In the fitness industry, “functional” has become a meaningless buzzword. Much like “movement training” or “breathwork”, the term “functional” has been thrown around so often and with such a variety of differing definitions that what was once a practical concept with great utility has now become a poorly understood catchphrase used to get more clicks and sell more programs. So forget everything you’ve heard about what functional training is or isn’t. Let’s break down the actual meaning of what functional training might mean for you, without all the baggage of backflips and flailing (erm, I mean kipping) pull ups. Without all the confusion created by the fitness marketing machine, functional training truly is a great concept in which to center your training around for fat loss, muscle gain, and improved movement quality.
Here it is: Functional training is Specific training for the improvement of a specific function. So if your main priority is to be muscular, then bodybuilding might be functional training. If your primary goal is flexibility, then yoga could be considered functional training. If a life of nihilism and depression is what you’re aiming for, then eating potato chips on the couch while browsing Netflix may also be considered functional training! Put differently, Crossfit is functional training for people who want to move in the sagittal plane and combine resistance training modalities. Boxing is functional training for people who want to punch each other in the face. And powerlifting is functional training for people who want to lift heavy barbells. What I’m trying to get at is that all training can be considered functional training because once again, any specific training that improves a specific function is functional training… But that just made it more confusing, didn’t it?
Functional Training for Average Person
Okay, then how about this: Generally speaking, the average person who’s goals don’t involve completing a triathlon or maximizing their 100-metre dash time has 3 main goals. They simply want to…
- Look better naked.
- Reduce their risk of chronic disease.
- Reduce physical pain and discomfort.
Improving body composition (i.e. burning fat and building muscle) will comprehensively take care of points A and B, and improving movement quality will take care of point C.
Therefore for the average person, functional training is a style of training that simultaneously improves body composition and movement quality.
For me and many of the movement and wellness bigshots that came before me, the time-tested method for concurrent body composition and movement gains is to aggressively prioritize the fundamental patterns of human movement1, 2. There are 7 fundamental movement patterns that are responsible for the endless permutations of movement offered by our unique assortment of bones, muscles, and connective tissues.
7 Fundamental Movement Patterns
Examples of Gait include walking, running, and any other demonstration of maneuverability on the feet.
Examples of Lunge include stepping out to perform a tennis forehand, or curtsy-ing the legs (for lack of a better term, haha) while bowling.
Examples of Squat include jumping, or pooping if you’re camping in the backcountry.Caption: He’s training to be good at alleviating himself during his next camping trip.
Examples of Hinge (not the dating app) include the setup position before putting in golf, or picking something up off the floor.
Examples of Push include pushing a door open, or reaching an arm out to catch something.
Examples of Pull include opening a car door, or retracting the arm after a punch.
Examples of Rotation include swinging a baseball bat or bagging groceries.
Utilizing the Fundamental Movement Patterns
Any and all movement can be broken down into its component fundamental movement patterns. Even complex movements like a straight punch in boxing can be broken down into (exaggerated) gait, lunge, push, pull, and rotation. Simpler movements like a block in volleyball can be broken down into a squat and push. And even mundane everyday movements like taking food out of the refrigerator and moving it onto the countertop may be broken down into a hinge, pull, rotation, and push. Now geeking out on how to categorize and break down movement is all well and good for a kinesiology nerd like me, but that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to understand the concept of functional training and how to implement it into your existing fitness routine. No worries, I still got you.
Benefits of Utilizing the Fundamental Movement Patterns
The benefits of utilizing the fundamental movement patterns in your training goes far beyond the theoretical world of breaking down human movement. In practice, these patterns of movement are very practical for our current definition of functional training, which if you remember is a style of training that concurrently improves body composition and movement quality in order to look better naked, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and reduce physical pain and discomfort.
More specifically, training the fundamental movement patterns have huge benefits for improvements in body composition due to the nature of the movements themselves. As multi-joint movements, they are superior for weight loss as more energy is expended during complex movements such as lunges or push ups versus simple exercises like knee extensions or tricep press downs3. They also deliver a massive cardio-respiratory benefit, again due to the challenging nature of performing multi-joint movements; greater cardio-respiratory fitness is almost always associated with better body composition4. Finally, as you expend more energy training with fundamental movement patterns versus other exercises, it becomes a much more time-effective way to improve metabolic health as you burn more fuel (i.e. calories) in less time.
In keeping with our functional training definition in its ability to improve body composition and movement quality, there are three main movement-improvement benefits. Firstly, the 7 patterns can be used as a screen to assess mobility and stability needs2, 5, 6. As an example, if your wrists hurt and your shoulders shrug up during a push up, then you may have a deficit in core stability, wrist mobility and shoulder stability. The second benefit of training the fundamental movement patterns is that it improves athleticism and reduces pain by familiarizing the body with the archetypal shapes related to human movement. Learning how to move through the fundamental movement patterns with strength and coordination is the key to nipping chronic pain in the bud7. Finally, treating the fundamental movement patterns as your go-to strength training exercises improves physical resilience such that you can enjoy a lifetime of strong, pain-free physical activity2.
So there you have it! Functional training for the average Joe and Jane necessitates the practice of fundamental movement patterns to improve body composition and movement quality. If you’re curious as to how to organize these patterns of movement in a workout, please see my blog post on The Aerobic Strength Circuit (Soon will be published). But for now, don’t overthink, don’t procrastinate, simply get out there and incorporate the 7 fundamental movement patterns into your routine for improved weight loss, muscle gain, and pain reduction. Cheers to foregoing the BS of fitness and moving your way to better health in the most effective and efficient way possible!
- Chek, P. (2004). How to Eat, Move, and Be Healthy! CHEK Institute.
- Santana, J.C. (2015). Functional Training: Exercises and Programming for Training & Performance. Human Kinetics.
- Reis, V.M., Garrido, N.D., Vianna, J., Sousa, A.C., Alves, J.V., & Marques, M.C. (2017). Energy cost of isolated resistance exercises across low- to high-intensities. PloS one, 12(7), e0181311. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181311.
- Collis, T., Devereux, R.B., Roman, M.J., de Simone, G., Yeh, J., Howard, B.V., Fabsitz, R.R., & Welty, T.K. (2001). Relations of stroke volume and cardiac output to body composition. Circulation, 103(6), 820-825.
- Kraus, K., Elisabeth, S., Williams, T., & Ralf, D. (2014). Efficacy of the functional movement screen: A review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(12), 3571-3584.
- Starrett, K., & Cordoza, G. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leopard 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Victory Belt Publishing.
- Frank, C. Kobesova, A., & Kolar, P. (2013). Dynamic neuromuscular stabilization & sports rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(1), 62-73.