Last Updated on August 4, 2021 by Milo Martinovich
Functional training is one of the most trendy types of exercise today. Made popular by CrossFit, OCR runners, and recreational athletes, it is the art of turning exercise into functional fitness. What confuses a lot of people is what functional fitness really is and how to implement functional training into their exercise regimen.
I was a personal trainer for 5 years and trained hundreds of clients at my private personal training studio at the time. We specialized in what amounts to functional fitness nowadays, but we didn’t label it back then. Since I left personal training to pursue my content creation career, I have continued to adapt my training styles to create the most balanced functional workout program possible.
While nothing is perfect and adjustments are always made when necessary, following a basic template to design a functional exercise program is easy enough. This ultimate guide to functional training will help you design a workout plan that will have you prepared for whatever life throws at you – which is the main goal of functional fitness in my book!
What Is Functional Training?
Many label CrossFit as the ultimate form of functional fitness. However, when I was a personal trainer I took on quite a few clients who left CrossFit gyms after numerous injuries from performing Olympic Lifts without proper coaching, flailing around on pull up bars for the sake of more reps, and plenty of other nonsensical training tactics for the average person just looking to be healthy and get fit for life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sport of CrossFit, but I wouldn’t put a client on a CrossFit training program just like I wouldn’t put them in a Strength & Conditioning plan designed for an NFL athlete.
OCR racing is another category that gets lumped in functional fitness. I like this comparison a bit more because it features a lot of variety like CrossFit without many of the injury risks. But, an OCR is hardly what daily life throws at you. We don’t typically run 3+ miles with random obstacles in our workday.
Instead, functional training is a way of training to maximize our performance in day-to-day life. Sometimes we have to lift heavy and odd-shaped objects (no Jerks or Snatches for the majority of us). We have to carry objects a lot. Recreational activities and hobbies require aerobic and strength endurance for the most part. Balance, agility, and mobility are vital to moving efficiently and avoiding silly injuries from coordination-caused accidents (tripping, slipping, etc).
Simply put: if the training applies to daily life, it’s functional. All forms of exercise are functional for the most part, but designing a functional fitness workout means picking the most efficient movements and training styles to avoid spending countless hours in the gym instead of enjoying the daily life we are trying to improve!
Components Of Functional Training
Functional training can be split into a few categories, each of which is a piece of the pie. I analogize functional fitness as a wheel and life as a road. The more balanced your functional fitness wheel is, the more smoothly you roll down the road. Little bumps and holes along the way won’t do as much damage to a perfectly balanced wheel as it would to an oblong wheel.
Make sure to improve performance in each category and you begin filling in each spoke of the wheel to ensure daily life is a smooth ride! Here are the “spokes” of my functional fitness wheel:
- Functional Strength Training – Calisthenics, Heavy Compound Training – Squat, Push, Pull
- Conditioning – Alactic Capacity & Aerobic Capacity
- Mobility & Flexibility – Yoga, Mobility Drills, Limited Static Stretching
- Agility & Balance – Unilateral Training & Agility Drills
- Power & Speed – Plyometrics & Sprinting
Don’t overdevelop one piece of the puzzle and sacrifice another. This leads to imbalances that could hinder the functionality of your physical fitness.
Keep in mind that this style of training won’t make you an Olympic sprinter, world champion Powerlifter, and earn you a medal in a Marathon. However, this is perfectly fine for the majority of us that aren’t professional athletes. Unless you make a good amount of money from your physical fitness, training is simply a hobby and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to specialize in one area, letting the others suffer (looking at you recreational powerlifters and distance runners).
Functional Strength Training
Strength training becomes functional when the skill built helps your daily life. All strength training is functional, but some forms are better than others. When looking at developing functional strength training programs, we have to develop both maximal strength and strength endurance.
Maximal strength is the maximum weight you can move over a short period, like a one-rep-max or pushing a car for a few feet. Strength endurance is being able to maintain strength over a longer period, like performing 50+ pushups or climbing a long rope.
For maximal strength development, the exercises that make the most sense are compound exercises that utilize external resistance, like dumbbells and barbells. Machines and bands aren’t very functional here, sorry. Getting the most bang for your buck, you can perform a Squat, Push, and Pull movement and call it a day. For example, Barbell Squats, Bench Press, and Barbell Rows are about as complete of a full-body maximal strength layout as you can get. You might miss out on some calf and hamstring training, but those are developed well when you are training for balance (more on this later).
