A Pretty Huge Guide to Functional Training 

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Have you ever wondered why some people seem to move with more ease and efficiency, and don’t seem to get injured easily? Or why some people have Chris Evans-biceps, but find it difficult to open a jar of mayonnaise?

Sometimes it’s not just about genetics, or food supplements, or that the lid is stuck. It’s how you train your muscles to do the things you have to do. And not just in sports! You can – and need – to train your muscles to do even your everyday tasks from rushing to the office to taking out the trash.

Out of all the fitness routines and exercises out there, functional training is one of the most practical and beneficial. Functional training is training for life. This simplified yet comprehensive walk-through has everything you need to know about functional training that helps you reach optimal performance and lets you live a full life.

1. Definition: What is functional training?

2. Importance: What’s the point of functional training?

3. Components: What comprises functional training?

4. Comparison: How is functional training different from other workout forms?

5. Types: How is functional training categorized?

6. Benefits: What can one get from functional training?

7. Exercises: What are the different functional training routines to try?

8. Foresight: What can one expect from functional training?


1. Definition: What is functional training?

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Functional training is a kind of workout that uses and trains groups of muscles to work together as what happens when doing real-life activities – from daily tasks to sports.

“The main word here is function. Function is purpose. So functional training is training that has a purpose,” says a certified New York-based personal trainer, Eric Salvador. The purpose depends on the person – from being able to climb office stairs without going breathless on the twelfth step or to finish a race without straining an ankle.

Also termed as functional fitness, this kind of workout engages multiple muscle groups to mimic real-life actions. Take lifting objects, for example. Different muscles, such as your deltoids, pectorals, triceps, and your leg and gluteal muscles, are at work when you carry stuff. In functional training, these muscles are trained to work together so you can perform the task with more ease and efficiency.

This makes functional training different from other exercises (which will be discussed further in the continuing part of the content). Instead of working out just one particular muscle or muscle group, it trains groups of muscles to work as one. While others emphasize on aesthetics and form, functional training focuses on movement and agility.

Because it translates to everyday life, functional training should not be treated as another fitness fad that comes and goes. It’s a practical exercise regimen that should be considered and kept as a basic part of one’s workout.


2. Importance: What’s the point of functional training?

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When we include functional training in our workout routine, we move with more agility and balance, and we become less prone to injuries and strains.

If functional training imitates real-life activities, why not go straight to doing the real thing until your body becomes accustomed to it?

Functional training doesn’t just prepare your body to perform daily actions and sports activities. It also helps prevent body pain and injuries. It’s like practicing before an actual stage performance. When you practice, you are more capable of doing something for real without getting too nervous and with fewer mistakes.

A lot of unwanted things can happen when we are not conditioned for a task. For instance, falling is one of the most common causes of household injuries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are an estimated 37.3 million falls per year requiring medical attention. By undergoing functional training that improves balance and coordination, falls can be avoided.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a catch-all term that involves disorders affecting muscles, nerves, and tendons due to repeated movements, bad grip, and poor posture. Functional training helps to improve strength, flexibility, and posture that can keep RSI at bay.

The truth is, while many of us are obsessing over six-pack abs and a sculpted backside, our muscle mass and strength are decreasing by 30% to 50% between the ages of 30 and 80 as a US biotech provider points out. It’s time we look at fitness not just in terms of looking good, but more importantly, by being able to do the activities that give meaning and satisfaction to our lives for a long time.


3. Components: What comprises functional training?

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An effective functional training workout involves a lot of movements, focuses on key fitness elements, and uses simple exercise equipment.

When it comes to movements, patterns of natural human actions are incorporated in a functional training program. Some of these movements are:

  • Pushing

  • Pulling

  • Squatting

  • Rotating

  • Lifting

  • Walking 

  • Running

  • Jumping


Whether you’re looking to run an obstacle course or simply run errands, these elements are central to every functional training program.

  • Agility. This involves the coordination needed to switch from one position or movement to another with greater ease, speed, and balance.

  • Strength. This is the ability of muscles to exert force against a resistance. 

