Reflections on functional training

Is an exercise functional just because it mimics a task or, asks neurological physiotherapist and trainer Tanja Harrasser, does it also need to follow the natural function of your joints and body’s structures?

As a fitness professional, you will be only too familiar with the term ‘functional training’. You may well use it yourself, in workouts you deliver clients and as a marketing tool – after all, who doesn’t want to be functional? Because if you’re not then you must be what – dysfunctional? So, let’s discuss what functional training actually is – and map out an approach here.

In his Network magazine article 'Evidence-based practice: Functional Training', Dr Mark McKean PhD elaborated on the missing scientific definition for functional training. He summarised that as a result of lack of research, as well as failing to find a consensus across the health and fitness industry as to what functional training actually is, the term ‘functional’ might be ‘used across a broad range of activities, gimmicks and programs with no real evidence to support their use’.

This poses a dilemma, and if we as health and fitness professionals want to continue using the term ‘functional’ to describe the training we deliver clients, we need to resolve it. To improve the quality and credibility of functional training we must first be able to understand it, and second, be able to teach it. For this we need a collective definition of the term.

Functional training is the base of healthy exercising and aligns modern scientific findings about motor learning with holistic and sustainable training approaches. Therefore, I refuse to just label all kind of ‘activities, gimmicks and programs’ as functional. The power of real ‘functional training’ can reach across the board of competitive sports as much as it can be used as a base concept in therapeutic approaches, anti-ageing, group fitness and every single PT session. But we need to be clear about what it is.

The dictionary definitions – and their application to exercise

The dictionary meanings of the word ‘functional’ give an indication of why it has been so widely adopted in the context of fitness and movement. Although the definitions have no connection to exercising directly, we can learn from all of them in our efforts to define ‘functional’.

DEFINITION 1: An activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing.

The activity ‘movement’ is certainly natural to humans as much as it is essential to survive. Not every movement, however, or every exercise (complex movements in this instance) is functional.

A functional movement is often regarded as one that is connected to a daily activity and that is successful in terms of the outcome. Walking successfully from A to B for example, or standing up from a chair.

According to the definition above, functional needs to be not only natural to the purpose, but also natural to a person or a thing – in this case the person and the movement system. A functional movement needs to be natural to, and respect the requirements of, joints, muscles and the entire neuromuscular skeletal system.

Therefore, the question arises of how a person gets from A to B or performs a squat. The movement/activity might be currently labelled as ‘functional’ just because the person arrives at B or is able to get out of a chair (squat), but is it natural to the system?

Instead of ‘applying’ movements that are currently labelled as ‘functional’, we need to look into which requirements (natural to the system) need to be fulfilled to achieve a functional movement. In other words, how a person moves, determines if a movement or exercise is functional.

Let’s look at this in terms of both single and multi joint movements.

Function in single joint movements
0n the level of single joint movement, we could use ‘functional’ as a synonym to ‘according to the anatomical purpose’.

Looking at the structures of one joint, we want the movement to be ‘natural’ to the purpose of the joint. In this context every joint has planar movement requirements as well as neuromuscular components, which need to be controlled in timing, strength and direction, so the movement can be performed successfully within full movement range of the single joint motor unit involved.

To perform a knee extension, for example, while standing on the leg being extended (a movement within the function ‘walking’), the movement happens mainly in the sagittal plane and slightly in the transversal plain, with no movement in the frontal plane due to the anatomical purpose of the knee joint. The muscles involved need to be activated by the brain in a goal orientated way using controlled strength effort (selective motor control), being timed with each other (agonist-antagonist coordination, reciprocal activation) and transferring load in the right direction, i.e. for multiple jointed muscles like rectus femoris, functional use of the fixed (punctum fixum) and moving (punctum mobile) elements.

To achieve this optimal alignment during the movement, and homoeostasis (state of equilibrium) thereafter, the adjoining joints (the hip and ankle in the example of the knee extension) need to also have full function. The cause and effect chain can now continue, as every joint has a neighbour joint and most importantly needs an anchor – ultimately our core with spine stability.

