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What is Functional Training?

By Kimberly Coghlan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Functional training is a phrase derived from the field of physical therapy that is used to describe exercises that prepare the body for everyday occurrences. Many physical therapists train patients during treatments to perform exercises that mimic routine motions. This typically will allow the patient to have more freedom and will lessen risks that are associated with injuries, such as falling.

Encompassing many fields of exercise, training functionally is a broad term. Physical therapists generally attempt to improve specific situations. For example, a physical therapist may use exercise to train and build the wrist muscles of a person who is suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Physical therapists typically use specific exercise for functional purposes such as improving balance, strengthening core muscles, and improving coordination. Though used specifically in the medical field, the phrase typically is used differently by laypeople.

In the arena of physical fitness, functional training usually refers to simple exercises that burn fat and tone muscles. This training usually is performed using fitness balls, strength bands, and free weights. Plyometrics are quick, powerful exercises designed to engage muscles and also are used in training for functional purposes. Though the same tools are used in physical therapy, the outcomes differ.

Experts disagree about the benefits of functional training. Many experts believe that this type of training increases mobility, balance, coordination, and even stability. Strength training experts, on the other hand, argue that functional training does not provide enough resistance and therefore should not be substituted for a strength training program. Many experts do agree, though, that training functionally could be an effective part of a diverse workout program that includes cardiovascular training and strength training.

Cardiovascular exercises are ones that supply oxygen to the muscles. Sometimes called aerobic exercises, cardiovascular exercises increase the heart rate, which usually makes the heart healthier. Among its many benefits, aerobic exercise generally decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Strength training exercises typically overload muscles and break apart muscle fibers, which allow them to repair bigger and stronger. Strength training has numerous benefits as well, including increased bone density and lower cholesterol.

Functional training may improve balance and coordination, but it usually does not elevate the pulse enough to be as heart-healthy as cardiovascular exercise. Likewise, functional training does not overload the muscles of the body enough to reap the benefits of strength training. For this reason, most professional trainers recommend incorporating functional training into an exercise program that already integrates a balance of strength training and cardiovascular exercise.

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