Tuesday, August 24, 2010

There is no such thing as a functional exercise

There is no such thing as a functional exercise or training program.

It’s time to put some perspective on the use of the word ‘functional’, which has become somewhat of ‘catch-cry’ since the start of the 21st century. I believe it has probably gone too far now, and too many reputations on based on it, for the use of the term ‘functional’ to regain perspective. Nevertheless, here is my belief:

There is no such thing as a functional exercise. Nor is there such as thing as a functional training method.

To me, function in an outcome. The ability to perform specific function/s. The adjective interpretation.

To claim an exercise or training method is ‘functional’ is to speak from the ‘prescriptive’ perspective rather than the ‘process’ perspective. It is based on an assumption that every person using the exercise or training method has the same training goal AND responds in a predictable way.

Functional as it is popularly used is nothing more than an extension of the over-application of the term and concept ‘specificity’ – which proceeded ‘functional’ in terms of being the dominant trend term and concept – and also assumes an outcome. To claim an exercise or training method is ‘specific’ relies on an assumption that you know how any given person will respond to the exercise or training method, and that you know in advance that this adaptation will enhance their ability to perform a specific task or sport.

It would appear that any exercise that is uni-lateral, bodyweight only, and standing or sitting on an ‘unstable’ surface is instantly titled ‘functional’ – however if applied to say an elite competitive Olympic weight lifter has as much guaranteed ‘functionalism’ as power clean has to an arm wrestler.

Invariably the assumption is made that if we give a person an apparently specific movement for their training goal (e.g. sport) then the exercise is 'functional'. Let me list some of the flaws:

1. The initial aim of all non-specific (off-field) training should be to counter the damage done by the sport, not rehearse it!

2. For me, the next goal of strength training is to provide a stimulus not found when playing the sport.

3. There is an assumption that the 'apparently specific' movement will actually transfer to improved 'function'. This is a 'prescriptive' approach to training, not a process approach. I support the latter.

4. The exercise is an exercise. It is not functional nor dysfuntional. The outcome or training effect MAY be an increase in function.

5. Does this mean that exercises not considered 'specific' or 'functional' are thereby now dysfunctional?

This mis-use of the term ‘functional’ provides newcomers and students in the industry with a misguided starting point. Unless we delight in misleading others, a serious review of the use if this term is warranted.

The use of the term or concept ‘functional’ has even reached the stage of being used to identify schools of thought or belief – in the same way some refer to there being a ‘one set to failure group’, apparently there is now a ‘functional training group’.

Exercise equipment has suffered to same fate in that during the rise of ‘functional training’ many devices were labelled as bad or causing injuries. Machines are innate. If they are associated with ‘bad’ or ‘injury’ it is a function or outcome of their use, not the machine itself. They are nothing more than an innate object.

There is a time and place for everything. The exercise or training method can be used with an intent to create functional strength (strength that is optimally used by an individual in pursuit of their specific goal), however an exercise or training method is not in itself ‘functional’, nor is it by that definition ‘non-functional’.

To use the term ‘functional’ to label an exercise, training method, program, training device or training philosophy is inappropriate, inaccurate and misleading.

An exercise or training method is not 'functional'. The outcome or training effect MAY be.

NB. Listen to the interview: http://bit.ly/96H45n


  1. Excellent insight. I have always believed in "off-setting" on-the-field or in-sport function in the weight room. I find its an effective way to prevent imbalances from continuing on to an injury.

    The term "functional" has been bastardized by too many and has evolved into a marketing gimmick. Unfortunately, it has become the accepted diction in the industry.

    Thanks coach.