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Functional Training?



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Aug 14, 2012
Functional Training
by BigTex

One of the latest buzz words in the fitness industry is the term “functional training.” Functional training is any type of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life. One of the most popular gimmicks seems to be unstable surfaces and personal trainers having their clients perform exercise on Bosu devices, wobble balls, foam rollers, stability balls, and balance disks etc. So, when I competed and this stuff was just getting started I had a well known trainer tell me I really need to start doing bench press and squats on a stability ball. What the heck???? According to the purveyors of functional training, this type of training, because of the uneven surface, imposes a much greater neuromuscular challenge thus, causing maximal improvement in human function. OK, aside from the obvious safety issues none of us do anything on uneven surfaces. So unless I am going to compete on a ship during very choppy waters, how functional is this really?

Seven Laws of Exercise Science

Let first start with the two of the 7 laws of exercise science. In order for any training program to be of any use, the 7 laws must not be violated. The Law of Specificity says exercise must be designed to stress muscles in a manner similar to the way in which they are to perform. In other words, in order to have a good squat, you must squat! So exercise has to be specific or the transfer to activity is limited.

The 2nd law of exercise science is SAID principal or specific adaptations to imposed demands. This simply means in order for an exercise to optimally transfer to a given task, it must closely match the movement of the given task. Translation, knee extensions have very little transfer of strength to the squat because one isolates the knee and the other is a compound movement.

So as a long time strength coach I always said if the object of weight training for any athlete was to simply get all the muscles strong using a similar energy system as you would use to compete and then learn how to use them on the playing field. In general, people who have lost “functional strength” usually do so through inactivity and aging. So in this case doing any type of exercise strengthens the muscles and improves balance and muscular strength.

What Does Science Say?

Fiatarone et al (1) tested this with a group of elderly adults in a nursing home who were all using canes to walk. He had them train on a knee extension machine three days a week doing 3 sets of 12 reps for 8 weeks. After 8 weeks of training the subjects improved lower body strength 175% and walking balance 48%. They were all able to walk without canes! While the knee extension violates the SAID principal, just the increase in strength from doing a knee extension increased the lower body strength enough to give the subjects more muscle mass/strength thus increasing their ability to balance and walk about without a cane. Not any gimmick, its just that inactivity and aging caused this lack of function[MT1] and doing anything but sitting on a couch will help. Could they have had better results doing a more specific exercise like quats? Certainly but when someone has to use a cane to walk and has lost balance this might be a little difficult.

How about training on uneven surfaces? David Behm (2) did an EMG study comparing muscle force output and muscle activation on even surfaces and uneven surfaces (Swiss ball). He found that training on an uneven surface caused a 44% loss of muscle activity and a 70% decrease in muscle force production when compared to a stable surface. Force production has a huge effect on muscular strength. So training on uneven surfaces caused muscles to deactivate resulting in a huge loss of speed/strength when moving weights concentrically. Obviously training on a stable surface gives you the best bang for the buck as the lack of functional transfer is very low for unstable surfaces. There have been quite a few studies since than that have shown the same results.


In order for an exercise or training program to be of any use functionally, the 7 laws of exercise science must not be violated. Quite simply and exercise is not so functional unless the strength you gain from the exercise it able to be transferred to bodily movements used in everyday life. All of these gimmics that are being used in gyms have limited transfer to movement and in reality, seem to not be so functional. You could spend your time better sticking to compound exercises using free weights and machines that do not isolate muscles. Get the muscles stronger in a similar fashion (energy system) that you will use them and then put them to work.


  • Fiatarone MA, Marks EC, Ryan ND, Meredith CN, Lipsitz LA, Evans WJ. High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians. Effects on skeletal muscle. JAMA. 1990 Jun 13;263(22):3029-34. PMID: 2342214.
  • BEHM, DAVID G.; ANDERSON, KENNETH; CURNEW, ROBERT S. Muscle Force and Activation Under Stable and Unstable Conditions, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2002 - Volume 16 - Issue 3 - p 416-422