I’m not going to sit here and list countless references for training intensity, volume, and frequency. Instead, I’m going to point you towards The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Training, which is the only book about strength and hypertrophy you’ll ever need. In it, you’ll find that you need 10-20 sets per week per movement pattern, with about 70% of your sets containing 6 sets or less and getting close to failure (not reaching failure), and each movement pattern trained at least twice a week for the best results. Adapt and adjust accordingly to your own needs.
The other 30% of the volume should be sets that terminate between 6-15 reps. These sets could be beneficial with failure to maximize hypertrophy, as long as safety is always the top priority. This is your strength-endurance training and I like to train this skill with Calisthenics. Pushups, Dips, Pull-Ups, Inverted Rows, Shrimp Squats, and Pistol Squats reign king here in a functional training program. Add a weight vest if 15 reps get too easy, which it inevitably will.
Two types of conditioning are important: alactic capacity and aerobic endurance. Alactic capacity is being able to perform intense movements for a short time and is great when trained with incomplete recovery periods. A good example is carrying your groceries from the car all in one trip! Aerobic endurance is the typical steady-state cardio you are used to – running a few miles, kayaking across the lake, hiking, etc.
Training alactic capacity is a great way to implement loaded conditioning intervals. Farmer’s Walk, Yoke Walk, Sled Drags, Sled Pushes, Sandbag Cleans, etc are great for this. Use a submaximal weight for a specified time/distance and perform intervals where your rest period doesn’t allow for a full recovery. This is similar to HIIT but the rest periods are typically a bit longer.
Aerobic endurance can be developed with structured workouts and recreational activities. A well-designed running program with varying distances is great and so is a weekly hike that takes 30+ minutes. Don’t overdo it with this skill because it will detract from the other factors of functional fitness with just a little too much volume and/or frequency.
Mobility, in my mind, is flexibility and stability through a dynamic range of motion. Flexibility is more of a measure of your range of motion. Both are trained differently.
Mobility drills are quick and efficient. They also make great warmups before most workouts. Dynamic movement is the key here, no static stretches. You can find countless mobility drills online, especially on Youtube. Athletes use them and so should you!
Flexibility can be trained with basic static stretching, but I find it boring and not very useful. Instead, I opt for Yoga to improve my flexibility. It also improves my balance and helps control my breathing. Combine it with meditation and you have yourself an effective biohack that is free (barring subscriptions to meditation/yoga programs).
Agility is overlooked by almost everyone. If you doubt me, put out an agility ladder and ask your family and friends to do their best performing even the most basic drills. Most of us are uncoordinated and clumsy, but agility training is a quick way to change that. Simple agility drills can be adopted during warmups, right after mobility drills. A little goes a long way and developing more agility will improve your day-to-day life than improving your Bench Press from 300 to 400 lbs ever would!
Balance is trained a bit during Yoga, as mentioned earlier. However, I also like to implement some unilateral strength training movements to add some functionality when training neglected muscles from our minimalist approach to functional strength training. Hamstrings and Calves are typically left out of the Squat, Push, Pull equation, so training them for strength while improving balance is a simple stack of functions to make your program more efficient.
My favorite movements are Single-Leg Suitcase Deadlifts (variations with dumbbells in both hands and just one hand) and Single Leg Calf Raises. You can superset these movements since they are in the same position and use the same equipment.
Besides what Yoga and the Hamstring/Calf superset offer, Pistol Squats and Shrimp Squats when training strength-endurance also develop balance. Lastly, you can perform what I like to call Couch Squats (my clients hated them haha). Despite the name, I like adjustable Plyometric Boxes for this movement. Sit down, cross your leg over so your opposite ankle rests on your knee, and put your hands behind your head, just like relaxing on the couch might look like, except you are sitting straight up. Then, stand up while holding the same position until fully upright and squat back down under full control to the starting position. It’s a Single Leg Box Squat that takes away the ability for your arms and a free leg to swing to help yourself stand up.
Power is developed through Plyometrics and speed is developed through Sprinting. These exercises are always performed at the beginning of workouts after a proper warmup!
