Functional training has its origin in rehabilitation. Physical therapists developed exercises imitating everyday life activities to prepare patients to return to their lives and jobs.
Functional training is not necessarily the same as sport-specific training. The S.A.I.D. principle of strength training (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) states that when designing a sport-specific training program, the most effective exercises will be those that mimic the motor pattern of the sport as closely as possible. Functional training focuses more on general patterns of movement that are similar in many sports. Skills like accelerating, decelerating, changing direction, moving laterally, turning and the ability to stabilise the torso determine success in most sports.
Functional training focuses on training movements and the kinetic chain, not on training isolated muscle actions. The kinetic chain is a group of muscles that work together in creating movement.
Functional training does not over-emphasize one movement but is balanced between pushing and pulling strength and between posterior and anterior chain strength. Strength imbalances between movement patterns (pushing – pulling), right – left asymmetries and synergistic dominance (dominant hamstring muscles during hip extension due to a weak gluteus muscles) are all linked to injury. Through balanced training these imbalances and asymmetries are corrected.
The training equipment used in functional training are barbells, dumbbells, elastic bands, pulley systems, medicine and stability balls, sand bags, half foam rolls, airex pads and stability boards. Equipment that allows the training to be performed in multiple planes of motion enhances proprioceptive input and forces the athlete to stabilise. In functional training body weight is used as resistance to build relative strength. The use of body weight and free weights as resistance allows release manoeuvres, important in power development. Resistance-training machines are of limited use in functional training. In machine weight training the body is seated and stability is provided by the machine. The prime movers are activated in isolation without engaging the stabilisers. In machine weight training, isolated muscles are trained in one dimension and movement mostly occurs in a single joint. Because most sports are multiplanar and ground-based (the foot is in contact with the ground during almost all functional force production), machine weight training does not improve athletic performance. On the contrary, by establishing non-functional movement patterns that cause faulty neural recruitment, the athlete becomes more prone to injury. Through the focus on balance of movement patterns, core and joint stabilisation and the high carry-over to athletic performance, functional training reduces the incidence of injuries.
To be effective a functional exercise program should be progressive in nature. Progressive training steadily increases the strength and neural demand during successive workouts. Start with basic conditioning and skill acquisition and gradually progress to advanced skills. Start with body-weight exercises before adding external resistance.Periodize training by varying volume, intensity and the exercise content of workouts to peak for competition, games, play-offs and to prevent neural fatigue from happening.Individualize training to meet the needs of every athlete and to maximize the training effect.
Research and empirical evidence show that functional training is the most effective approach to improve performance. This does not mean it should be used solely, with exclusion of all the other methods. Bodybuilding methods that use single-joint exercises to fatigue muscles for hypertrophy or even machines to increase strength can be used. However, functional training must be the dominant approach in the systematic training paradigm. When improving the strength of isolated muscles, integrate the gained strength into its functional integrated role.