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Functional Training – An Obsolete Term?

by Karsten Jensen, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Msc Exercise Physiology.

Functional training is a familiar term to most coaches and trainers. Maybe you have attended seminars on functional training and where told, that certain excercises are functional while others are not. But is there a clear definition of „functional training“? This article takes a closer look at that.

Definitions of functional training

There exists various definitons of functional training. According to Gyldendals dictionary the word „functional“ means „ something that works“ (1). Going through the training literature various definitions of functional training emerges.

In his classical work „Supertraining“ Mel Siff differentiates between „functional strength“ and „structural strength“ (2). Functional strenght is defined as : maximal strength, strength-speed, reactive strength and strength-endurance. Structural strength is the strength of the structure of the body: musclemass and the strength of bones, tendons and ligaments. This is also called anatomical adaptation (3). Using the above definition it would be concluded, that functional training is (any) training that improves maximal strength, strength-speed, reactive strength or strength-endurance.

Paul Chek, the wellknown training- and rehabilitation expert suggests the following characteristics of functional training (4). Functional exercise should:

  1. Include relevant reflexprofiles (rightning- vs tilting reflexes).
  2. Be performed standing.
  3. Include the same movementpattern (a movement using the same relative timing) as the „goalmovement“
  4. Have open- and closed chain compatibility.
  5. Develop the relevant biomotorabilities.
  6. Be used in a progression from isolated to integrated exercises.

Gary Gray, called „the father of function“, and Vern Gambetta suggest other characteristics of functional exercise (5). Functional exercise should

  1. Be fun and safe.
  2. Involve controlled instability
  3. Involve three planes of motion and all joints.
  4. Involve bodyweight mastery before the application of external resistance.
  5. Focus on eccentric loads before concentric loads.
  6. Be used in a continuum of difficulty.

Single hand to opposite leg reach to curl to pres . A great exercise that involves three planes of motion and all joints. Is it relevant for powerlifters?

Evidently the above definitions shows considerable differences. Specially the definition suggested by Siff, who uses „functional“ as describing ba-sic musclefunction. In contrast to this Chek and Gray/Gambetta focuses more on the similarity of movement between the training exercises and the „goalmovement“.

Who is right?

What is the true definition of functional training?

A fundamental requirement must be, that any excercise ever performed must—in short or long term—help the client/athlete achieve his or hers goals. If the above is not true why include the exercise in a trainingprogram?

The concept of similarity between the training exercise and the “goal movement” is seen in the above definitions, however at it’s core functional exercise should sti-mulate, not (necessarily) si-mulate. This is supported by studies showing, that heavy benchpress training in combination with sportsspecific training (team handball) can improve maximal throwing velocity even though the similarity between the benchpress and the throwing motion must be considered to be low (6).

The definition given by the dictionary – „functional“ is something that works – gives us the essences of functional training. FUNCTIONAL TRAINING IS TRAINING THAT WORKS. The other definitions takes our attention to key characteristics of exercise, but are at the same time limited and creates confusion. Forexample:

Should you only train standing if you are a rower or a racecardriver?

Shoud a powerlifter include the tranverselplane in order to train „functional“?

To make sure your training works, you need the tools to select the right exercises at the right time. The next part of this article shows you how.

How to choose the right exercise at the right time.

It is said, that a coach should be as precise with exercise prescription as a surgeon with his knife. It is imperative that the coach/trainer/therapist knows the charactistics of an exercise, that stimulates the goal movement. (And subsequently are able to apply that knowledge in a skilled fashion).

The correct choice of exercise is determined by the current status of the client/athlete. The phases shown (modified from 7), integrates client of very low and very high physical capacity. The six phases with a progression of neuromuscular, structural and metabolic goals is a very effective tool.

  1. Neuromuscular isolation.
  2. Inner unit-outer unit integration
  3. Dynamic stability.
  4. Maximal strength (structural focus)
  5. Maximal strength (functional focus).
  6. Sportsspecific combinations of speed, strength and endurance.

The model includes phases often run by professionals trained in sportsmedicine (physios) and phases often run by coaches or trainers. As an example consider a client with a knee-injury, including reduced abili-

ty to fire the vastus medialis muscle. The physio would start in phase1 using special techniques like biofeedback apparatus to re-educate the muscle to fire correctly. An example of such an exercise is shown in the above picture.

Subsequently the client would progress through the phases to more integrated training in phases four to six, that requires all muscles to fire synergistically.

An example of such an exercise could be squat with reverse bands as seen in the above picture

The linear progression through phases are appropriate if a client comes out of rehab. For noninjured clients it is appropriate at any given time to prescribe excercise that targets different phases.

Last, but not least we must take a look at the characteristics of exercise that stimulates the goalmovement. This list shows several of the characteristics suggested by Chek and Gray/Gambetta

1.The exercise must allow for adequate levels of tension experienced by the muscle-tendon unit.