My Plyometrics favorites include:
- Frog Jumps
- Tuck Jumps
- Long Jumps
- Medicine Ball Slams
- Medicine Ball Throws
Sprinting should be taken seriously since this is where most people will get injured if they aren’t careful. Warm up more than you think you need and start by performing only a couple of maximum effort sprints. Increase distances and repetitions as your body becomes accustomed to sprinting. Sprint training is too complex to address in this small paragraph, so I may write a future article for you to soak in.
How To Design Functional Fitness Workouts
You see how functional training can convolute simple program design. You have to account for a lot of factors and make sure none of them impede the development of others. There is an order of operations that comes into play when designing each workout. This is the order that each skill should be trained:
- Mobility Warmup
- Agility/Balance Training
- Power/Speed Training
- Functional Strength Training
- Alactic Capacity Training
- Aerobic Endurance
This list does not mean every fitness skill should be trained in every session. Instead, it is a simple layout where you follow this order when you have multiple functional fitness modalities in a single workout. For example, say you have a power and alactic capacity workout to perform. You would perform your mobility warmup, move onto power work, and finish off with alactic capacity training.
Concurrent Periodization Vs Block Periodization
Now that you know how to design the order of your functional workouts, you need to worry about the program as a whole. One perfect workout design means nothing without the proper periodization of the entire macrocycle.
You have two options in my book: concurrent periodization or block periodization. Concurrent periodization is working to develop all skills at once. This doesn’t mean each session, however. It means each mesocycle (a week is the typical mesocycle length for hobbyists). Block periodization is having 1-2 specific skills to develop during a mesocycle while others take a backseat (and sometimes suffer).
For functional fitness to be truly functional, you should be all-around fit all the time. That means concurrent periodization is the goal. However, I recommend block periodization for small periods if a specific skill needs more work heading into an event. For example, if you signed up for a 10k but your normal concurrent training only has you running 2 miles per session, you may want to dedicate a few blocks to extra aerobic endurance preparation for that upcoming 10k. After the event, simply fall back into concurrent periodization.
A Note On Concurrent Periodization
Concurrent periodization is great for functional training when you adopt daily undulating periodization (DUP) and encouraging the consolidation of stressors through each mesocycle in training (read about consolidation of stressors at Juggernaut Training Systems). While that article from JTS discusses the move from high volume/frequency to high intensity over a program’s length, we are going to take that same idea and apply it in one mesocycle.
Each functional training modality is either a High, Medium, or Low stressor. To keep things simple, all High stressors are trained together, all Medium trained together, and all Low trained together. This way you only have a couple of days a week at high intensity instead of spreading it and performing some form of high-intensity exercise each day.
So, as an example, we’ll design a training program where we train 6 days a week (don’t cry, you should be exercising every day!). Here is the schedule:
- Monday (High Stressor) – Power/Speed, Strength
- Tuesday (Medium Stressor) – Agility, Balance, Alactic Capacity
- Wednesday (Low Stressor) – Aerobic Endurance, Flexibility
- Thursday (High) – Power/Speed, Strength
- Friday (Medium) – Agility, Balance, Alactic Capacity
- Saturday (Low) – Aerobic Endurance, Flexibility
- Sunday – Rest or Aerobic Endurance, Flexibility
*Mobility is always trained in the warmups, so it’s performed virtually daily.
If you wanted to train each skill 3 times a week you could move Balance and Alactic Capacity to High Stressors and Agility to Low Stressors. This setup wouldn’t automatically mean more results, especially if the volume is equated. It may, however, be too much frequency for those susceptible to overtraining with the High Stressors.
Incorporating Functional Exercise Into Microworkouts
Everyone knows I’m a fan of microworkouts. You can turn any of the Medium and Low Stressors into microworkouts to be performed throughout the day instead of lumped into one large session. Mobility, Flexibility, Alactic Capacity, Agility, Balance, Power, & Speed are all great fits into microworkouts that last less than 15 minutes. Simply follow the previously discussed order of operations when planning your microworkouts for the day. For example, power microworkouts should come earlier in the day than flexibility microworkouts.
