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Function First: A Primer on Functional Training

By Billy Polson

In reading pieces that Mike Clausen and I have written for RealJock, you have probably come across the term "functional training." Functional training is the key to safe and effective muscle development, and to staying active for the long haul—well into your old age. In future articles, I'll be getting deeper into integrating functional training into your workout programs. But first, I want to make sure you know what functional training is, what its advantages are, and how to know it when you see it. So, a primer on functional training!

Functional training is any exercise or exercise program that is done to mimic the movements that people do in their daily lives or in their active lives such as sports. Many gym exercises are artificial rather than functional. That is, they ask your muscles to perform in ways that are not part of your everyday activities, or that are not part of sport performance. Daily life requires surprisingly complex strength tasks. In picking up a heavy box from the ground, for instance, you are using the following muscles, all in conjunction: legs, back, abs, biceps. But if your method of training these muscles in the gym tackles each of them individually, you never functionally prepare for the action of picking up that box—you never train the combined effort of multiple muscle groups. And that puts you at risk for injury, now and in the future, even if you have big muscles.

To functionally train for our box example, what should you do? Well, you may enjoy spending time on the leg curl machine, or doing crunches. But a far better exercise would be barbell dead lifts. Why? If you look at the dead lift, you will see that it trains multiple muscles at once. Your legs and back work together to lift the weight; while your abs are engaged to stabilize you and support your back. The action itself mimics lifting a box, in a controlled environment and with an object more properly designed to be lifted. The result: You can not only build muscle-mass now, you can prevent injury tomorrow, and retain your physical independence into your later years.

The case for sports athletes is similar. Many athletes completely separate their time on the field and their time in the gym. But that's really not a good way to go. A football player, for example, must have a powerful chest and shoulders to play the game. So, you'd expect him to do a lot of pectoral work. But the bench press, a favorite of lifters everywhere, is not an ideal exercise. A football player needs his chest strength to be accessed in a standing position—not lying on his back. That means that his legs and core will need to support his chest as he pushes. So, in a pinch moment, the muscle mass built in a bench press might not be useful to him. He will be better off training his chest with a cable chest press, which is done upright, and which requires that he stabilize through his legs and core rather than by pressing into a bench. In the heat of the game, he'll find he can stay upright and push through his chest. He's less likely to get injured as well.

To identify functional exercises you should look for the following qualities:

  1. Exercises that require you to coordinate more than one limb, muscle group, or area of the body (most cable machine exercises meet these requirements);
  2. Exercises that ask you to work in more than one bodily plane, such as lunges with plate twists, or landmines;
  3. Exercises that demand that you balance your own body-weight as part of the work, such as push-ups or squats; and
  4. Exercises that mimic the movements of daily life or sports, such as deadlifts and side-to-side steps over a flat bench.
In the end, isolated traditional bodybuilding exercises likebiceps curls and bench press can be great for building muscle mass. But to truly become stronger, you should balance bodybuilding training with coordinated, multi-muscle functional movements. You'll truly become more muscular and stronger.

About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Billy is a certified Exercise Coach through the Paul Chek Institute as well as a Certified Personal Trainer through The National Academy of Sports Medicine. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to