Functional training is a familiar term to most coaches and trainers. Perhaps you’ve attended seminars on functional training and were told that certain exercises are functional while others are not. However, is there a clear definition of the term “functional training?”

Various definitions of functional training exist. According to Gyldendals dictionary, the word “functional” means “something that works” (1). Going through the training literature, various definitions of functional training emerge. In his classical work “Supertraining,” Mel Siff differentiates between “functional strength” and “structural strength” (2). Functional strength is defined as maximal strength, strength-speed, reactive strength, and strength endurance. Structural strength is the strength of the structure of the body including muscle mass and the strength of the bones, tendons, and ligaments. This is also called anatomical adaptation (3). Using the above definition, it would be concluded that functional training is (any) training that improves maximal strength, strength-speed, reactive strength, or strength endurance.

Paul Chek, the well-known training and rehabilitation expert, suggests the following characteristics of functional training (4). Functional exercise should:

  • Include relevant reflex profiles (righting versus tilting reflexes)
  • Be performed standing
  • Include the same movement pattern (a movement using the same relative timing) as the “goal movement”
  • Have open and closed chain compatibility
  • Develop the relevant bio-motor abilities
  • Be used in a progression from isolated to integrated exercises

Gary Gray, called “the father of function” and Vern Gambetta suggest other characteristics of functional exercise (5). Functional exercise should:

  • Be fun and safe
  • Involve controlled instability
  • Involve three planes of motion and all joints
  • Involve body weight mastery before the application of external resistance
  • Focus on eccentric loads before concentric loads
  • Be used in a continuum of difficulty

Single hand to opposite leg reach to curl to press. A great exercise that involves three planes of motion and all joints. Is it relevant for powerlifters?

Evidently, the above definitions show considerable differences, especially the definition suggested by Siff, who uses functional to describe basic muscle function. In contrast to this, Chek and Gray/Gambetta focus more on the similarity of movement between the training exercises and the “goal movement.” Who is right? What is the true definition of functional training? A fundamental requirement should be that any exercise ever performed must, in the short or long term, help the client/athlete achieve his or her goals. If the above is not true, why include the exercise in a training program?

The concept of similarity between the training exercise and the “goal movement” is seen in the above definitions. However, at its core, functional exercise should stimulate, not (necessarily) simulate. This is supported by studies showing that heavy bench press training in combination with sports specific training (team handball) can improve maximal throwing velocity even though the similarity between the bench press and the throwing motion is considered to be low (6).

The definition given by the dictionary—“functional” is something that works—gives us the essences of functional training. Functional training is training that works. The other definitions take our attention to key characteristics of exercise but are at the same time limited and create confusion. For example:

  • Should you only train standing if you are a rower or race car driver?
  • Should a powerlifter include the transversal plane in order to train “functional?”

To make sure your training works, you need the tools to select the right exercises at the right time. So how do you choose the right exercise at the right time?

It is said that a coach should be as precise with exercise prescription as a surgeon with his knife. It is imperative that the coach/trainer/therapist know the characteristics of an exercise that stimulates the goal movement. (And subsequently are able to apply that knowledge in a skilled fashion.)

The correct choice of exercise is determined by the current status of the client/athlete. The phases shown (modified from seven) integrate clients of very low and very high physical capacity. The six phases with a progression of neuromuscular, structural, and metabolic goals are a very effective tool.

1. Neuromuscular isolation

2. Inner unit, outer unit integration

3. Dynamic stability

4. Maximal strength (structural focus)

5. Maximal strength (functional focus)

6. Sports specific combinations of speed, strength, and endurance

The model includes phases often run by professionals trained in sports medicine and those often run by coaches or trainers. As an example, consider a client with a knee-injury who has reduced ability.

Try to fire the vastus medialis muscle. The sports medicine professional would start in phase one using special techniques such as a biofeedback apparatus to reeducate the muscle to fire correctly. An example of such an exercise is shown in the above picture. Subsequently, the client would progress through the phases to more integrated training in phases 4–6 that require all muscles to fire synergistically.

An example of such an exercise could be a squat with reverse bands as seen in the above picture.

The linear progression through phases is appropriate if a client comes out of rehab. For uninjured clients, it is appropriate at any given time to prescribe exercises that targets different phases.

