Functional training is a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.
Functional training has its origins in rehabilitation. Physical therapists often use this approach to retrain patients with movement disorders. Interventions are designed to incorporate task and context specific practice in areas meaningful to each patient, with an overall goal of functional independence. For example, exercises that mimic what patients did at home or work may be included in treatment in order to help them return to their lives or jobs after an injury or surgery. Thus if a patient's job required repeatedly heavy lifting, rehabilitation would be targeted towards heavy lifting, if the patient were a parent of young children, it would be targeted towards moderate lifting and endurance, and if the patient were a marathon runner, training would be targeted towards re-building endurance. However, treatments are designed after careful consideration of the patient’s condition, what he or she would like to achieve, and ensuring goals of treatment are realistic and achievable.
Functional training attempts to adapt or develop exercises which allow individuals to perform the activities of daily life more easily and without injuries.
In the context of body building, functional training involves mainly weight bearing activities targeted at core muscles of the abdomen and lower back. Most fitness facilities have a variety of weight training machines which target and isolate specific muscles. As a result the movements do not necessarily bear any relationship to the movements people make in their regular activities or sports.
In rehabilitation, training does not necessarily have to involve weight bearing activities, but can target any task or a combination of tasks that a patient is having difficulty with. Balance (ability) training, for example, is often incorporated into a patient’s treatment plan if it has been impaired after injury or disease.
Functional training for sports
Functional training may lead to better muscular balance and joint stability, possibly decreasing the number of injuries sustained in an individual's performance in a sport. The benefits may arise from the use of training that emphasizes the body's natural ability to move in six degrees of freedom. In comparison, though machines appears to be safer to use, they restrict movements to a single plane of motion, which is an unnatural form of movement for the body and may potentially lead to faulty movement patterns or injury. In 2009 Spennewyn conducted research, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research which compared functional training to fixed variable training techniques, this was considered the first research of its type comparing the two methods of strength training.
Results of the study showed very substantial gains and benefits in the functional training group over fixed training equipment. Functional users had a 58% greater increase in strength over the fixed-form group. Their improvements in balance were 196% higher over fixed and reported an overall decrease in joint pain by 30%.
In addition, a recent study of the effectiveness of sandbag training on athletic conditioning, found that training with a variable load has significant cardiovascular benefits over conventional methods. The study compared subjects doing exercise with a sandbag, a kettlebell and battle ropes for 5:44 seconds each. The study concluded that sandbag training burned 24% more calories over the other methods.
Many athletes equate strength training with bodybuilding; accordingly, individuals involved in endurance or flexibility-based sports do not strength train for fear of gaining too much bulk and losing flexibility, or mimic the training of bodybuilders without adapting workouts to their specific sports. As a result, training can lack the performance benefits that proper functional training could provide.
Standard resistance training machines are of limited use for functional training – their fixed patterns rarely mimic natural movements, and they focus the effort on a single muscle group, rather than engaging the stabilizers and peripheral muscles.
Some options include:
Physioballs (also called Swiss balls or exercise balls)
Rocker and wobble boards
Whole Body Vibration equipment (also called WBV or Acceleration Training)
In rehabilitation however, equipment is mainly chosen by its relevance to the patient. In many cases equipment needs are minimal and include things that are familiar and useful to the patient.
Functional training rehabilitation in patients after stroke
Rehabilitation after stroke has evolved over the past 15 years from conventional treatment techniques to task specific training techniques which involve training of basic functions, skills and endurance (muscular and cardiovascular). Functional training has been well supported in evidenced based research for rehabilitation of this population. It has been shown that task specific training yields long-lasting cortical reorganization which is specific to the areas of the brain being used with each task. Studies have also shown that patients make larger gains in functional tasks used in their rehabilitation and since they are more likely to continue practicing these tasks in everyday living, better results during follow-up are obtained.