What is Functional Training? The Real Definition

Just about every personal trainer, strength coach and physical therapist uses the terms “”Functional Exercise,” “Functional Movement” or “Functional Training.” And, it’s no secret that different people choose to define the word “functional” in different ways, depending on their chosen training approach.

– Many Personal Trainers define “functional training” as exercises using three-dimensional movements or standing on unstable surfaces.

– Many Strength Coaches feel that “functional training” has to do with just getting stronger in the basic lifts.

– Many Physical Therapists and Corrective Exercise oriented Trainers think that “functional training” is about regaining your muscle balance and fundamental movement ability before you begin doing either 3D exercises or the basic lifts.

The realities described above gives us the State of the Fitness and Rehabilitation Industry, which is…

The 3D oriented personal trainers tend to think traditional weight-lifting is “non-functional” and only good for those interested in bodybuilding or being weight-room studs. While the strength coaches tend make fun of the 3D trainers for doing circus acts and not lifting intense enough. And, the physical therapists and corrective trainers tend to think the 3D trainers and strength coaches are both off base.

All this endless debate, animosity and down-right insanity over differing definitions of what functional training is can be solved very easily by understanding and embracing the REAL definition of the word “functional,” which is exactly what I provide you in this video.

General and Specific Exercises

In the video I mentioned that in the Performance U training system, we classify exercises as either Specific or General. Here’s the break-down on each type of exercise:

SPECIFIC Exercises

These exercises have a direct and obvious (functional) transfer because they’re based on the principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID). The SAID principle is also known as the “principle of specificity.”

According to Dr. Everett Harman in the reference book for the NSCA, “Essentials of Strength & Conditioning”: “The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity).

“The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercise similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occur and the direction of the movements. In addition, joints ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”

Essentially, the adaptations to training will be specific to the demands the training puts on the body. Now, don’t get it twisted as this does NOT mean we work on skills with our specific (functional) exercise applications. What it means is that we work on improving specific force generation patterns, which transfer into target movements!

I first wrote about the Kettlebell Clinch Pull-Up in 2009 as an example of a "Specific" exercise application for improving Muay Thai Clinch strength. The force production patterns and joint angles in this exercise more closely match those of the clinch (aka. The Plum Position) than does the general Pull Up or Chin-Up.
I first wrote about the Kettlebell Clinch Pull-Up in 2009 as an example of a “Specific” exercise application for improving Muay Thai Clinch strength. The force production patterns and joint angles in this exercise more closely match those of the clinch (aka. The Plum Position) than does the general Pull Up or Chin-Up.

Other examples of what we would call a specific exercise would be performing squat variations to improve vertical (squat) jump height. Or, performing standing cable presses or angled barbell presses to improve standing pushing strength. Even biceps curls can be a specific exercise to help a running back keep a tight grip on the ball.

“Specific” exercise could also be labeled as “functional” exercises if you like that word better.

GENERAL Exercises

Our general exercises are basic weight-training exercises – compound and isolation movements using free weights, cables and machines – used to help increasing muscle mass, motor unit recruitment, bone density, connective tissue health, etc.

Although these applications may not necessarily reflect any specific force generation or movement patterns, their ability to positively transfer into improved performance potential is less obvious and often ignored or misunderstood, which is why many fitness professionals and therapists often mistakenly label them as “non-functional” as if these exercise application won’t help, and may actually hinder one’s health and performance.

In other words, just because an given exercise application may not directly reflect a specific force production pattern or movement pattern doesn’t means it can’t help someone. Lets face it, increasing bone density and connective tissue strength along with adding muscle mass is rarely ever “non-functional.”

Additionally, in my Functional Bodybuilding article I covered three ways that bodybuilding (i.e. Hypertrophy training) methods can be highly “functional” for athletes by helping them improve specific physical aspects of their performance.

Non-Functional Exercises

If we don’t feel a particular exercise or methodology offers a specific or general transfer into the client’s training goal, we’ll consider it “non-functional” for that individual. This is not to say it’s a “bad” exercise, but rather to say (we don’t feel) the exercise or methodology is the best use of the client’s time and training efforts over other applications that likely yield higher positive transfer in the training goal.

This is often the case with Unstable Surface Training (UST). In that, unless the we’re directed to use UST for post-rehabilitation purposes by a Physical Therapist, or the client’s goal involves improving their ability to perform on unstable bases – like a Circus performer for instance – we don’t consider UST “functional” for most training scenarios. This is because 1) it doesn’t offer a specific transfer since the force productions patterns are different than when standing on stable surfaces like the ground – where most sports are played and ADLs occur.  And, 2) we can’t say it offers a “general” transfer because you’re unable to create enough tissue overload to elicit tissue adaptions.


What we consider as “Specific” (i.e. functional) exercises and what we consider as “General” exercises is determined by the individual’s training goal. For example:

– If the individual’s goal is to gain muscle size (i.e. increase Hypertrophy), we’ll label exercises like Bent Over Rows and Deadlifts as “Specific,” and we’ll label exercises like Medicine Ball Rotary Throws as “General.”

If we’re working with a rotary athlete looking to increase their rotary power, we’ll label exercises like Medicine Ball Rotary Throws and Deadlifts as “Specific” because the legs and hips, along with the torso muscles are involved in rotary force production. And, we’ll label exercises like Bent Over Rows  as “General.”

In either training scenario, the Performance U approach integrates BOTH “specific” and “general” exercise applications because both offer unique benefits the other misses. We’ve found this approach not only helps training become more well-round and effective, it also helps to make serious workouts more interesting and enjoyable. That’s the beauty of the Performance U Hybrid training methodology, baby!

Learn How To Program Like A Pro

Using My Must-Have Programming Charts

Learn how I how I quickly and easily create programs that get results and keep clients coming back for more by downloading my 2 must-have programming charts and watching the included video lesson.

With these two charts, you’ll be able to combine the most important functional movements with isolation exercises for the perfect balance of strength, hypertrophy and performance.

In this video lesson you’ll discover:

And much more!

If your goal is to write better programs for your clients and save time while doing so, then you’ll want to sign up for this free lesson!