Strength isn’t a great candidate for microworkouts unless you plan on performing multiple microworkouts dedicated to strength. If you do this, each microworkout should be dedicated to one exercise so you can complete the required volume in less than 15 minutes. To complete the typical Strength workout requirements in microworkouts alone, you need a Squat, Push, and Pull microworkout for both maximal strength and strength endurance. That’d be 6 microworkouts in a day, which is doable but only advised if you know you can complete those 6 in addition to the others you should be completing in the same day.
Aerobic endurance isn’t a good candidate for microworkouts, other than a 1-2 mile run. While this may be completed in less than 15 minutes, you need more volume to truly develop your aerobic endurance.
Functional Workout Progressions
Each functional training modality needs to be progressed individually to experience total fitness. Here are simple rules to follow for each skill:
- Maximal Strength – increase intensity (weight) or volume (sets/week) when you can complete 6 reps across all weekly sets with the current weight.
- Strength Endurance – add a weighted vest when you can complete 15 reps on each weekly set on a given Calisthenics exercise.
- Power/Speed – Increase volume over time, up to 10 jumps/throws/sprints per workout. More is not better. Once you reach this stage, you are working to maintain volume while increasing power and speed output slowly over time. It’s self-progressed at this point.
- Conditioning – The HHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both. Simple enough to plug that into our program. Split up that volume between your aerobic endurance and alactic capacity work. For example, you could aim for 100 minutes of aerobic endurance and 25 minutes of alactic capacity training per week to hit your benchmarks. Once you hit the volume landmarks you can work on increasing your distance covered during aerobic endurance work and the number of intervals or weight used during alactic capacity work.
- Agility/Balance – Stay controlled and go as fast as possible through agility drills and stay as steady as possible through balance drills while perhaps increasing weights used. You can also add pauses, pulses, change the rep speeds, etc for balance training.
- Mobility/Flexibility – Increase your range of motion naturally. Self-progressed.
Performance Goals For Functional Training
It’s you versus you, so shoot for whatever goals you want! Sign up for events, like OCRs to test your fitness levels. Maybe try your hand at Powerlifting, CrossFit, or Strongman. Use your newfound fitness to try new active hobbies: recreational sports, hiking, paddle boarding, snow sports, etc.
Just keep a detailed training log and celebrate small wins each time you hit a PR! No need to flex for the ‘gram unless you want to.
Aesthetic Goals For Functional Training
Training all of these functional fitness modalities will provide the stimulus for increased muscle hypertrophy and improve calories burned each day, which can aid fat loss efforts (although the diet is about 90% of fat loss results). It can also improve your posture, which is aesthetically pleasing the last time I checked.
This way of training probably won’t turn you into the next Olympia bodybuilder or get you photoshoots on your favorite fitness magazine. However, you can definitely achieve a lean and muscular physique when combining functional fitness with the proper nutrition program!
Functional Fitness At Home
Training functionally means training in a lot of different ways. While commercial gyms are an option, I firmly believe that a home gym can be equipped better without the need to wait for equipment or drive day after day just to exercise. Being the minimalist that I am, I can give you a simple layout of what you’d need for a functional training gym at home.
- Squat Rack w/ Pull-Up & Dip Bars
- Weight Plates
- Weight Vest
- Agility Ladder
- Slam Ball(s)
That setup would allow you to train each training modality effectively and efficiently. Of course, I’d like to add fun implements to train alactic capacity, like a weight sled, sandbags, yoke, farmer’s walk handles, climbing rope, kettlebells, etc but they aren’t necessary.
The Best Functional Exercises
People get drawn into this clickbait-y idea all the time looking for the best exercises, best supplement to lose weight, best diet to achieve perfect health, etc. The reality is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to these types of inquiries. The best functional exercises will be those that do the most good for you. For example, running is a great exercise to develop aerobic endurance, but if you want to get better at long-distance bike rides, trading time on the bike for a run isn’t the best idea.
Know what you like to do in your free time and you’ll find what exercises are the most functional for you! Compound (multi-joint) exercises that emulate day-to-day movements are the best functional exercises.
Start Functional Training Today!
Functional training isn’t rocket science. While this ultimate guide to functional training at home may be a lot to digest at once, come back and read it whenever you need a refresher. You’ll find that over time this information is simple to remember and implement. Functional training shouldn’t be complicated, it should be functional!
Have fun out there and let me know how your functional workouts are going with a comment below. I’ll respond ASAP 🙂