Not so long ago the buzzword in the fitness industry was core training and everyone got into a frenzy trying to understand and train the core. If you listen carefully you will now start hearing the phrase functional training more regularly. You may also see people doing exercises that do not resemble anything you are used to seeing in a gym environment.

Twenty years ago functional training referred to exercises which mimicked or resembled the sport you played. Functional training as it is known today actually has its origins in rehabilitation. It was a natural evolution for physical and occupational therapists working with patients with movement disorders. The goal was to use exercise which would allow individuals to perform their activities of daily living more easily and without injuries.

How then does functional training differ from more conventional exercise? In order to understand functional training better, we need to understand planes of movement. There are three planes of motion in the body and all movement takes place in these planes.

The Sagittal plane divides the body into left and right segments and is where forward and backward movements take place. Most exercise machines accommodate movement in this plane.

The Coronal plane divides the body into the back and front segments and the movements found in this plane are side-to-side and medial and lateral movements away from or towards the centre of the body.

The Transverse plane divides the body into a top half and a bottom half and the movement in this plane is rotation. In functional training, this is the movement plane that is considered most important.

The problem that those who advocate functional training have with more conventional training methods is that these exercise movements only take place in one plane. Such exercises include a 45° machine leg press, a barbell squat or a dumbbell bicep curl.

The rehabilitation specialists soon realised when they tried to train their patients for improved function that human movement is very seldom confined to only one plane. Muscle groups also don’t work in isolation but movement is a result of many different muscles functioning together as a unit, acting as agonists, antagonists, synergists and stabilizers. To confine movement and muscles to one plane of movement and to isolate them is unnatural.

According to Craig Burton, exercise scientist and founder of 3D personal training systems, “The essence of true functional training is three dimensional”. Functional training is a movement strategy which attempts to re-create activities of daily living and sport by using multiple joint and muscle exercises in more than one plane of movement. To be effective, a functional program should include a number of different elements which can be adapted to an individual’s needs or goals:

  • It should target activities of daily living and can even be performed in context-specific environments.
  • It should be individualised, clients have different profiles and these need to be addressed. Programs must be tailored to the individual and must focus on meaningful tasks. They must also take into consideration an individual’s abilities and medical history including any injuries, past or present.
  • It should be integrated and make sure the program includes a variety of exercises which will target different components of fitness e.g. flexibility, strength, muscle endurance, core strength, balance etc.
  • It should be progressive, there needs to be a sensible and steady increase in loading the body. This is essential in preventing injury but also in continuous adaptation and improved performance; too little and there will be no gains, too much and there will be injury.
  • It should be repeated frequently.

In 2009 Spennewyn conducted research comparing functional training to fixed variable resistance techniques. It was considered the first research of its type and the paper was published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning research. The findings are significant but bear in mind that this is only one research paper. He found that those who trained functionally had a 58% greater increase in strength compared to the fixed-form group. Their improvements in balance were 196% higher over the fixed-form group and they reported an overall decrease in joint pain of 30%.

This paper was written for educational purposes and not to convince anyone that functional training is the only way forward. One of the obvious benefits is that it is very cost effective when compared to machine training. Ultimately though your training should reflect your goals and personality. If you are new to the concept of functional training it is best to get expert advice from your Biokineticist. Functional training does carry a larger risk of injury when compared to fixed-form machines where the movement is fixed. Functional training can be very technical which also happens to be one of the reasons why it is so effective, It is vital though that you understand the underlying principles and techniques.

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Stephen Louw is a registered Biokineticist practicing in Benoni. Stephen studied through the University of Pretoria and the University of Zululand.

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