In the ever evolving and differentiating world of the fitness industry, someone or some business is always looking for a way to separate themselves from the pack. This is a good thing when these advancements improve a person’s knowledge of how the body works and how to apply that knowledge to one's own training. It's a bad thing when that person or business looks to differentiate themselves for the sake of differentiating.

Somewhere along the line in the past five years or so, the industry and fitness enthusiasts alike have grown crazy over this concept of functional training. I'm not sure who coined the phrase, but it's now daily lingo in a trainer’s vocabulary. You can sell almost anyone on any program or exercise by calling it a “functional” workout or movement. But think to yourself for a second. What the hell does functional even mean?

As far as I know, functional in the physical sense means something that can move. So if someone is paralyzed from the waist down, his lower body isn't functional. If he regains function in that lower body and can extend his legs out, that is function! Yet ask any functional training follower and she will tell you that extending the leg, as would be done in a leg extension machine, isn't functional because it's single joint, it doesn’t involve the core, and blah, blah, blah. I realize I'm looking at it from a literal viewpoint, but any respectable training methodology should be able to stand up to the most intense scrutiny.

I get that functional training is supposed to be exercise that replicates movements in daily living and in sport, but it just isn't a clear concept to me. For example, any trainer can slap the word functional to an exercise that requires balance. Why would that be called functional? Because we all stand on Dyna Discs holding a glass of water above our heads every day? I want to make it clear that I'm not necessarily attacking the person who developed the phrase because he or she had good intentions and were simply looking for a way to differentiate the training methods and make more money. I can’t blame a person for that because he probably had no idea it would get this out of control. And that out of control nature with which the phrase “functional training” is used is what bothers me the most.

Functional training purists, look at it my way for a second. Every morning when I wake up, I brush my teeth. I move my forearm back and forth in the sagittal plane (forward and back) at a fairly rapid and consistent rate. This is an activity of daily living for hopefully everyone in America. Like I said earlier, functional training is supposed to be exercise that mimics/transfers to activities in our daily life. So do I take a dumbbell and rapidly move it backward and forward near my mouth? Is that a “functional” exercise? Sounds silly, right? If that is logical to you, you probably own a Shake Weight and I highly recommend that you keep reading for your own good.

I would like to see any trainer be asked point blank by a client what functional training actually is and see his response. I don’t doubt that the trainer could make it sound great, but I also don’t doubt that underneath all that fluff is a big old cloud of gray. Functional is just too broad of a word. It can't be explained easily enough and for everyone to understand. If you ask ten people on the street what their definition of functional training is you will get ten different responses.

Here is how one of those conversations would go:

Me: Sir, how would you describe to someone the concept of functional training?

Random man: Well, uh, it is a type of training that can help you in your daily life or on the playing field.

Me: OK, give me an example of a functional exercise.

Random man: A squat.

Me: And how is that functional?

Random man: Well, ladies squat every time they go to the bathroom and us guys squat every time we crap.

Me: So you're telling me that when you go to the bathroom and crap, you put your hands behind your ears, puff your chest out, push your hips and butt back, transfer your weight to your heels, and sit on to the seat?

Random man: Well, uh, no.

Me: Is a leg extension or leg curl functional?

Random man: No, because those are single joint movements.

Me: So strengthening your quads and hamstrings for someone who might not be able to properly perform a squat because of knee problems isn't functional?

Random man: Huh?

You get the idea. There is too much room for interpretation in functional training. It essentially has become a phrase trainers throw on to programs that require movements that look hard or require balance. I could go on my soapbox for several more pages, but instead I will go ahead and get to the point now that you have a sufficient background of my thinking.

Instead of functional training, I think a better phrase would be “optimal strength training.” Just reading those words implies that some movements are better than others when it comes to working multiple joints and muscles through multiple planes of motion. Optimal strength then is not only a high absolute strength but the ability to take that absolute strength and apply it in the areas of coordination, flexibility, mobility, and balance in all three planes of motion. That is a mouthful, but it already is clearer than the multiple definitions for functional training because it can be classified!

For example, let’s go back to our leg extension. This is a single joint movement with the purpose of strengthening the quads. You can go up 100 pounds in the leg extension and make your quads stronger but only through that one range of motion. In other words, it isn't “optimal” because the absolute strength has gone up but most likely you wouldn't be able to see a huge transfer in the aforementioned areas of coordination, flexibility, mobility, and balance through the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes.

OK, so let’s progress to a back squat. Now we have multiple joints and muscles at work. Our core is involved to a great degree because of the balance required to support the weight and not topple forward on the descent or ascent. Also, a properly performed squat obviously requires a good deal of coordination, flexibility, and mobility. So it's a better movement than the leg extension for someone without any limitations, but it is a closed kinetic chain movement (feet are planted on the ground) in the sagittal plane. I have see plenty of guys who can squat big weight but couldn’t do a two-way lunge (forward and side) to save their life. This brings us to the “optimal” movement in our progression—a two-way lunge. No, you obviously can't move as much weight as you can with a squat, so the muscle building potential isn't as strong, but in terms of our new optimal strength definition, it fits the bill. It does require some absolute strength plus a lunge requires multiple muscles, coordination, flexibility, mobility, and balance to a great degree due to its open kinetic chain nature. Not only that, but a two-way lunge also involves the frontal plane instead of just the sagittal plane, which comprises most of our movements in the weight room.

If you're interested in developing your optimal strength, all you have to do is look back at the definition and see if the exercises in your program fit that description. If they don’t, there are lots of exercises you can find out there that will. But that isn't the purpose of this article. The purpose of this article is to make you think critically about the concept of functional training and its application not only in your clients’ or athletes’ programs but in our industry as a whole. I realize that my definition of optimal strength carries strong similarities with some definitions of functional training, but the fact that they use the umbrella term functional screws theirs up. Some of you will agree with me while others will passionately go against it and defend the term functional training. That’s great because what good is an article if it doesn’t make you use your brains in a functional manner? Or as we should now say—an optimal manner.