Functional Training: Why Is It Important?

By: Alex Michaels

Take a second to think about your daily routine, occupation, and the tasks you often perform throughout the day.  Do those tasks include sitting and standing, carrying items like grocery bags, walking, bending over to retrieve items on the ground, or reaching to put items in a kitchen cabinet?  Chances are, you answered yes to quite a few of the actions mentioned. Each are considered activities of daily living (ADLs). Considering ADLs occur frequently, it is important that they are executed with proper form.  Unfortunately, for some individuals, these tasks are difficult and may even result in injury.

How can we improve our body’s ability to move more efficiently and safely?  The primary solution is the addition of functional training to an individual’s daily exercise routine.  This type of training is vital to improving quality of life because it aligns with the types of movement patterns commonly executed during the day.  For example, sitting on a shoulder press machine with the back supported and feet flat on the floor will mainly isolate the deltoid muscle group.  However, a more functional exercise for the shoulders is an overhead, standing, dumbbell press.  In addition to working the shoulder muscles, this recruits multiple muscle groups, requires core stabilization and challenges balance. The second example is a better representation of a daily task such as reaching overhead to put away groceries in a high cabinet.

Functional training allows an individual to perform multi-joint movements that engage more muscle groups; therefore improving their ability to work together more effectively.  An important benefit of functional training is enhanced balance.  According to the Center for Disease Control, fall injuries are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries (CDC). Our sense of balance decreases with age; it is imperative to continuously perform exercises that strengthen our base of support and test our balance.  Another benefit of functional training is that it strengthens the abdominals, especially the transverse abdominals and obliques.  The transverse abdominals are the deepest abdominal layer, running horizontal and protecting the lumbar spine (low back), acting almost like a girdle.  The obliques run diagonally along the side of the abdomen and aid in lateral flexion (side bends) and twisting of the trunk.  The bending, twisting, pushing, and pulling movements we frequently perform need to incorporate the core abdominals. If the abdominal muscles are weak, the back muscles will try to compensate, which can result in serious injury to the erector spinae muscles of the low back.

A phenomenal example of functional training is TRX suspension training.  The body can train movements in all three of the anatomical planes; sagittal, coronal, and transverse.  The sagittal plane divides the body into left and right parts and consists of forward and backward movements, such as alternate lunges.  The coronal plane divides the body into front and back parts and consists of movements, such as lateral raises and upright rows.  The transverse plane divides the body into top and bottom halves and consists of twisting movements, such as oblique crunches or a medicine ball diagonal chop.  Other types of equipment that allow for functional training are free weights, resistance bands, medicine balls, and stability balls.  Do not underestimate the power of using your own bodyweight either! 

It is undeniable that functional training adds tremendous value to an individual’s quality of life.  From improvements in muscle efficiency and balance to the refined ability of the body to move in all three of the anatomical planes, functional training is an essential piece of an exercise program.  Take your fitness and overall well-being to the next level with the addition of this training.