The number one goal of most of our clients is aesthetics — to either lose fat or gain muscle. It may, or may not, be surprising to learn that functional training, when applied correctly, can help your clients achieve this very goal. Though most clients would fear or scoff at the idea of functional training, in the end, they simply want whatever works! Therefore, if you apply functional exercises correctly, it can far surpass any traditional training program and should more quickly lead your clients to accomplishing any training goal.        
Understanding "Functional" in Training
           Ultimately, we, as fitness professionals, want exercises that are efficient and effective. Functional exercise works, in fact, because it focuses on involving the muscles that are needed and used daily. This means ALL muscles and their integrated functions during increasingly complex movements. However, functional training only works if such exercises are successful in activating the muscles when needed and in the order and sequence they are needed, which commands skill on the trainer's part.
            It is common within the fields of personal training and exercise science for a trainer to understand the purpose of a tool, such as a ball, and to explain why the tool is important but still not be able to apply the proper method for using that tool. For example, a seated knee extension machine may be great for beginners learning to activate the quadriceps, for an elderly individual to achieve isolated strength or for a bodybuilder to achieve greater mass, but what effect does such an exercise have on function? Will the benefits of such an exercise increase biomechanical functionality or the ability to handle greater loads with increasing speed and control in multiple directions? A ball crunch can also be a great exercise but not for someone with poor proprioception and excessive muscle tightness in his or her hips. The right tool in the wrong hands, or for the wrong purpose, serves no benefit and either wastes time or creates new problems. If a trainer either uses a great exercise for the wrong purpose or teaches improper technique of a great exercise, more harm than good will result. 
            Moreover, while it is true, up to a point, that functional training trains based on how we move in real life, it may be oversimplifying the case. Functional training is much more than simply increasing the ability to perform everyday activities. Fitness professionals must be careful not to confuse the dictionary's description of function and the means by which they utilize this concept of functional exercise to improve performance, increase longevity and decrease potential injury.
The Balancing Act
            Any individual who states that either "functional," "bodybuilding" or any other single format for exercise is the only or best way to train either does not understand the concepts of the various forms of training or is too  closed-minded to recognize new possibilities. Unfortunately, there are too many individuals who tout the benefits of one form of training over another without determining the true needs of the body as it coincides with the goals of the individual. In other words, ask, "What is the body capable of doing, and what is the body meant to do?"
            A balance must be drawn between these two concepts. Too often, choices are made based upon what an individual would like to do, which is contrary to his or her current capabilities and overlooks what the body was meant to do. Just because the body CAN move in a given direction does not necessarily mean that it should be reinforced through repetitive movement patterns with explosive tempo and heavy loads. As fitness professionals, we need more information before making these choices for our clients. Training should be goal and individually specific. For example, traditional bodybuilding alone is simply not sufficient to enhance function and improve performance. In fact, there is only so much hypertrophy muscles can handle before function is impaired by overuse of the same muscles and joints in the same direction of movement. However, this is not an excuse for performing biceps curls in every angle and manner imaginable, which, in essence, defies the concepts of what the body is meant to do versus what it is capable of doing. 
Working Out Functional Training
            When the damage done to connective tissue and of overuse is observed many years later, it may be much more than a loss of muscular strength that will occur. Movement impairment is likely to occur due to overuse. Therefore, choosing an exercise or motion based purely upon feel is not an acceptable rationale. The body is intelligent and will accommodate most requests (such as heavy loading or excessively rapid movement while loaded or unloaded), regardless of whether this action is detrimental to the continued functioning of joints, muscles and connective tissue.   
            Therefore, proper progression of functional training before traditional exercise is crucial. Functional exercises can be performed on a daily basis. There should be no significant hypertrophy from eccentric training, excessive speed of movement or prolonged exercise duration from overly high numbers of sets or repetitions to prevent performing functional movements every day, if designed properly. The most important factor here is to include the appropriate variety of movement stresses and directions to avoid overuse or disuse at any particular joint. However, this does not mean choosing variety for its own sake. If the goal is to make every workout different while still meeting the goals of the client and utilizing appropriate progression principles and techniques, such variety becomes a worthy choice. The ability to think on one's feet and spontaneously produce an efficient, effective, progressive workout with variety takes both experience and considerable ability to apply knowledge gained. Thus, it is crucial for the functional training specialist to understand the physiology of joint movement.
            When it comes to applying functional and/or traditional exercises, the concepts of fatigue, overload and progression are often either abused or misunderstood. Overload may come from variability in loading, tempo, direction of movement, range of motion, recovery times, time under tension and intensity. In fact, there is a common belief that overloading a muscle must come from increased weight or the ability to move more weight. Therefore, overload is "increased stress" to a muscle or muscle group and comes in many forms. And just as in any phase or form of training, the capability to handle overload is individually and goal specific. 
            Overload is about increasing stress through changes in the FTTR (Frequency, Time, Type and Rate of Progression) variables of the exercise. An exercise may either overload one muscle or the entire system (kinetic chain). It should be obvious, but many gym-goers and trainers alike insist upon following exercise principle interpretations and theories. It is possible to get lucky with a new gimmick for training that may work for some of your clients. But if the basis for exercise programming is not based on a recognition of how the body moves (kinesiology) and the forces (kinetics) that act upon it, the potential for disaster is extremely high.
            There are many ways of reaching most goals. In fact, there is never, or rarely, only one solution. Appropriate training accomplishes goals with minimal risk in the quickest amount of time. And this is, in fact, the goal of functional training.
            Mark Baines is currently the director of education for NESTA, the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association, and presents annually at industry trade shows and conferences across the US. For more info, visit or