Functional Training versus Traditional Exercises

Functional training has become a catchy buzz phrase thrown around by personal trainers and fitness coaches around the world. If we break down the phrase it should become obvious what it means. Functional by definition means “having or serving a utilitarian purpose”. In other words, this type of training is a method of training the body that directly corresponds to a purpose or has a use in the person’s life.

Functional training would exclude movements like Bench Press, Curls (both biceps and hamstrings), Leg extensions, Tricep push downs and many more exercises. However, as a Health & Performance Coach and Personal Trainer, I do not agree with excluding these exercises from a workout routine altogether. My personal belief is that proper exercise prescription should strike a balance between functional and “non functional” movements.

As a former athlete myself, I see the great benefits of functional movements like lunges, squats and various core movements that are applicable to sports if taught correctly and the application of that movement is illustrated clearly for the client/athlete. However, muscle hypertrophy, sculpting and development will come from focused movements and single joint exercises. If this were not the case then bodybuilders would do more “functional training” than “traditional lifts”.

There is room for both styles of training in the world of fitness, but my personal opinion is that a program should strike a balance of the two. Men typically want to have larger arms or a larger chest. The size gains to these areas typically will come with focused and heavy lifts, like bench presses, bicep curl movements and triceps presses.

Women also should be lifting heavy if they want to lose body fat and shape their physique more. The myth that women should lift lighter weights is a baffling one. Muscle stimulation and progression is important for increased calorie expenditure and muscle growth. The fact that women have very little testosterone will not allow for the type of growth seen in men, but the increased muscle tone from lifting heavier loads will give a lady the curve she desires. But I digress…

Full body functional movements are taxing and expend calories. However the loads are usually lower during most full body function movements that people consider like the squat and press.

Let’s take the squat and press for example: The exertion of both legs and shoulders are going to tax the entire body, but most times it will not be heavy enough to stimulate growth unless you are a well trained power lifter (power lifters have some of the lowest body fat of all athletes). This will work great for burning body fat and leaning out, teaching coordination and so forth, but the loads that can be achieved on a traditional squat for the Average Joe still takes a tremendous amount of energy and will burn a tremendous amount of body fat, while stimulating muscle growth. The traditional squats, RDL’s (Romanian Dead Lifts) and things like this will also do more to shape and tone the legs. Building muscle size absolutely requires heavy loads. A person can do much heavier weight on a simple back squat than they can lift over head; hence there is a need for traditional movements for muscle gains.

When I think of all the Olympic world record holders of the past and the feats achieved by athletes who worked without exercises considered to be in the “so called” functional training realm, I have to ask the question, why is today’s so called “functional training” so highly emphasized as some sort of holy grail of fitness?

By Rich Thurman, B.Sc., MA, CSCS, CPT

Health & Performance Coach

Active Lifestyle Co. Ltd

With a degree in Physiology from UCLA and a Masters Degree in Sports & Fitness Management, Rich combines his knowledge of rehabilitation and sports performance as well as nutritional studies to provide a complete and holistic approach to training clients. The focus is on lifestyle change which creates long term health.


About Rich Thurman III B.Sc, MA, CSCS, NSCA-CPT
Rich has a Bachelors of Science in Physiological Science from UCLA and a Masters of Sports Management from USF. He is certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, (NSCA) as a Personal Trainer (CPT) and Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He is primary author of The Fitness Library and writes for various other publications, including the San Francisco Police Officer's Association. Rich is the founder of Xodus Fitness, which offers Fitness Consulting & Personal Training, Urban Body Transformation Bootcamps, Corporate Wellness. Rich also conducts Workshops and an annual lecture at the San Francisco State University Kinesiology Department. Please feel free to contact through any of the links below to inquire about professional services or opportunities.

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