  • Power. This is the same as strength but with one other factor –speed. Therefore, power is the ability of muscles to produce maximum effort at minimum time.

  • Balance. This is about maintaining stability while moving by being able to control the placement of your body’s center of gravity.

  • Flexibility. This refers to the ability of muscles to stretch or lengthen without discomfort.

  • Mobility. This differs from flexibility as it pertains to the joints and the ability to move through a full range of motion with ease.

It’s also important to know the tools and equipment normally used in functional training. Most of these are weights, platforms, and other basic exercise equipment, instead of intimidating fitness machines. Knowing the proper use and purpose of each equipment leads to a more effective workout.

  • Free weights

The most common ones are dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and sandbags. These alone can be used for a lot of functional training exercises and positions. Therefore, free weights allow you to have a more dynamic and diverse workout.

  • Plyometric equipment

Basically these are platforms or objects you jump on, off, or over like boxes and hurdles. Thus, using these improves your jumping skills by working out your arm and leg muscles.

  • Workout straps or bands

Examples of these are suspension straps (like the TRX suspension system) and resistance bands. These can be used to perform various exercises for different body parts that involve a lot of pulling, pressing, and extending.

  • Exercise balls

These are perfect for functional training routines that address muscle imbalance. These are also known as Swiss balls or physioballs. 

It is important to note that tools are not always needed to perform certain functional training exercises. Especially for beginners, your body weight is enough for a number of exercises to be carried out.


4. Comparison: How is functional training different from other trainings and exercises?

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The most unique feature of functional training is that it is geared towards carrying out real-life activities efficiently with less injury. 

A lot of fitness programs and exercises that we do today are aimed at losing weight, or toning muscles, or improving our cardio. Functional training’s main goal is honing and refining our movements.


Functional Training VS Weight Training

Weight training is also referred to as strength training or resistance training that aims to make your muscles stronger and build lean muscles. This is done through applying more resistance than your body can normally handle.


KEY DIFFERENCES

Weight Training

Functional Training

• Focuses on building muscle strength and power.

• Works on individual muscle groups without training them to work with others.

• Exercises are done with support from benches and machines with backrests. Therefore, it doesn’t train the body for its intended use in real life.

• Designed for agility, strength, power, balance, and improving range of motion.

• Taps groups of muscles to work as one.

• Uses simple to minimal equipment and depends on one’s own body for support as in real life.



Functional Training VS Bodybuilding

As the name suggests, bodybuilding is defined as “the development and growth of the body through exercise and diet.” Nevertheless, it is considered a sport, too. In professional bodybuilding, it is the “development and growth of one’s physique for competitive purposes.” 

KEY DIFFERENCES

Bodybuilding

Functional Training

• Focuses on form: developing muscle mass, definition, and size.

• Workout is isolated to target specific muscles.

• Many bodybuilders are prone to injuries since bodybuilding routines neglect some stabilizer muscles functional training focuses on.

• Focuses on function: training different muscle groups to move together with efficiency.

• Workout is integrated where muscle groups are trained to work as a single unit.

• Trains muscle groups including stabilizer muscles to prevent injuries.


Functional Training VS Circuit Training

Circuit training is incorporating and cycling through several different exercises (usually five to ten) with little to no rest in between. Although it sounds exhausting, the idea is alternating different muscle groups in such a way as working out one muscle group while the other rests. For instance, because your arms get a rest during squats and your legs get a break during push-ups, you don’t need to stop in between these exercises. You just have to alternate them.



KEY DIFFERENCES

Circuit Training

Functional Training

• Involves alternating different muscle groups where one works while the other rests.

• Improves cardiorespiratory system and muscular strength.

• Trains different muscle groups to work at the same time.

• Improves overall body movement and posture.



Remember, comparing different fitness programs is not to determine which one is the best among them, but rather which one is the best for us. Each of us has his/her fitness goals. Sometimes, we need to work on a particular muscle and there’s nothing wrong if you want to develop a buff physique. But if you want your body to be apt for day-to-day activities, functional training can be a great and practical inclusion to your regular workout.


