What Does Functional Mean in The Fitness Industry and Why It Should Be Avoided

Functional is one of the most disputed words in the fitness industry. It is important to understand what functional means in the fitness industry and how to make the best decisions for yourself in terms of which training style you chose. In this article I offer my opinion on what functional means and why it is a term that should be avoided.

6 min read
Sean Klein
Written by
Sean Klein
Published on
27/02/24
Last updated
27/02/24

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In This Resource
  • Functional Definition
  • Functional In The Fitness Industry
  • Functional Training is All of Resistance Training
  • Bodybuilding vs Resistance Training
  • Functional Core Development
  • Balance, Mobility
  • All Muscles are Functional
  • Snatches Do Not Occur in Daily Life
  • Conclusion

Functional is one of the most disputed words in the fitness industry. It is important to understand what functional means in the fitness industry and how to make the best decisions for yourself in terms of which training style you chose. In this article I offer my opinion on what functional means and why it is a term that should be avoided.

Functional Definition

“Of or relating to a function”

Functional In The Fitness Industry

Functional has been used a great deal in the fitness industry to explain exercises which we can have a function in our daily lives. Here is how I would define a functional exercises:

“exercises that have high carry over to daily life”

The only problem is that almost all exercise we perform, when performed well and with correct dosage have high carry over to daily life. Therefore all exercises are functional.

Functional Training is All of Resistance Training

Resistance training, moving the body against load in order to create adaptations, is in of itself functional, therefore every exercise within resistance training is a functional exercise. When resistance training is performed well, using appropriate exercise selection, moving the body through its full range of motion, it can be a very powerful tool for individuals to improve their health.

Bodybuilding vs Resistance Training

We need to understand the difference between resistance training and bodybuilding to see why the term functional was created. One aims to increase muscle mass (body building) and one aims to improve health (resistance training). However there is an enormous cross over, as both use the same movement patterns (hinge, squat, push, pull, press, core) to reach their aims. This results in a lot of coaches claiming they are experts in functional training, as a way to differentiate themselves away from bodybuilding training, but they are just using resistance training.

When we see a muscle bound individual who has taken body building to its extreme for either athletic pursuits or bodybuilding it is easy to see why the word functional was used to describe a different training style than bodybuilding. Bodybuilding, especially badly performed body building gave resistance training a bit of a bad reputation. It convinced the general population that it is not beneficial for their day to day lives and only good for looking at yourself in the mirror.

Bodybuilding can be functional in the sense that it helps increase muscle mass and muscle mass is very beneficial for health metrics (hence why we perform resistance training). That being said, bodybuilding can be very badly done, and very often is. Let’s use an example of someone who lifts weights three times a week, one session for their arms, one session for their chest and one for their back. This is bodybuilding done extremely badly and not effective in terms of building towards long term health where we can thrive in our day to day.

Functional Core Development

So called functional training contains a great deal of varied core development, this is excellent and can often be very beneficial for day to day life. If you are looking for functional core exercises have a read through our article on the topic. However, when bodybuilding is performed correctly it should contain all these different movement patterns. Bodybuilding, when performed well can be very effective at developing the core musculature.

Balance, Mobility

More aspects of resistance training that are very important and are often not included in bodybuilding training programmes are balance and mobility exercises. These are crucial for the general population and athletes and is what often differentiates between bodybuilding and resistance training programme. It is not very often that we see bear crawls and lateral lunges in the warm ups of bodybuilder, although this would be great for them to use as a warm up. These styles of exercises, loaded stretches and animal walks will allow us to build mobility in warm ups then build muscle mass during our session. I do not consider these functional exercises, they are just exercises that make up a well rounded strength and conditioning programme.

All Muscles are Functional

In order for us to function at optimal capacity, we need to have high levels (relatively) of muscle mass, especially as we age. This therefore makes all styles of training functional, as all muscle mass plays it’s functional in helping us perform daily movements.

Let’s take the most classic “non-functional” exercise we can and see how actually it may be very functional, to a point. The bicep curl is often performed at high volumes for young males to increase their status through muscle mass, but the bicep is just like any other muscle when it comes to functionality and helps us perform many day to day movements. Therefore the bicep should be trained for both strength and hypertrophy by many populations.

Snatches Do Not Occur in Daily Life

A snatch, that is often considered the most technical movement in the weight-room is a weight-lifting movement and is often said to be the most functional exercise. However most of the exercises that occur in day to day life involve the most basic of movement patterns, sitting down to a chair, picking something off the floor. This means that in order to use resistance training for health, we really just need to master the basics and perform them extremely well. Somewhere along the line, functional movements started to mean complex weightlifting movements and ring muscle ups. These are specific skills that athletes may need to master and will help build athleticism, but are not the building blocks of using resistance training for health.

Conclusion

Resistance training, when programmed correctly, is one of the most successful behavioural interventions for your health. All exercises within resistance training have their function and therefore all function to help you build towards a stronger, healthier version of yourself. Functional training and functional exercises are just more marketing terms that are used in order to help sell products. As coaches and practitioners I think we should avoid using this term.

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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

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