Certain terms used in advertising exercise programs are so overused that they have ceased to make sense. If you see them, it's a good sign that you need to be going somewhere else.
Exercise expert Christian Finn is not a fan of the term "functional exercise."
As Finn notes in his blog MuscleEvo, advocates of functional exercise, who want you to plunk down your credit card and sign for their gym or their training system, seem to imply that your friends will be unable to conceal their amazement at your muscle growth after the completion of their program. Hugh Jackman will call you at home demanding to know why his picture has been replaced by yours on the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine. Top movie studio producers in London and Hollywood will offer you a multi-million dollar deal to serve as the stunt double for the star of the next Bourne Identity film.
Finn's point, of course, is that references to functional exercise are so numerous that they don't have any real meaning to real people.
What Is Functional Exercise, Anyway?
The idea behind functional exercise was that movements you don't do over and over again work out muscles you don't train over and over again. There can be more value for fitness, for example, in moving the sofa up three flights of stairs to your apartment than in doing a bench press of an equivalent weight. Moving odd-shaped objects, such as pieces of iron from a metal shop attached to ropes, or waterballs, or sandbags, works out muscles in a different way than going to the same Nautilus machines at the gym three times a week. Working out with a Russian kettlebell might be considered functional exercise. Working out with a barbell probably would not.
The problem came about when the promoters of this one-time relatively new method of training tried to dissuade fitness fans from using the more traditional programs offered by their competitors. If a gym or a trainer offering functional exercise wanted to compete against a gym or a trainer who did not, the pitch might be "The bench press has no relevance to physical activity in the real world." The truth is, there aren't that many times that most of us are called on to lift a thin, evenly shaped, heavy metal cylinder off our chests.
That doesn't mean, however, that there is no positive transfer of strength from one activity to another. Upper body strength is of great value in many athletic and real-life endeavors.
What If You Want An Exercise That Closely Imitates An Athletic Function?
Training expert Jason Ferrugia has been pondering the questions of training for athletic competitions for a long time. For instance, he talks about the appropriate exercise for an American football lineman. Football players on the line never push a weight off their chests (well, not while the clock is running, anyway). They always push forward while standing on their feet. What a lineman (or, in a very few settings, a linewoman) needs is an exercise that starts with him coming out of a three point stance. Then it should explode upward. Next it should violently push the player forward while contracting his lower back, his abs, and just about every other muscle in his torso. What would be the perfect exercise for a center, guard, or tackle who wants to hit the other team harder?
Ferrugia comments, "Oh! I've got it! Football practice!"
One doesn't always need functional exercise. Sometimes one needs just to go to the function.