5. Types: How is functional training categorized?

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When creating a functional training program, we have to identify our needs and level of fitness or tolerance. To make easier choices, we can look at functional training exercises according to intensity or physical goal.

There are so many functional training exercises out there. In order to easily figure out which ones are suited for us, we can group these exercises according to intensity or physical goal. For instance, there are high-intensity functional training as well as low-intensity functional training. There are also functional training workouts to increase power, strengthen your core, and improve unilateral strength.

By Intensity

Functional training workouts can depend on our level of fitness. By choosing the right workout intensity, it’s easier to perform and stick to the regimen to achieve desired results.

  • High Intensity Functional Training (HIFT)

This training involves intense strength, functional, and cardio exercises. While some researchers and resources would rather separate HIFT from High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, here we treat them as one –a powerful fitness routine that involves a series of high-intensity workouts with short periods of rest in between.

On the other hand, HIFT is different from circuit training. While they apply the same idea, interval training, as in HIFT, “has less to do with what you’re doing, and instead, is mostly about the intensity of what you’re doing.”

One of the benefits of HIFT is that it prepares you for heavy jobs. In fact, the US military has designed its own HIFT program intended to promote better physical preparedness and is included in soldier training. Because of its intensity, this kind of functional training may not be for everybody.

Nevertheless, although it sounds quite challenging, it’s a fun workout that requires less time but produces great results.


  • Low Intensity Functional Training

Functional training exercises with lower intensity have been used to help older individuals to maintain their lifestyles and activities.

Exercise scientists and a physical therapist at The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse studied the effects of Low Intensity Functional Training versus the usual exercise routines. The four-week study revealed that participants who practiced Low Intensity Functional Training showed greater improvements in strength, endurance, agility, balance, and flexibility, and were much able to continue with their daily lives.

By Physical Goal

When we want to improve a specific body part or fitness criteria, it is best to create a functional training course based on targeted results.

  • Plyometrics

Also known as “jump training,” plyometrics was coined by Fred Wilt after watching Soviet athletes warm up for a track and field event. Functional exercises under this category aim to increase power characterized by the muscles’ ability to exert maximum force in a short period of time.

  • Core Exercises

Functional training exercises that train your pelvic, lower back, hip, and abdominal muscles to work together lead to a stronger core for better balance and stability.

  • Unilateral Exercises

These functional training workouts focus on one side of your body at a time. As both sides of our body won’t have the same strength, unilateral exercises even out the strength between these parts.


6. Benefits: What can one get from functional training?

Simply put, functional training improves everyday life.

While many workouts promise weight loss and toned abs, functional training gives us what truly matters, even in the long run –to be able to do the things we love to do. Whether that would be finishing an obstacle course or just piggybacking our kid around the house, functional training allows us to do these things safely and comfortably, with greater ease and satisfaction.

Here are some benefits of functional training that have positive effects on how we do our everyday activities.

  • It focuses on movement rather than just muscle. 

The problem with most workouts is that they train muscle groups individually and use mostly back-and-forth motions. Because our actions aren’t limited to just one group of muscles and one plane of motion in real life, functional training fills in the gaps by incorporating exercises that put your muscles through a large range of motion, improving your agility, mobility, and balance.

  • It improves muscle memory.

According to fitness coach Gavin Smith, “The more your body performs a particular movement or exercise, the faster and more responsive your body can repeat the movements in the future.” This way, you don’t just get to train your muscles, but also your brain. This can result to better brain- body coordination, making the movement second nature to you.

  • It eases joint pain.

Because it is low impact, regular functional training can gently but effectively relieve various body pains. Functional fitness is made to restore your body to its best, strongest, and most efficient state.

  • It makes you less prone to injuries.

Sports and day-to-day activities cause sprains, strains, soreness, and other kinds of discomfort. Functional training doesn’t just mimic real-life actions. It also strengthens both muscles and ligaments. Because of these, your body becomes better equipped to deal with daily physical stress.

  • It prevents bad posture.

