functional training

An exercise physiologist’s guide to functional training

Have you heard of “functional training”? It’s all the rage right now, but what exactly is it and should you be doing it? We asked an exercise physiologist to break it down for us…

Step aside traditional 70’s-style gym-based programs and hello functional movement. You know those cages, green artificial grass, kettlebells, ropes, deadballs and therabands you see in a small section of your gym? That’s there for those ‘out-of-the-box’ people using a more functional approach to training.

What is functional training?

If you’re confused as to what function training is, you’re definitely not alone. Let’s break it down.

Functional: An activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing.
Movement: The act, process or result of moving.
Functional Movement: The ability to move the body with proper muscle and joint function for effortless, pain-free movement.

Based on that definition it seems like we should all be doing functional movement, right? So, why aren’t we?

Where did we go wrong?

As a society, many of us are lost and confused when it comes to exercise. And here’s why…

“The fitness industry loves to load dysfunctional patterns (which often leads to pain) and the rehab industry loves treating pain, which is the problem”. – The Foot Collective

We are humans. Three dimensional, multi-planar beings that thrive off versatility. We’re designed to move, crawl, roll, walk, run, throw, climb and jump. Take a look at to our ancestors… You can see that humans are meant to move functionally, not turn into couch potatoes binge-watching the latest series of Gogglebox.

So, I ask you this question… Given that our bodies are designed to move in many different ways based on our physical and environmental demands, why is a ‘standard’ gym program only training people in a linear position (mostly seated) using the anterior chain and not real-life movements?

The missing link? We need to first establish baseline movement quality and integrity. We can then further developed these movement patterns and train our bodies to lift weights efficiently and move more dynamically.

“The question shouldn’t be: How can I fix this? It should be: What am I doing to create this?” – Katy Bowman

How your body is supposed to move

Let’s explore myofascial meridians and muscle slings within the body. Lost? Stick with me.

Basically, our bodies are made up of connective tissue and muscles that communicate and work in unison to create seamless, functional movements.

It’s hard to segment our body to just one structure or joint, as we are a whole kinetic chain. Something that influences your big toe can cause a ripple effect that affects your opposite shoulder! You’re probably thinking “how?”, but it’s all because of your muscle slings and architecture.

Have you ever had a health professional tell you to roll out your feet to release those tight, stubborn hamstrings? Magic, right? It’s because our bodies don’t work in isolation. And if we train in that way, we dull the connection and co-ordination within our body and lose the ability to ‘function’ and flow rhythmically with movement. We need to move functionally so we then feel better, jump higher, run faster, stand taller and move without pain.

“You can’t run naturally with an unnatural body, if more of your waking hours are spent sitting than moving, your body is no longer natural.” – The Foot Collective

How to make your workouts more functional

There are a wide range of exercises you can try to add some functional training to your workouts. Below are just a few examples:

1. Hard Roll

This exercise increases your core engagement with hip extension in a diagonal pattern that improves your rotary stability movement.

  • Begin lying on your back, arms overhead, feet shoulder width apart.
  • In a diagonal pattern, flex one elbow to the opposite knee so that they are in contact over the abdominal area.
  • The other leg and arm should remain in a neutral position and in contact with the surface.
  • Without losing contact by keeping your elbow and knee touching, roll to one side and return to starting position.
  • Don’t forget to breathe and keep control.

Hard Roll


2. The Pallof Press

This one is another great core stabiliser. You can use a cable machine in the gym or a resistance band if you’re doing this exercise at home.

  • Play around with your foot orientation and start in either a kneeling, half kneeling or standing position. Make sure you’re ‘joint stacking’ and your body is positioned correctly.
  • Grasp your cable in both hands at chest level.
  • Engage your core, keeping your spine straight, and press the cable in front of your chest without moving, swaying or losing alignment.
  • Keep to a tempo of slow and controlled movement, hold for a few seconds with arms fully extended and return to starting position.

Palof Press


3. Lateral bounding

Get dynamic and fire up your glutes, quads and hamstrings in a different plane of motion.

  • Begin in a split stance position with majority of load on your front leg. Bring opposite arm to front leg up and your other extended back (like a running start position). Keep your trunk slightly bent forwards and hip and knee slightly bent.
  • Jump approximately 1 metre sideways onto the other leg.
  • Land gently on the ball of your foot.
  • Bend your hips and knees slightly as you land and do not let your knee buckle inwards. Maintain balance then jump back onto the other leg and repeat for 30 seconds.

Lateral Bounding


4. Turkish Get Ups

Getting up and down off the ground is hard enough already, try adding in a specific sequence and load to make it a complex movement.

This move takes you from lying on the floor to standing upright, all while holding a kettlebell above your head. If you’re a beginner, start with no weight or by balancing a shoe or foam block on your closed fist instead of a weight. You can progress to a kettlebell once you build confidence and strength.

  • Lie on your back in a starfish position with your legs straight out at a 45-degree angle and arms out at a 45-degree angle.
    Bend your right leg and place your right foot flat on the floor a few inches from your butt and outside your hip. Bring your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, making a fist with your right hand and keeping your knuckles pointing straight toward the ceiling.
  • Engage your core, push through your right heel and your left elbow to prop yourself up onto your left elbow.
  • Place your left palm on the floor, pushing into the floor and using your abs to pull your body into a seated position.
  • Next slide your left leg underneath you and toward your butt, placing your left knee and left ankle in a straight line with your left hand. Your left knee should be stacked directly underneath your left hip.
  •  Shift your weight back toward your left heel. Come to an open half-kneeling position.
  • Shift your legs into a half-kneeling (or a lunge) position by sweeping your left leg (down knee) behind you to the left, so that this knee is now pointing directly in front of you. You should now be looking straight ahead.
  • Think of getting nice and strong, engaging your core, and pushing your back foot into the floor to bring your feet together to a standing position. Congrats! You’re halfway there.
  • To get back down, you are now going to perform all the steps in reverse.

Turkish Getup

  • Keep your eyes glued to the hand that is holding the kettlebell (or shoe, bell, human, etc.) at all times when the other hand is touching the ground.
  • When your supporting hand is off the ground, look straight ahead.
  • Keep a neutral wrist throughout the movement.


Ready to get functional?

Join the movement revolution and jump on the functional training bandwagon! Experience how reproducing fundamental movement patterns and training with a practical mindset will help you reduce imbalances and weakness in your body and make you thrive. If you need help getting started, chat to your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist. They will be able to show you how to complete functional exercises correctly and safely.

To find an exercise physiologist near you, click here.

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Written by Deanna Niceski. Deanna is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Global Wellness Tracking.