What is Functional Training and Why is it Important for Everyday Life

Functional training got its start in rehabilitation. To rehab patients after injury or surgery and get them back to moving better in their daily lives, physical therapists created exercises to mimic activities of daily living (ADL’s) to make movements like reaching, pulling, squatting and lifting easier to execute.

“You want to exercise and have results and gains transfer to your everyday life,” said physical therapist, Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., and founder of Fit Club Physical Therapy & Sports Performance.

“Functional training is designed to have the most carry over from working out to the realities of daily living.”

How is Functional Training Different from Traditional Strength Training?

There are a couple of differences between functional training and a regular resistance training routine. The first is that this type of training focuses on pattern-like movements. The focus is to improve strength, stability, and mobility. Instead of working muscles in isolation, functional training uses compound movements—using more than one muscle group at a time. Innovation has led to new tools to execute, like battling ropes, kettle bells, sandbags and suspension trainers, like TRX, in addition to more traditional gym equipment like barbells, dumbbells and medicine balls.

Dr. Scantlebury generally likes patients to use free weights over machines to carry out exercises. He creates a series that takes a person through a full range of motion and instability work.

Functional training also focuses on unilateral versus bilateral movements to help improve imbalances in the body. This means that exercises are performed with one only one limb, which helps prevent one side of your body from compensating for the other. It contributes to improved balance in the way it could be replicated in real-world situations. Think alternating shoulder presses, single-leg straight-leg deadlifts, or a single-arm bent over row.

Why is Functional Training Important?

Regardless of age, it’s critical to strengthen the muscles that will help make life’s daily activities easier and safer. However, for older adults, training may focus on sit-to-stand transfers, stepping over and into a bathtub, or getting in and out of bed, for example.  

Train as Often as Possible

You can incorporate functional training exercises into your regular strength training program or practice separately. What’s important is that you do it at least three to five times per week. Add movements like picking up kettle bells (learn proper form first) or rotational training to your existing workouts. Don’t shy away from squats or deadlifts. As we age, balance is one of the main things we lose, which leads to sometimes devasting falls. So, for older adults, balance training is also critical. “People should be training for life and functional training prepares you for that,” said Dr. Scantlebury.

Bottom Line

Be proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait until after an injury or surgery to work on functional fitness. Incorporate these types of exercises into your existing weight training routine as a preventative measure to help maintain your health and independence as you age. If you’re concerned about how to get started, speak to a professional to learn form or your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to start something new.

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