Updated: Oct 26
This article investigates the benefits of functional training as well as providing an exercise tutorial and How 2 Guide
The concept of functional training is gaining traction throughout the fitness community. Every day there are more blogs, books, videos and articles extolling the fitness benefits that can be accrued through engaging in this burgeoning form of physical exercise. From improved strength to the facilitation of day-to-day mundane movements, such as getting up off the couch, functional training has got all bases covered.
However, all the hubbub and excitement has muddied the waters somewhat and now, as a consequence, most people couldn’t confidently say what constitutes as a functional exercise and what doesn’t. In fact, you’d probably struggle to find two professional PTs that would agree.
Before we progress on I would like to make one thing abundantly clear. I’ve not written this article as an attempt to try and clear away the confusion. That would not only be a trifle conceited of me but it would be an act of folly: for I myself would break into a sweat if asked to identify functional exercise from a line-up.
Instead I’m going to outline the characteristics that imbue an exercise with that functional training quality. By doing this, so the theory goes, you will possess the knowledge and understanding that will enable you to identify a functional movement when you see one. But also by becoming acquainted with these characteristics you will be able to fashion your own functional exercise.
That’s correct: one of the great attributes of functional training is that it is not bounded by established orthodoxy. Thus you can conceive of your very own functional exercises, designing them to suit your physical objectives or sporting discipline.
Firstly, though, before we consider those characteristics, it might be worth taking a look at the benefits that awaits the person who incorporates functional training into their exercise repertoire.
Improved body coordination
Functional exercise, unlike their static counterparts, require that we move across unconventional planes. For example, a side lunging whilst pumping a kettlebell overhead will engage the body in ways that singularly either a squat or shoulder press could not. I see static lifting as two dimensional whereas functional training is three dimensional.
Augmented biomechanical synchronicity
Because functional exercises require that the trainer coordinates their lumbering mass through multiple movements whilst traversing three dimensions, out of necessity they will develop mastery over their body.
Complex, multi-dimensional movements demand conscious engagement. When performing a side lung with a kettlebell press you can’t laps into a daydream – like you can with most all static exercise. The inherent complexity of functional training forces a unification of mind and body which brings about a strengthening of neural maps. What in the hell does any of that mean? Honestly, I’m not sure – I’ve just got a penchant for words of a polysyllabic persuasion. But what I think it means is we become one and not, as Descartes propounded, two. The benefit: we can enjoy at a deeper level this wondrous biological machine we call a body!
Re-correcting strength imbalances
The physical strength of the trainer who engages predominantly in static exercises tends to represent a set of scales overladen on one side. Yes they might boast a 220 bench, or 330 dead, or 440 squat, but when they are required to exert force outside of a two dimensional plane their true strength shows it's meek face. (A quick anecdote: years back whilst serving in the military I competed in mixed martial arts. A soldier pal of mine wanted to get involved in the training, grappling, sparring, etc. I actively encouraged his wish – until I witnessed him manhandle 200kgs on the bench press like it was paperweight! That’s colossal strength. My best 1 rep max bench at the time was a measly 110. He could nearly double that for repetitions. Anyway, a few days later we squared off for a grappling session. I honestly thought he was going to origami me into pretzel or crush me like an empty can. But to my surprise he was weaker than a kitten. I could barely believe it was the same person and I twice told him to stop going easy on me.)
Now that we’ve reviewed a number, and by no means all, of the benefits, we shall direct our attention to the characteristics of functional training. Following the characteristics I have identified a couple of functional exercises that you can practice (spoiler: one of them is the lunge with kettlebell press). After the exercises you’re on your own.
What Makes a Functional Exercise Functional?
One prominent characteristic of a functional exercise is their tendency to move through multi-dimensional planes. This is what sets a functional movement apart from their inferior static counterparts. Whereas with a static exercise, such as squat or bicep curl, the trainer applies force against a resistance following a lineal path – up and down, in and out – the functional exercise breaks out of this constricted mould.
This is typically achieved by combining or bundling two or more static exercise together. Though the lunge is quite dynamic on its own, when combined with a press – either with a dumbbell of kettlebell – or twist – either with a weighted plate or medicine ball – it takes on a whole new dimension thus earning its functional stripes.
Static exercises by and large engage one muscle or they isolate a grouping. A bicep curl activates the medial and lateral head of the biceps brachii (also a couple of synergist muscles, but little development occurs when the shoulder stabilises the arms so that the trainer can curl that barbell). A bench press does the same but for the pectoralis major and minor. It could well be argued that little physical benefit can be derived from this type of training – other than to sculpt an aesthetically pleasing physique.
Functional exercises, on the other hand, engage such a wide range of muscles that it becomes tiresome to list them all. For example, how many muscles are activated, not in a synergist capacity but fully activated, when the trainer performs a lunge with a kettlebell press?
The final characteristics that I am going to bring to your attention is, I think, indicative of functional training. This will be the last time I pick on static exercises but, as their name indicates, they are precisely that: static. I feel that this is a negative attribute of this form of physical training. Why?
Few activities that we perform on a day-to-day basis are static. Even simple activities such as loading shopping into the car or doing a spot of gardening or DIY require the coordination of multiple body parts through three dimensional space.
This dynamism really ought to be replicated in our training sessions. Static exercise are inherently incapable of emulating reality – when are we ever required to perform a bicep curl (hoisting a beer from bar to lips doesn't count)? Thus they are not fit for purpose. But functional movements are more than fit for purpose for they closely replicate how the body is forced to move in daily life.
I think that’s enough theory for one day. Who’s up for a bit of practical? Brilliant! I have below outlined the techniques of five functional exercise. To support written instructions I have sourced images and video tutorials.
