Whether you are new to exercise or have been working out for years you have probably heard the term “functional training”. Functional training exercises are designed to improve human function by mimicking daily movements and tasks. These exercises are able to translate to daily activities by incorporating planes of motion, stability, mobility, and multi-joint movements. Let’s look at the components of functional training.
Planes of Motion
Our bodies are made to move three dimensionally which is explained by the three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes. The sagittal plane splits the body into right and left sides. Movements that occur in the sagittal plane include walking, running, bicep curls and jumping forward or backward. The frontal plane splits the body into front and back halves. Movements that occur in the frontal plane include jumping jacks, cartwheels, or raising your arms to the sides (lateral raises). Lastly, the transverse plane splits the body into top and bottom halves. All movements that involve rotation occur in the transverse plane. An exercise program that utilizes all planes of motion will help you train your body in the same manner that it moves in real life.
Stability and Mobility
Stability is defined as the ability of the body to maintain postural equilibrium and support joints during movement. Mobility is defined as a joint's ability to move through a given range of motion or its ability to move freely and easily. Joints in the body can be classified as primarily used for stability or mobility. The stability joints are the foot, knee, lumbar spine, cervical spine, and elbow. The mobility joints are the ankle, hip, thoracic spine, shoulder, and wrist. If we were to look at the human body, we would find that joints are stacked in an alternating pattern of stability and mobility. Exercise programs should be designed to maximize stability (strength training) and mobility (range of motion exercises) of our joints to ensure proper movement patterns.
Single-Joint vs Multi-Joint Exercises
Exercises can be classified as single-joint or multi-joint movements. Single joint movements, also called isolated movements, are exercises that occur at a single joint and focus on a single muscle/muscle group such as bicep curls (trains the biceps) or knee extensions (trains the quadriceps). Whereas multi-joint or compound movements incorporate multiple joints and muscle groups such as a squat that includes movement at the knee, hip, and ankle joints. The primary muscles being used in the squat are the quadriceps (knee extension), hip flexors (flex the hips), gluteus maximus and the hamstrings (extend the hips). Abdominal musculature is also involved due to bracing of the body. Multi joint exercises tend to mimic activities of daily living more so than single joint exercise.
Why is functional training important?
Functional training incorporates the whole kinetic chain (the concept that the segments of the body are interrelated). This means that functional training includes multi-joint, multi-muscle movements that occur in the three planes of motion, emphasizing mobility and stability.
Studies have shown that multi-joint/ multi-planar movements that strengthen the muscles surrounding and supporting a joint results in greater carryover to daily activities than isolation (single joint) movements that occur in one plane of motion (Whitehurst et al. 2005; Cress et al., 1996). These benefits translate into bettering functional movements (daily movements and activities) as well as help in preventing muscular imbalances. Repetitive practice of these functional movements increases neuromuscular control, in turn increasing the ability to perform multiple tasks while minimizing the chance of injury (Geletka, 2017).
Another significant feature of functional training is that it incorporates the functional ability of the core. Your core musculature is a very integral part of spinal stability and a strong core helps to prevent common issues such as low back pain. Most people do crunches and call it a day, but your core is much more than that. “Focusing on a single muscle generally does not enhance stability but creates patterns that when quantified result in less stability” (McGill, 2010). Your core is quite literally the “core” of most movements you will perform whether it is in exercise or in daily life. When you sit in and out of a chair or rotate to move something from one counter to another, your core is involved. Da Silva-Grigoletto et al. (2019) showed greater improvements in trunk extensor and flexor muscle strength/endurance of older women with functional training rather than traditional training. It is crucial to train these muscles in a way to better your daily function. An example of a functional core exercise would be a suitcase carry. This exercise is performed by lifting and walking with a weight only held on one side. This naturally makes you want to lean towards the side of the weight during the carry. It is up to your core to keep you strong and upright throughout the carry. This movement is designed to resist movement to increase the stability of the spine and it mimics picking up grocery bags, a bag of dog food, and well... a suitcase.
Now, after all of this information, you may be thinking about what new multi-joint movements should you implement into your workout program or maybe realize you’ve been doing them this whole time! The following table provides you with a few more examples of functional exercises as well as the joints involved, muscles involved, and functional relevance.
Cress, E., Conley, K., Balding, S., & Hansen-smith, F. (1996). Functional Training: Muscle Structure, Function, and Performance in Older Women. JOSPT. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.jospt.org/doi/abs/10.2519/jospt.19126.96.36.199.
Da Silva-Grigoletto, M. E., Mesquita, M. M. A., Aragão-Santos, J. C., Santos, M. S., Resende-Neto, A. G., de Santana, J. M., & Behm, D. G. (2019, November 19). Functional training induces greater variety and magnitude of training improvements than traditional resistance training in elderly women. Journal of sports science & medicine. Retrieved October 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6873136/
Geletka, B. (2017, February 20). Functional training vs. traditional strength training. Functional Training | Learn More About The Difference Between Functional Training Vs. Strength Training | University Hospitals. Retrieved October 9, 2021, from https://www.uhhospitals.org/Healthy-at-UH/articles/2017/02/functional-training-vs-traditional-strength-training
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics.
McGill, S. (2010). Core training: Evidence translating to better Performance... : Strength & Conditioning Journal. LWW. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2010/06000/core_training_evidence_translating_to-better.4.aspx.
Weiss, T., Kreitinger, J., Wilde, H., Wiora, C., Steege, M., Dalleck, L., & Janot, J. (2010, December 8). Effect of functional resistance training on muscular fitness outcomes in young adults. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1728869X10600172#bbib24.
Whitehurst , M. (2005). The benefits of a functional exercise circuit for older adults. Journal of strength and conditioning research. Retrieved October 9, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16095420/.
Cassidy Wolf, B.S. is a recent Kinesiology-Fitness graduate of California State University Long Beach. She is a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist and looks forward to gaining more certifications to continue her fitness career in the strength and conditioning environment working with athletes.