Bad posture hurts us even before we do a particular task. Coach Gavin Smith explains, “Most functional training exercises are not stabilized and require you to recruit other small muscle groups to help support the larger ones, which will help prevent over-training one muscle group and giving incorrect posture.”

  • It allows your body to do more.

Functional training is designed to improve agility, flexibility, and mobility –the components needed so you can move easier, quicker, and far better.


7. Exercises: What are the different functional training exercises to try?

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Functional training exercises are practical and rewarding as it is challenging. For obstacle course racers, exercises that strengthen and improve your grip, run, and core are great inclusions to your training program.

With so many functional training exercises out there, the question is, what exercises can you consider as part of your workout routine?

Looking at functional training exercises according to type can help in creating a customized training program. Let’s say you are a seasoned fitness enthusiast looking for a more exciting workout that can give you faster results. Here are some High Intensity Functional Training exercises you can try.

  • Slammer into breakdancer

  • Counterbalance squat into overhead wood chop lunge

  • Single-arm plank with one-armed row

You can also create a functional training program based on physical goals. For instance, if you’re looking to strengthen your core, try to include some of these exercises in your fitness regimen.

  • Plank

  • Dead bug

  • High/low boat

  • Ball push-away

  • Hanging knee raise

  • Dumbbell plank drag

  • Strict toes to bar

  • L-sit

  • Wall plank

  • Panther shoulder tap

  • Butterfly sit-up

  • Half-kneeling wood chop

  • Body saw

  • Side bend

  • Jackknife

  • Single-leg jackknife

  • Wheelbarrow

  • Leg raise

  • Hollow body rock


As you can see, knowing various functional training exercises by type makes planning for a workout easier. On the other hand, if you’re training for something more specialized, like an obstacle course race, it’s important to know what movements are involved and where you are struggling

Functional Training Exercises for Obstacle Course Racers

In an obstacle course, you’ll find yourself running then climbing, swinging then crawling. Therefore, you need to be able to change movements quickly, have an incredible grip, and of course, run faster. 

For grip and pull strength

It’s not an obstacle course race without monkey bars. And hanging ropes. And inverted walls. And ninja rings.

All these obstacles require grip and pull strength. Your shoulders, elbows, and wrists affect your grip, while your back muscles and biceps are the primary movers for your pull strength. Below are some grip and pull strength exercises from OCR trainer, Yancy Culp.


Sandbell or Sandbag Rows

1. From a squat, reach down and grab the bag from the ground with one hand.

2. Stand up from the squat as you propel the bag up to waist height, transferring it to your other hand.

3. Quickly switch to grab it with your other hand before it hits the ground.

4. The moment it touches the ground, repeat the exercise and transfer the bag back to the previous hand.

Ball Slams

1. Using a “dead ball” or a slam ball, squat down, snatch the ball from the ground, and bring it up over your head.

2. Turn your hands so they’re on top of the ball, then slam it down back to the ground. This completes one rep.

Pull-ups or Assisted Pull-ups

1. Throw a rope over any horizontal structure like a tree limb or a bar so that the ends of the rope hang vertically. This puts your hands in a vertical grip position just as they will be when trying to overcome obstacles such as a rope climb.

2. As you grip the rope, pull your body up and down without your feet touching the ground.

3. For those who cannot carry their full body weight, you can opt for the assisted pull-ups where your feet can touch the ground. This allows you to add a light jump off the ground so you can pull your body up.


For running

Like any other race, an obstacle course is also about running. Typically, the race comprises of about 10% obstacles and 90% running. Here, you think about your mobility, speed, and endurance.

  • Increase mobility

Mobility training has a whole package of benefits: a greater sense of balance, lower risk of injury, maintenance of joint health, and overall better movement.

Leg Swings

1. To warm up and stretch your hips, stand up straight near a wall and place your feet hip-width apart.

2. From a stationary position, slowly swing one leg forward and backward. Don’t kick. Just allow your leg to make a single smooth movement.

