What is Functional Training?

Functional training is a term that gets around in the gitness world so much it is nauseating. The term “functional” is applied to so many exercises and methodologies that it is impossible to sift through all of its applications. So what really is functional training? Is it a collection of exercises on a Bosu ball? Picking up and carrying heavy objects? Direct arm work and cable chest flyes?

The real answer is………………… Possibly.

Functionality of an exercise is completely dependent on your goal. For a Powerlifter it is completely functional to perform explosive exercises and heavy assistance work such as leg presses to help the starting point of the deadlift, good mornings to strengthen the lower back, pin presses for stronger triceps, and weighted abdominal flexion to assist the major lifts.

If your only goal is to look good naked then functionality will be focused on bringing up body parts that stick out or need work. In this case, performing curls, triceps extensions, and various shoulder raises are completely functional because they bring you closer to your goal of bigger arms.

But Hey, What about those half ball things, small pumped up disks, wobble boards, and stability balls?

First off, unstable equipment is a phenomenal rehabilitation tool and has been shown time and time again to speed up the rehabilitation of lower body injuries, specifically ankle sprains. With that said if you are an athlete performing rehabilitation for a sprained ankle then Bosu balls, wobble boards, and balance disks are completely functional. Using these tools is great in a rehabilitation setting as they do increase the proprioception of the ankle joint and surrounding structure to increase functional ankle stability.


Unfortunately for the unstable surface training crowd research has shown that using these tools does not increase performance and can even be detrimental. In this research study by Eric Cressey and colleagues at the University of Connecticut unstable training was shown to dilute performance gains in healthy, training, division 1 athletes.

But Why?

Well, when does the ground underneath an athlete move during an athletic endeavor? When standing on an unstable surface, ground contact due to the unstable object is limited. This limited contact creates what is known commonly in Powerlifting circles as a power leak and leads to decreased power output. When performing unstable surface training the body is connected with an unstable surface which leads to a decrease in power production as force is dispersed through the object and not directly into the stable ground. This means that the unstable surfaces used for training is a limiting factor in exercise programs specifically geared towards maximal and rapid force production (which is most sports).

As stated, functionality is goal related. If your goal is to get stronger use progressive overload and multi-joint movements. If your want to look good naked perform multi-joint exercises for strength, but include additional assistance work for your beach muscles. If you need to rehabilitate a lower body injury make use of unstable surface training with qualified professionals and a comprehensive rehabilitation plan. If you want to lose weight use a combination of a great diet, anaerobic/aerobic training, and heavy resistance training to hold onto muscle in a caloric deficit.

Bottom line: Define your goals and what you are looking to achieve in your training. Stick to evidence based protocols and if needed, contact a professional who has done it before. By the way, doing Bosu ball bicep curls in the squat rack isn’t functional J and will result in revoking your dignity and/or man card.

Thanks for reading, please comment below and share!


Cressey, E.M., C.A. West, D.P. Tibiero, W.J. Kraemer, and C.M. Maresh. The Effect of Ten weeks of Lower-Body Unstable Surface training on Markers of athletic Performance. ” National Center for Biotechnology Information.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research ns 21.2 (2007) :561-567 PubMed.gov.Web 28. June 2012. <http://www.ncbj.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=$20Eric%20Cressey&gt;.

Copyright 2012 by Eric R Bach.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be duplicated or distributed without written consent from the author.

About Eric Bach Performance

Eric Bach is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Precision Nutrition Level 1 (PN1) with a degree in Kinesiology Concentrated in Human Performance and Emphasizing Sports Performance from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. A former collegiate Strength Coach Eric now resides in Denver, Colorado. Eric coaches clients at Forza Fitness and Performance Center and trains everyone from weekend warriors and post rehabilitation patients to professional athletes. Eric developed his passion for fitness through a competitive sports career which included competitive Olympic lifting, Football, Track and Field, and Powerlifting. Eric is a self proclaimed fitness nerd who enjoys reading, eating, deadlifting, and living a healthy and fullfilling life while helping others dominant their lives in and out of the gym. Eric can be contacted at ericbachperformance.com for all consultations and questions

2 responses »

  1. amaanjourney says:

    Your blogs are full of great information. The nice part for me is that your research and recommendations are consistent with my trainers and the two of you are making my choices on training and nutrition so much easier. Let me restate that easier; but still not easy. The carb cycling suggestion was such great advice. I am starting to lose weight and feel so energetic now, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s