Functional Training


Functional training, sometimes also called functional strength training, is defined as any type of exercise directly responsible for maintaining or improving the activities a person performs in daily life. As such, it is frequently used as a type of rehabilitation or training program that involves exercise training specifically to strengthen muscles.


The purpose of functional training is to eliminate problems with movements from people, both athletes and nonathletes, after an injury or a surgical procedure and to target specific muscle groups for improved competitions in sporting events and for doing commonly performed physical activities at home, the office, and in school.

For instance, a construction worker injured on the job may be given functional training in weight lifting so he can return to his given profession of carrying heavy objects. Such training may also be given to a uninjured person, such as an elderly adult, so injuries common at this stage of life (e.g., falls) are less likely to happen.

In both cases, the person is considered a nonathlete. However, functional training can be applied to athletes, too. It is used for activities performed by athletes as they target basic muscle groups needed for their specific sport or physical activity. Baseball players, for instance, could use functional training to target the muscles within the shoulder area and the arms so they can improve their swing.

Whether athlete or nonathlete, functional training provides improved movements, abilities, balance, and other fitness and health related aspects for activities within daily life.


Activities of daily living, called ADLs, are varied and can include such movements as walking, jogging, running, sprinting, and jumping; pushing and pulling; climbing and lunging; bending, twisting, and turning; and many others. These movements use smooth, rhythmic motions that go backwards and forwards; up and down, side to side, and multiple combinations of these three basic directions.

Functional training aims to improve the operational strength of these movements through the combined improvement of the nervous system and muscular system. Thus, exercises performed within functional training involve activities that simulate real-world movements. Such exercises result in improvements in strength, and consequently, ADLs are easier to perform. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) states, “… the primary goal of functional training is to transfer the improvements in strength achieved in one movement to enhancing the performance of another movement by affecting the entire neuromuscular system.”

Activities of daily living (ADLs)—
Refers to the daily self-care activities performed by an individual in his/her place of residence and in outdoor environments; people with disabilities and the elderly are often classified as to whether they can or cannot perform ADLs.
With respect to increasing respiration and the heart rate.
With respect to living or taking place without the need for oxygen, or in the absence of oxygen.
Physical exercises that improve fitness and muscle tone, such as situps, pushups, and jumping jacks.
Relating to the heart and blood vessels.
Circuit training—
A type of exercise that involves performing different exercises in a series.
A system of exercise that involves no weights or machines, but emphasizes calisthenics and exercises that use the weight of the body as resistance.
Strength training—
The use of resistance to muscular contraction to improve anaerobic endurance, muscle size, and overall body strength.

According to functional training experts, specific exercises that control muscular movements are used. The brain (part of the nervous system) is also conditioned to think in terms of these whole motions and not “individual” motions.

Instead, equipment is used that is unstable; that is, the direction of motion is variable within a specific exercise. Such unstable equipment and exercises include the use of bands, balls, free weights (such as dumbbells), and plyometric exercises (such as calisthenics). As an example, a squat is an exercise that simulates the real-life ability to sit up and down in a chair. It is much better for adding functionality to one's body with regards to sitting than an knee-extension exercise done with a stable machine.

Physical therapists often use functional training to improve the ability of patients who have problems with movement after having a serious injury or surgery. Tasks within functional training may incorporate common jobs or activities performed at home, at work, or in school. A long-distance runner who sustains a serious injury while running a marathon will receive functional training to rebuild the muscles, bones, or joints injured in the incident. In many cases, exercises to regain balance are also needed, especially if an injury has occurred. Older persons may use the services of physical therapists to regain their balance after they have had a stroke.

Thus, functional training effectively improves movement of the body, including its balance, coordination, movement speed, muscle contraction, and range of motion.


Functional training has been scientifically shown to help rehabilitate people after they are injured. For instance, in 2009, Taiwanese researchers performed a randomized, controlled, singleblind study to evaluate functional training for patients with low back pain (LBP). Patients with nonspecific LBP were studied for three months. One group participated in functional training while another group was classified as the control. After measuring the participants before and after the program with respect to pain, along with taking the Oswestry disability index and a functional capacity evaluation, the researchers found that significant reductions in pain severity and emotional disturbance from pain were accomplished in the training group, but not in the control group.

They concluded, “An individualized functional training programme benefits chronic LBP patients.” Their results were published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation under the title “The Effectiveness of a Functional Training Program for Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain—A Pilot Study.”


Functional training is founded within rehabilitation, which is the therapy or treatment process of helping a patient return to a normal, healthy life. Individuals with a movement disorder may need functional training to overcome the physical problem. It may also be used to improve a specific portion or all of the muscular physique. Over the years, physical therapists have developed exercises that mimic activities performed by patients at home or work so these people can return to their normal lives after an injury or surgery.


Before starting a functional training program, the patient and the medical team (possibly consisting of the family doctor, physical therapist, and others) should discuss the condition, including what is wrong medically, how the problem will be treated, what goals are to be achieved, and other such matters.


Functional training should not be performed as a stand-alone program. It should be done as a supplement to traditional strength training. Both provide a good variety of exercises, those that provide much more benefit for improving ADLs.

The risks associated with functional training are similar to those of resistance or aerobic training. Proper form should be used when performing exercises to prevent serious injury. The training program should be monitored to avoid overexertion or excessive strain to the body parts being exercised.


Functional training employs exercises that have been shown to provide health benefits. These benefits are enhanced when performed in addition to a traditional strength training program. An individual is likely to improve some or all of the following: joint stability, balance, ability to perform daily tasks; increased power; agility (flexibility, mobility, and stability), neuromuscular coordination and efficiency; ability to perform sporting events; and possibly decreased risk from injuries.



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Bryant, Cedric X. “What is Functional Strength Training?”American Council on Exercise. Fit Life. May 11, 2011. (accessed January 18, 2017).

Tsauo, Jau-Yih, et al. “The Effectiveness of a Functional Training Program for Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain—A Pilot Study.” Disability and Rehabilitation 31, no. 13 (July 21, 2009): 1100–1106. (accessed January 17, 2017).


Cannone, Jessie. “The Functional Training Craze.” October 26, 2004. (accessed January 18, 2017).


American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564,, .

National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, 1150 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 454-7521,, .

National Strength and Conditioning Association, 1885 Bob Johnson Dr., Colorado Springs, CO, 80906, (719) 632-6722, (800) 815-6826, Fax: (719) 632-6367,, .

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860,, .

SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, .

William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.