3. Put your foot down and do the same on the opposite leg.


Duck Walk

1. Put your hands behind your head and get into squatting position. Try to keep your thighs parallel to the ground and stay at a height you’re comfortable with.

2. Once you’re in position, walk forward without slouching or bending your torso. Try to keep your chest high and your core braced as well.

Sprinting

1. Do 8-10 sets per workout with approximately 20-40 yards each. You don’t need to run as fast as you can. Your speed should be slightly slower than the fastest speed you can go.

2. Without stopping completely, slow down and have short active rests in between sets.



  • Improve speed and endurance

Prioritizing functional strength work as part of your training routine can help improve your pace and endurance, and prevent overuse injuries,” says physical therapist and fitness coach, Nicole Ramos. These exercises from Dr. Rachel Tavel, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, strengthen the major muscle groups needed for the positions and movements that healthy running requires.


Quad Stretch

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.

2. Bend your right knee to draw your right foot to your buttocks.

3. Grab your right ankle with your right hand while you raise your left arm straight up toward the ceiling.

4. Hold the position for five seconds before repeating with the left leg (and right arm). 

Bulgarian Split Squat

1. Stand with your right foot behind you, resting on a low platform or low box. Clasp your hands in front of your chest for balance.

2. Slowly and with control, bend your left knee to lower down your right knee to the floor. 

3. Press through your left heel to return to starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds, then switch legs.


Single-leg Hop

1. Stand and try to balance with only your left foot on the ground in front of a low platform or low box.

2. Using just the left leg, hop up onto the platform, then hop back down.

3. Make sure your knee stays straight with each hop (you can do the exercise in front of a mirror). Repeat for 30 seconds, then do the same with your right leg.


For core strength

Strengthening your core is important when preparing for an obstacle course. Your core is what carries you through the race. A strong core can also improve your running mechanics and your ability to maintain a strong pace over great distances. Try to include these core training exercises from OCR trainer, Yancy Culp.


Squat Jump with Medicine/Slam Ball Throw

1. Use a medicine or slam ball, position it between your legs or behind the heels while standing.

2. Squat down and grab the ball, then quickly explode up out of the squat throwing the ball up towards a wall (or a partner) out in front of you.


Plank with Hip Circles

1. Begin with a plank position: lying face down on your forearms and toes.

2. Make a full 360-degree rotation motion with your hips.

3. Continue repeating hip circles, switching the direction of rotation each rep.

Important reminder:

Before trying any functional training exercises or when you’re trying to come up with a functional training program, always consult your doctor and your trainer or specialist. Featured exercises here are just some examples. Your trainer will be able to give more recommendations appropriate for your physical makeup or fitness level and suitable to meet your needs.


8. Foresight: What can one expect from functional training?

When you exercise for real-life activities, you can expect real-life improvements.

Yes, technological advancements make our lives easier, but work challenges and physical discomfort are still present. Even when you’re sitting at your office desk working on your computer, this could wreak havoc on your body. Rachel Grumman points at a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finding where work-related musculoskeletal problems –from muscle strains to carpal tunnel syndrome –make up 32% of all worker injury and illness cases in 2014.

Sometimes, it’s not how heavy the work or activity is. It’s how you do it. It’s how you carry the load. And functional training trains our body to do things the right way. Strengthening our muscles, maintaining our posture, and improving our mobility allow us to work more efficiently and comfortably, lessening the risk of injuries.

In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows improved functional ability among elderly people who participated in a 16-week structured exercise program. Another study concludes that functional training may be a better option than muscle strength training alone in terms of reducing disability from activities of daily living in older adults.

Speaking of elderly people, it’s time to look at fitness not just by aiming for a body as ripped as Captain America. You should also be able to do what he does best. No, not saving the world (or wielding Thor’s hammer). You should be able to do your job and say, “I can do this all day.”

Pretty Huge Obstacles, as an advocate of fitness, good health, and growth, encourages the practice of functional training, not just as preparation for an obstacle course, but more so as training for everyday life. If you want to be up for the challenge, get to know more about us and visit our pretty awesome facility today.