professionals, gyms, and the media for everything from explosive power movements to yoga. It’s a recent catch phrase that has many different interpretations and can be confusing as to how it relates to weight training. Some might even wonder if they should scrap their traditional weight lifting routine in favor of functional training.
According to the American Council on Exercise, functional strength training enhances the performance of movements so that an individual’s activities of daily living are easier to perform. In other words, a functional weights workout trains your neuromuscular system to move efficiently and safely outside of the gym for movements such as bending to pick something up, pulling weeds, reaching across a counter, or climbing stairs.
You can imagine that if your body is conditioned to work smoothly in a coordinated fashion, you’re less prone to injury in your real-life activities. When you’re isolating or overdeveloping certain muscle groups, you’re not conditioning your neuromuscular system to work as a whole. The weak links in your body are prone to injury as are the overdeveloped ones.
Exercises that Simulate Real-Life Movements
To incorporate functional training and help you be strong and flexible in your daily movements, you need to simulate those activities in your weights routines. As I’ve discussed before, it’s beneficial to rely mostly on compound exercises because they use multiple muscle groups and joints together, strengthen your stabilizer muscles, and more realistically simulate moving along different planes than isolation exercises.
For example, when you stand up or sit down from a chair you’re using primary muscles, stabilizer muscles, and other muscles that assist in the movement. You’re also using several joints (knees, hips). Using squats in your weight training routine simulates this action and trains your neuromuscular system to be strong and stable in these same areas.
So to train the quadriceps and glutes, you’re better off relying mostly on squats and dead lifts, which will give you the full range of motion that simulates activities outside the gym. The leg extension machine (an isolation exercises) has its place for training your quadriceps, but remember that it only uses one plane of motion; in real life we just don’t move this way.
Isolation exercises have their place as a supplement in workouts, especially when a weak area needs to be brought up to speed, to finish off your workout, or to specifically burn up your arms or calves. But relying on them too much for an individual muscle group is asking for trouble.
Including Stability and Flexibility Training
It’s recommended that you also incorporate stability and flexibility training into your workouts to balance out and support the strength you’re building.
Your stabilizer muscles support your primary mover muscles and can be developed not only with compound movements but by incorporating balance into your workout. Use an unstable surface (such as a Bosu ball) for squats or rows, perform one-legged squats, stand on one leg for bicep curls, etc.
Full-body weights routines that use the upper and lower body simultaneously stimulate the stabilizer muscles and are time-savers too. Try squats with shoulder presses or lunges with a twist, and do circuit training to increase cardiovascular benefits.
You can gain flexibility by stretching, using a full range of motion with weights exercises, and/or practicing yoga or Pilates, among other things.
So as you can see, you can still enjoy traditional weight training and get a functional workout that leads to high performance in real-life movements. Continue to enjoy your weights workouts, but keep in mind how you can create balance and strength in your entire body so that it can function at its best level as a whole.