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The Death of "Functional" in Personal Training

by Jon-Erik Kawamoto | Follow on Twitter

The word “functional” is used way too much in personal training. Nobody knows what it means anymore.

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I‘ve heard the term “functional fitness” way too much over the last week. I’ve heard it so much, I forgot what it means.

I saw one video saying that functional training is any exercise that incorporates more than one joint. If this is true, then a bench press would be functional while a rope triceps extension would not be. What about multi-dimensional movements? Well of course they’re functional and single plane exercises are obviously non functional. Any personal trainers out there following?

I’ve read somewhere that functional training is an exercise that mimics what’s done in the real world or sporting field. If this was true, a suit case deadlift would be functional for the real world, but not for soccer and swinging a weighted bat would be functional for baseball, but not for curling.

I’ve also seen videos of personal trainers discussing how standing on unstable surfaces is functional training because the unstableness mimics the sidewalk if an earthquake hits (okay…a little farfetched, but it’s true!). What about exercise machines? The pec deck, leg curl and leg press would die to be considered functional because everyone knows that machines aren’t functional.

Anyway, my point is that no one seems to agree on what functional training actually means. This phase is in the same boat as “core training” or “metabolic conditioning” (phases that are also overused, misused and misunderstood).

Next you’ll hear that vibration platforms are functional or that the Ab-o-matic is the next best functional training tool on the market that targets your lower abs (stay tuned for my launch next week).

How to become a personal trainer functional

If you put the term “functional” in front of any muscle group, exercise or system, it sounds pretty legit.

Let’s try:

Functional Leg Training (legit)

Functional Sit-up (legit)

Functional Shoulder Shrug (legit)

Okay, you get the point…

It seems that if the word functional is associated with anything, it makes it that much better for you. But “it is apparent that many personal trainers are confusing general and sport-specific exercises,” writes Mel Siff, “as well as single and multiple joint methods of training, when they refer to functionality and non functionality.

“Functionality depends not only on the exercise itself but on many other factors, such as the pattern of execution, the characteristics of the athlete, reps, and sets, the manner of execution, the phase of training, interaction with other training, the current physical and mental state of the athlete, the overall training program, and several other variables.” –Siff

Just because an exercise is functional for an athlete at one instance, doesn’t mean it will be functional during another instance for the same athlete; therefore,

The functionality of an exercise is context dependent.

How to be a personal trainer functional

Hey Rob, is this functional?

To further your understanding on whether an exercise is functional or not, you’ll have to study the neuromuscular and metabolic happenings during the exercise and relate it to the neuromuscular and metabolic happenings during the sporting movement (I don’t see too many doing this).

“So, if we are to consider sit-ups and the Olympic lifts as non- functional with respect to virtually any complex sporting action, then we also have to regard crunches, cable crunches, back-extended ball crunches, transversus abdominis exercises, hanging leg raises, and every other popular gym exercise as being similarly nonfunctional. In other words, as stated earlier, there is no such entity as a truly functional exercise, except for the actual sporting or daily movement that we are trying to enhance by training.” – Siff

Just because gross movement patterns appear similar doesn’t mean the muscles are recruited the exact same way every time the movement is performed. Maybe instead of exercises, we should focus on the motor responses associated with the motor skill we want to develop.

So any form or training that increases functionality or sport-specific performance should be considered functional, right? This would then imply that any non-functional exercise would have little influence in sport performance.

So I guess body building is useless for hockey…but what if the rookie forward needed to put on 20-lbs so he could hold his own on the ice? Does it make it functional in that situation? But I thought body building wasn’t functional? But does it improve his performance and presence on the ice? Probably. So I guess it’s safe to say body building can be considered functional training in that context?

Becoming a personal trainer functional

What about Crossfit? I spent the whole weekend watching the Crossfit Games. It got me fired up and made me want to train…all day! The guys and girls who kicked some serious butt this past weekend are true competitors and absolute beasts! Anyways, I digress.

Back to the topic at hand: I heard the phrases functional exercise, functional training and functional fitness way too much this weekend. So a thruster (front squat to overhead press) is functional? For who?? It’s functional for the Crossfitter who has to bang out reps when doing Fran but what about for a bowler? Or a swimmer? But it’s a multi-joint exercise, so it’s functional right?

The problem here is the fitness industry is not black and white. Why do we have to classify exercises as functional and non functional anyway?

How about this: Does the exercise help you get closer to your goals? Then the exercise is optimal, not functional. I say we get rid of this controversial term and just say exercises are optimal or not-optimal depending on the context and your goals.


Siff, Mel. (2002). Functional training revisited. Strength and conditioning journal, 24(5): 42-46.

photo credit: istolethetvwilliamcholululemon athleticaLouish Pixel

About the Author
Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CSEP is currently pursuing a Master’s of Exercise Physiology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and also contributes to Running Times, Canadian Running, Oxygen and Reps magazine among others. Find out more at his blogs and