1: Lunge with kettlebell press
Muscles worked: so many that I haven’t space enough to list them all
How to perform the exercise
Step 1: Prior to initiating the movement you must first get the kettlebell (or dumbbell) into position. To do this you will need to clean the kettlebell so that it is resting in the nook of your arm (see image 1). I’ll assume you know how to safely perform this movement.
Step 2: When the kettlebell is in position organise your feet so that they are slightly spaced.
Point of note: lead off with the leg on whichever side the kettlebell is on.
Step 3: To initiate the exercise lunge forward with the right leg whilst simultaneously pressing the kettlebell above your head (do not lock out at the elbow).
Step 4: When in the halfway position (image 2) the knee joint of the leading leg should be almost at a 90° angle. The back is straight. Eyes riveted on a point in the distance. Arm perfectly vertical. If the arm is tilted at an angle you will struggle to maintain balance.
Step 5: To recover to the start position push off forcefully with the right leg and lower the kettlebell as you do so.
At this point you have the option of changing arms or completing a set of repetitions.
2: Dumbbell cleans into squat press
Muscles worked: same as the above - all of them!
How to perform the exercise
Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart holding two dumbbells at your side.
Step 2: To initiate the exercise swing the dumbbells back and using the muscles of the arm pull them up as though you were performing a bicep curl (though you are using momentum as much as you are muscle strength).
Step 3: The trick here is, as the dumbbells are in flight you are simultaneously to drop into a squat catching the dumbbells on your shoulders (see video demonstration below). You can, if you so choose, momentarily pause in this position.
Step 4: Fire through the quadriceps and glutes as you stand up.
Step 5: The last bit of energy in the squat should be transferred into the overhead dumbbell press. On reaching step 5 you have completed one repetition. Before recovering the position, which in one movement should see you back at step 3, you can pause and enjoy the sights.
This is a two phase exercises and the goal is to continue the cycle, pausing only at steps 3 and 5 (optional), until you have completed however many repetitions the set contains.
3: The kettlebell swing
Muscles worked: Honestly, the kettlebell swing is such an effective whole-body exercise that no muscles escapes unscathed from this wrecking ball of a movement. But from the ashes superior physicality will emerge like a fiery phoenix!
How to perform the exercise
Step 1: Centre your mass over a kettlebell the weight of which is commensurate with your current strength and ability. In short, don’t go heavy – keep it light to begin with!
Step 2: Bending at the knee whilst ensuring to keep the back ironing-board straight grasp the bell with both hands.
Step 3: Firing through the quads squat into the standing position.
Step 4: Before initiating the movement organise your feet – they should be just over shoulder width apart – fix your eyes on an indefinite point in the distance and prepare your mind for the exercise. I call this bit the calm before the storm!
Step 5: With knees still slightly bent rotate slightly at the hips so as to create space to pull the bell back between your pins.
Step 6: On receiving the kettlebell in your groin fire through with the gluteal muscles and, with arms straight, propel the KB forward. Instead of trying to get the KB all the way up in the first swing I find it best to elevate it in stages. Usually after the third swing I’m in full flight – so to speak.
Step 7: Once the kettlebell has reached the desired height – roughly level with your chin – arrest the movement and allow gravity to do its thing. Ensure to control the kettlebell during its descent.
Step 8: Again receive the KB in the groin harnessing the kinetic energy generated.
Step 9: Use that energy (and a bit of your own) to complete the next repetition.
Step10: Now you are swinging!
4: The single-arm kettlebell clean
Muscles worked: (it’d be far easier to identify the muscles not worked; they are those of the mandible – though I’m not entirely confident in that assessment; after twenty continuous cleans with a 32kg KB you’ll be gritting them teeth together pretty hard).
How to perform the exercise
Step 1: Position yourself directly over the kettlebell with a nice wide stance – about one and a bit shoulder width should do it.
Step 2: Bending at the knee and keeping the back perfectly straight grasp the kettlebell.
Step 3: To initiate the movement ensure first that there is no slack in the arm by applying a bit of resistance – a common mistake is to ‘snatch’ the bell from the floor. Don’t do this.
Step 4: Smoothly pull the bell back and as you bring it forwards generate momentum by firing through the quads and glutes.
Remember: you are not swinging the kettlebell out and pulling it into the nook of the arm. It should not drop into position with a thud. As you drive the kettlebell forward guide it up whilst allowing it naturally to rotate into position. This should be performed smooth and sleek. No thudding or dropping or slapping.
Step 5: Once the kettlebell is in the halfway position you may momentarily pause for thought.
Step 6: To complete the rep return the kettlebell to the start position ensuring to retrace your steps as you do so.
5: Medicine ball slams
Muscles worked: correct! All of them!
How to perform the exercise
Step 1: Stand over a medicine ball: your feet should be shoulder width apart and the MB in-line with your toes – or thereabouts.
Step 2: Bending at the knee grasp the MB and in one smooth, clean movement hoist it above your head.
Step 3: Now before executing the final phase of this exercise – the slam bit – you must leap up and, as you land, transfer that energy into the slamming of the MB. Of course points 2 and 3 should be one seamless movement.
Step 4: As the MB bounces back up catch it and immediately complete the next rep.
In this article I embarked on a quest to provide the reader with an insight into the characteristics of what constitutes as functional training. The idea behind this approach was to share with you the knowledge necessary to identify a functional exercise and also to create and develop your own if you so choose.
In conjunction with the theoretical underpinning I have supplied you with two functional movements that you can try so as to support theory on a firm foundation of practical application. In so doing you will develop mastery in the mind and of the body.
If you would like to learn a few more functional exercises follow the link where you'll find a tutorial of 3 Advanced Kettlebell Techniques.
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
The lunge with a press image was taken from the following site: https://yorkfitness.com/blogs/articles/kettlebell-workout-for-beginners