What Makes Training “Functional”?


What is “functional training”?

Is it using a Bosu ball? Is it TRX exercises? Is it plyometrics? Is it all three?

You wouldn’t know it to listen to the trainer at your local gym, but functional training isn’t a standardized training method. 

Building functional strength is totally subjective. Depending on your injury/health history and training goals; “functional” takes on a different definition.

I’ve put together some criteria to help you decide what “functional” training looks like for you.

Functional training is any training that meets or addresses your specific needs. Meaning no two people have exactly the same “functional” workout. Even two very similar people will have different functional needs. Shaq trained differently from Kobe but they both played basketball. Captain America trains differently from Hawkeye but they’re both superheroes. And so on and so forth.

There are two key considerations when you build a functional program for yourself. Everything about your program will depend on your goal, and your injury/health history.


The 3 most common fitness goals I’ve encountered are, in order: weight loss, hypertrophy, and building strength.

Each goal has specific exercise programming practices. There is a ton of overlap in exercise selection, but the method and scheduling change.

All goals will incorporate:
Compound lifts (Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge, Lunge, Loaded Carry)
3-5 60 minute workouts per week

After these basics, function is decided by several goal specific factors.

Weight Loss:

Total Body workouts, 2-4 exercise circuits with short rest, 8-15 reps per exercise.

The whole idea is to get your muscles working and metabolism churning. You want to expend calories and cause a metabolic boost during recovery (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption).

Weight loss training is all about expending as many calories as possible, so compound movements in rapid succession with little rest is functional for you goal.


Muscle Group Split (Monday-Chest, Tuesday-Back, Wednesday-Legs, etc.), 4-6 exercises per muscle group, 6-12 reps per set.

Hypertrophy is the art and science of growing muscle. If you want biceps like Chris Hemsworth or home-grown glutes that break the internet, you want hypertrophy. This means creating lots of muscular microtrauma. Muscles grow when repairing the damage you do to them in a workout. This is why bodybuilders do seemingly endless amounts of work on one specific muscle group per workout. 

For hypertrophy you will need to commit more time to working out – in frequency and duration. That, or you need to find creative ways to maximize the amount work you can do in a short period of time. To serve the specific function of causing muscular trauma that rebuilds to be bigger, your focus will be on making your muscles burn as bad as you can possibly stand without hurting yourself. Not super fun, but effective.


Movement Split (Monday-Squat, Tuesday-Push, Wednesday-Hinge), Straight sets with lots of rest, 1-6 reps per set.

Strength training is my favorite for “function”. Depending on how you want to use your strength, your program can change drastically. If you’re an athlete, you’ll need sport specific stimulus. This means specific equipment or variations of exercises so the strength you build meets a specific on-field need. If you’re not an athlete and just want to be able to pick up a big bag of dog food without letting out a grunt that turns all the heads in PetSmart, basic strength training practices will work perfectly.

Strength training splits are often broken up by compound movement patterns. The best practice is to choose a pair of compound movements to hit in the same workout. You will often do 4-6 straight sets of 1-5 reps of a primary movement with as much rest as you need in between them. After your 2 compound movements you will add a couple exercises that help support, stabilize, or compliment the primary movement. These can be done in a superset to save some time. I usually finish these workouts with a short metabolic finisher to make sure we don’t forget to train the cardiovascular system.

Strength can build slowly, but the perseverance is worth it. The concept of progressive overload has worked for hundreds of years. If you don’t feel like its working you’re just being impatient. Always use the heaviest load you can lift with good form and NEVER sacrifice your form for a couple extra pounds on the bar.

Don’t be afraid of lifting less than the folks around you in order to maintain good form. Solid form is what will get you the best progress over the long haul. Plus, I seem to remember a pretty prolific quote about fear…


  After narrowing down the broad strokes by selecting a goal, you can move on to a few more specific considerations.

Everyone is built a little different. There are parts of each of us that cannot be changed. Skeletal structures, short and long muscle bellies, and height are a few obvious examples of why some exercises that feel awesome for your friend may never feel right for you.

When we get past genetic factors, we are left with two main considerations that affect the functionality of certain exercises. If/how you’ve suffered injuries (either currently or in the past) and the chronic ailments you suffer from including their side effects.

Basics first: Are you injured? Do you have chronic aches and pains? Do you get sharp pains with a certain movement? SEE A DOCTOR.

Because duh. And yes, this is directed mostly (though not exclusively) at the men reading:


Now that the ego check is out of the way, those of us who are not currently injured and refusing to deal with it can read on.

You may have a chronic disease that affects your ability to exercise. Many people do. I’ve trained a ton of them. Some of these chronic ailments can be directly addressed and some simply need to be worked around. Your doctor will tell you which to do (again, with the doctor).

Do you have mobility problems that prevent you from exercising without pain or discomfort? Almost every single person I’ve coached has started with at least one movement issue. As long as you aren’t in acute pain, your trainer should be equipped to help you correct mobility problems. If they can’t, find a new trainer.

For those conditions you have to work around, eliminate anything that exacerbates the symptoms you suffer from. Simple as that. As an example, let’s say you have Type II diabetes and your feet are constantly tingling or numb. Stay off of them. Use machines for your leg work and/or keep the loads very light. You can still use whatever exercises you want for your upper body, but heavy barbell squats are probably not going to feel good. You have permission to skip things that will always hurt.

For any conditions you need to address, go right after them. These are most commonly movement issues uncovered during a movement assessment with your trainer. If your knee hurts when you squat due to a movement issue or muscle imbalance, you need to program exercises that correct the problem. It’s not going to magically get better. You need to take action.

Make sure you actually know how to address these specific needs. Don’t identify a muscle imbalance and just wing it with corrective exercises you found on the internet. Consult a professional. Even if you can’t afford a trainer on a regular basis, it is SO WORTH IT to get one session to go over your issues with chronic illness, pain, or mobility. Eliminate the trial and error. You’ll progress faster and avoid injury.

Finally, be very clear on which issues are fixable and which are not. Speak up if you have concerns. Your trainer will be SO HAPPY you spoke up instead of grinding through discomfort until you injure yourself. Open, honest communication is essential when dealing with these issues and makes the entire process go more smoothly.


There you have it: the means to define functional approaches to your goals. And not a single wobble board or swiss ball in sight!

When it comes to defining your function, don’t worry about what anyone else at the gym might think of your workout. They aren’t paying attention to you. They don’t care about your goals. They’re focused on themselves. You should be too. Stay focused on doing what you need to do, to get where you want to be.

Any other training approach is dysfunctional.