Last, but not least, we must take a look at the characteristics of exercise that stimulates the goal movement. This list shows several of the characteristics suggested by Chek and Gray/Gambetta:

1.      The exercise must allow for adequate levels of tension experienced by the muscle tendon unit.

Tension experienced by the muscle tendon is the essential stimulus for the development of maximal strength. This often involves high external loads (8). Standing exercises like the barbell squat allow for high levels of tension on the muscle tendon units of the hip and knee extensors. Single leg and/or exercises involving the three planes of motion does not allow for the same degree of tension experienced by the muscle tendon unit. The optimal level of tension in the exercises varies from phase to phase.

2. There must be a certain degree of similarity between the exercise and the goal movement.

The principle of specificity states that training carryover is the largest when there is a certain degree of similarity between the environment of the training exercise and the goal movement (9). The muscle recruitment pattern is specific to features like the movement pattern, the planes of movement, the involved joints, and the open or closed chain movement (10). To some extent, these factors should be simulated in the training exercises.

3. The exercise and the goal movement should have the same accentuated force region.

The accentuated force region is the part of the movement with the highest, direction specific application of force against the ground or the implement. For example, a goal keeper in team handball often moves the arms up and to the sides to block the ball. A dumbbell military press would seem to be an appropriate choice of exercise, but the accentuated force region is in the beginning of the movement and the resistance is vertical (see picture below).

The accentuated force region in the goal movement is in general with the arms more to the side, and the resistance is horizontal (it is in this position that the ball hits the arms of the goal keeper). A more appropriate exercise matching this pattern is standing cable flyes (at a variety of angles).

4. The exercise must involve relevant muscles or individual muscles.

No chain is stronger than the weakest link. Some types of sports specific training create muscle imbalances and it can be appropriate to counteract such training with certain isolation exercises. A lower body example of this is training of the hamstrings as knee flexors. An upper body example is training of the teres minor and infra-spinatus muscles as external rotators of the shoulder joint.

It is important to realize that “isolation” does not mean that all other muscles are inactive. Such a scenario is impossible. The body works as a unit. Rather “isolation” means the isolation of a specific group of muscles (for example the external rotators of the shoulder joint) as prime movers.

5. The exercise must include relevant reflex profiles.

A distinction between tilting and righting reflexes can be made (11). Tilting reflexes are activated when the surface is unstable or slippery. Righting reflexes are activated when we move across a stable surface. Different exercises involve the reflexes in various degrees, which highly depends on whether the surface is stable or not. The reflex involvement in the chosen exercises should reflect the demands of the environment that is being trained. For example, a downhill skier needs exercises that develop the tilting reflexes whereas a tennis player needs an emphasis on developing righting reflexes.

The chosen exercises should not always include all six criteria. The importance of the different criteria changes from phase to phase. For example, high levels of tension aren’t important in phase one but are crucial in phase five.

A successful training process requires long-term planning. It is important in the early phases to take into consideration the exercises that will be performed in the later phases. For example, if you know that squats will be a part of training in phase five, it is advisable to include some form of squat as early as possible. This way the client has the technique right and can progress faster.

This article has made the argument that “functional training” is training that works. It is training that helps the client achieve his or her goals. It involves the right exercises prescribed at the right time regardless of what exercise that might be. Thus, it seems clear that all training should be “functional” and there is no need for a differentiation between functional and other types of training.

It is my experience that labels are confusing because they remove focus from the essence of training. For example, one might ask someone, “Do you like functional training?” If they don’t know what functional training is the reply may be, “No. I don’t believe in it. I like kettlebell training more.” Thinking like that will keep you confused forever. Forget about functional training and focus on giving your clients the right exercise at the right time.



  1. Gyldendals Fremmedordbog (1983) S184. 9. Udgave Gyldendal.
  2. Siff M. Supertraining. S7, Denver: Supertraining Institute.
  3. Bompa T (1993) Periodization of Strength. Kap 10, Veritas Publishing, Inc., S98–111.
  4. Chek P. What Is Functional Exercise?
  5. Gray G, Gambetta V. Following the Functional Path.
  6. Hoff J, Almåsbakk B (1995) The Effects on Throwing Velocity and Muscle Strength in Female Handball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9(4):255–258.
  7. Chek P (2001) Golf Biomechanics Manual. Chek Institute,
  8. Hâkkinen K (1989) Neuromuscular and Hormonal Adaptations During Strength and Power Training. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 29(1):9–26.
  9. Schmidt RA, Wrisberg CA (2000) Motor Learning and Performance, 2nd edition. Kap 8, Human Kinetics, S202–229.
  10. Sale D (1991) Neural Adaptation to Strength Training. Strength and Power in Sport. Kap 9B, Blackwell Science, S249–265.
  11. Chek P (2000) Movement that Matters. S 6–7


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