Tension experienced by the the muscle-tendon is the essential stimulus for the development of maximal strength. This often involves high external loads (8). Standing exercises like the barbell squat allows for high levels of tension on the muscle-tendon units of the hip- and kneeextensors. Single-leg and/or exercise involving three planes of motion does not allow for the same degree of tension experienced by the muscle-tendon unit. The optimal level of tension in the exercises varies from phase to phase.

2.There must be a certain degree of similarity between the exercise and the goalmovement

The principle of specificity states that training carryover is the largest when there is a certain degree of similarity between environment of the training excercise and the goalmovement (9). The musclerecruitment pattern is specific to features like the movementpattern, the planes of movement, the involved joints and weether it is an open or closed chain movement (10). To some extent these factors should be simulated in the training exercises.

3.The exercise and the goalmovement should have the same accen-tuated force region.

The accentuated force region is the part of the movement with the highest, direction-specific application of force against the ground or the implement. For example: a goal keeper in teamhandball often moves the arms up and to the sides to block the ball. A dumbbell military pres could seem to be an appropriate choice of exercise, but the accentuated force region is in the beginning of the movement and the resistance is vertical (see picture below).

The accentuated force region in the goalmovement is in general with the arms more to the side and and the resistance is horisontal (it is in this position the ball hits the arms of the goal keeper). A more appropriate exercise matching this pattern is Standing Cable Flyes (a at variety of angles).

4. The exercise must involve relevant muscleslyngs or individual muscles.

No chain is stronger than the weakest link. Some types of sportsspecific training creates muscleimbalances and it can be appropriate to counteract such training with certain isolationexercises. A lowerbody example of this is training of the hamstrings as kneeflexors. And upperbody example is training of the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles as external rotators of the shoulderjoint.

It is important to realize that „isolation“ does not mean that all other muscles are inactive – such a scenario is impossible. The body works as a unit. Rather „isolation“ means isolation of a specific group of muscles (for example the external rotators of the shoulder joint) as prime movers.

5.The exercise must include relevant reflex profiles.

A distinction between tilting- and righting reflexes can be made (11). Tilting reflexes are activated, when the surface is unstable or slippery. Rightingreflexes are activated when we move across a stable surface. Different exercises involves the reflexes in various degrees, higly depending on weether the surface is stable or not. The reflex involvement in the chosen exercises should reflect the demands of the environment thats being trained for. For example a downhill skier needs exercises that develops the tiltningreflexes, whereas a tennisplayer needs an emphasis on developing rightingreflexes.

The chosen exercises should not always include all six criteria. The importance of the different criteria changes from phase to phase. For example is high levels of tension not important in phase1, but crucial in phase5.

A successfull trainingproces requires longterm planning. It is important in the early phases to take into consideration the excercises that will be performed in the later phases. For example if you know that squats will be a part of training in phase 5, it is advisable to include some form of squat as early as possible. This way the client has the technique right and can progress faster.


This article has made the argument that „functional training“ is training that works. It is training that helps the client achieve his or hers goals. It involves the right exercises prescribed at the right time – regardless of what exercises that might be. Thus it seems clear that all training should be “functional” and thus there is no need for a differentiation between functional and other “types” of training.

It is my experience that labels are confusing, because they remove focus from the essence of training:

Do you like functional training? No I don’t believe in it I like kettlebelltraining more.

Thinking like that will keep you confused forever. Forget about „functional training“ and focus on giving your clients THE RIGHT EXERCISE AT THE RIGHT TIME.

For more info on Karsten, visit his website:


  1. Gyldendals Fremmedordbog, s 184. 9. Udgave Gyldendal. 1983
  2. Siff M. Supertraining. s 7. Supertraining Institute. Denver USA.
  3. Bompa T. Periodization of Strength. Kap 10, s 98-111. Veritas Publishing Inc. 1993
  4. Chek P. What is functional Excercise?.
  5. Gray G og Gambetta V. Following the functional Path.
  6. Hoff J og Almåsbakk B. The effects on Throwing Velocity and Muscle Strength in Female Handball Players. The Jornal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 9(4):255 -258. 1995
  7. Chek P. Golf Biomechanics Manual. Chek Institute, 2001
  8. Hâkkinen K. Neuromuscular and Hormonal Adaptations During Strength and Power Training. The Journal of Sports Medicine And Physical Fitness. 29(1): 9-26. 1989
  9. Schmidt R A og Wrisberg C A. Motor Learning and Performance 2. Ed. Kap 8, s 202-229. Human Kinetics. 2000
  10. Sale D. Neural Adaptation To Strength Training. Strength And Power In Sport. Kap 9B, s 249-265. Blackwell Science. 1991
  11. Chek P. Movement That Matters. S 6-7. www.chekinstitute. 2000


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