Function in multi joint movements
When we now apply the definition to multiple joint movement (lever movement and postural control) the synonym to ‘functional’ could be ‘a movement that is performed controlled and balanced in gravity with minimal structural sacrifice and maximum success’.

Minimal structural sacrifice is achieved when the movement is performed with the prerequisite of alignment in all joints on the single joint level, plus aligning it with the purpose of the movement and intention of the person performing the movement.

In other words, as trainers we need to know exactly when to break moves down for a client, establish alignment in low load and less challenging positions and then build movement up until it reaches its fully intended outcome.

We all know that our proprioception sometimes deceives us with feelings of what is ‘normal’. For example, a client may think their spine is straight, when in actual fact they display a heavy forward head posture, not only during an exercise but also habitually. As trainers we should address this by not only instructing a neck correction, but also responding to the client’s sensory feedback. This aligns what we see to what a client feels, enabling us to optimise cues and aid the client in initiating successful change.

Such a change, or correction, in movement patterns might feel quite awkward to a client at first. I deem it essential for the learning process to bring this ‘new feeling’ to a client’s attention with corresponding explanation of the benefits, so that a client learns to integrate the revised movement execution as the ‘new’ norm.

DEFINITION 2: A relation or expression involving one or more variables

If we translate this mathematical definition into movement terms, it is obvious that a movement outcome involves more variables. However, currently in the fitness industry the variables link to training tools, like balance boards, TRX and an entire gym full of equipment used to achieve ‘functional movement’. When applied without the alignment concept mentioned above, the structural sacrifices by the overload of these tools could be huge. Thus, using them in training does not guarantee that a client’s training is functional.

As trainers we should go back to basics and observe clients in relation to these often overlooked variables:

  • Gravity: How is the body placed in gravity (posture and balance) and are compensation mechanisms used?
  • Support surface: How is posture and balance built from the point of contact with the support surface and is alignment achieved?
  • Movement initiation and execution: How are body parts and the entire body ultimately moved in pace, direction and intention and is movement flow, control and desired outcome achieved?
  • Belief system: How do emotions impact on the movement/exercise execution, and are personal intention and exercise aligned?

I will restrict this discussion on functional movement mainly to the neuromuscular skeletal system, but we must not forget the intentions/belief system that a client brings to training or therapy. This has a huge impact on how a client moves and therefore is an important variable.

We can summarise that variables like training tools are a challenging, yet very valuable extension of gravity and support surface, if used with functional movement. Thus, when instructing an exercise using external tools, we should take great care with regards joint alignment and all other requirements as outlined above before we label the movement as ‘functional’.

DEFINITION 3: Work or operate in a proper or particular way

Movement or exercise is instructed to help a body ‘function’ better, and as such trainers and therapists must look at the ‘functionality’ for daily life. Only then can we expect a client to internalise our advice and exercise instructions: our body ‘operates [only] in a particular way’ when it makes sense and the desired outcome is achieved.

For example, we instruct squats to help clients maintain the ability to stand up and sit down, and strengthen legs and core in order to assist them in stepping up stairs and performing countless other actions. Therefore, it is essential to explain to a client why they are given a particular exercise, and equally important to outline the benefit of performing it in a functional way.

Sometimes this means dealing with a client’s strong belief first, such as ‘what hurts helps’ or ‘the more the better’ (kilos, reps, speed), because beliefs such as these can stand in the way of learning to execute an exercise in a ‘functional way’ and can be the reason for injury or early structural degeneration.

Every trainer or therapist knows that there are as many versions of executing a squat as there are clients, but there is only one way to do it so that the client and their neuromuscular system stays happy and healthy in the long run. Thus, good exercise instructions are reliant on intricate attention to the individual clients’ needs.

Essentially, the goal of functional movement and exercise is not balancing on a wobble board, but rather optimising a movement pattern with the addition of longevity of the system.


Tanja Harrasser trained as a neurological physiotherapist in Germany. In her role as a personal trainer she is passionate about bridging the gap between therapy and fitness. Working in both industries for over 25 years Tanja advocates for a holistic and sustainable approach to training. Click HERE for information on her Neuro Kinetic Programming Workshops, and HERE to connect with Tanja.