Functional Training: Myth vs. Reality

Much attention has been given to the concept of functional strength training over the last several years. It seems however that while many personal trainers market themselves as functional training experts they may often miss the point when it comes to actually applying the concepts effectively.

By definition “functional training” is training with a purpose. In other words it should have a positive effect on the activity or sport one is participating in. Functional strength training takes a multi-faceted and integrated approach to improving the strength and overall conditioning of those using it.

Originally this functional approach was exclusive to the rehabilitation and sports medicine fields. Sports rehabilitation, performed by Certified Athletic Trainers and Physical Therapists, by nature had to not only return the athlete to everyday living but also had to return him or her to the rigors of competitive sports.

Work Hardening is a “modern” approach to rehabilitation sometimes used by Physical Therapists. This is a type of “sport specific” conditioning for everyday life, which teaches the patient to lift boxes, turn wrenches, carry beams, push wheel barrels and anything else that is applicable to their work environment. This is true functional strength training.

Functional training must integrate all aspects of human movement. To get a better understanding of the approach needed one must first become a student of human movement. Observing children at play, adults at work, and athletes in competition is a good place to start. Since life, like sport, is basically a chaotic, unpredictable event, one’s training should reflect this reality to some extent.

As a general rule most functional training advocates de-emphasize weight machines and most single joint movements. The truth is, however, that almost any exercise can be functional for someone at a specific time in his or her life or training cycle.

Often times if one is in the early stages of rehabilitation, or a very new and perhaps a somewhat uncoordinated exerciser, then a “selectorized” machine or a simple exercise movement may be functional. The use of machines in general, goes against the functional training philosophy for many reasons.

Today the functional training movement tends to emphasize wobble boards, dumbbells, medicine balls, stability balls, bands and bodyweight exercises. The important thing is to first understand the needs and abilities of the individual client/athlete before implementing any of these techniques and strategies.

Companies sell “functional training equipment” as a way for strength coaches, personal trainers and athletes to enhance performance and add variety to a training program. The use of much of this equipment, especially unstable equipment such as stability balls, wobble boards, foam rollers and stability discs, has lead many people to believe that the minute someone uses one of these pieces the exercise is “functional”.

Remember that just because an exercise is challenging it does not mean that it is necessarily functional. Unstable equipment is only one modality that should be used sparingly at best. Originally this type of equipment was used in the rehabilitation setting to enhance static balance, proprioception, joint stability and core strength with much success.

Some research does exist that shows increased muscular recruitment at the core for certain exercises and at the ankle joint during an ankle rehabilitation protocol.

Unstable Surfaces and Performance

The question and the controversy are whether or not training on unstable surfaces, i.e. wobble boards etc. really do improve performance in sport. A recent article in the NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning seemed to de-emphasize the importance and effectiveness of this type of training. The fact is that at this time there is no clinical evidence that training on unstable surfaces actually improves sport performance.

The important concept to understand is that almost everything boils down to “Specificity”. If an athlete practices throwing a medicine ball on a foam roller he, or she, will ultimately become very good at throwing a ball on a foam roller. According to the article the transfer effect to throwing a ball with power and accuracy on the playing field may simply not exist.

This is because when we learn a new skill we do so slowly and as we practice we are able to do it faster and more efficiently. What results is a specific neuromuscular pattern the author refers to as an engram.

When we introduce a new variable like a wobble board two things happen. First, time that could be spent on the needed skill is not used and secondly we may wind up confusing the original neuromuscular movement pattern. The result can actually be a decrease in performance.

Strength gains may also be reduced on an unstable surface. If one wants to get stronger he or she must load the muscle with the right amount of resistance to recruit enough muscle fibers. When we strength train on unstable surfaces we use less weight which decreases the muscular force output, and reduces the overload and specific fiber recruitment necessary to make the appropriate strength gains.

If the athlete wants to get big then use unstable training surfaces sparingly. Time may be better spent lifting heavier weight and performing multiple sets.

In addition muscular adaptations are also specific to the resistance and the velocity used. Unstable surfaces usually require the exerciser to use less weight and move at a slower pace to have a real transfer effect on sport performance. The effect on core stabilization is also in question especially for athletes and athletic individuals.

While performing exercises on this type of surface may be difficult at first eventually the exercise may become to easy which will lead to accommodation. Prolonged accommodation can actually produce a detraining effect.

In addition it is difficult to progressively load an exercise performed on an unstable surface. At some point a heavy load may become unsafe. Performing a heavy shoulder press while standing on a stability ball may be a difficult task to master but has little transfer to most activities and can be highly dangerous.

With all that has been said against unstable training surfaces it is important to remember that everything has a time and a place in a training cycle. Balance and stability training are often neglected but essential elements in an athlete’s training program.

The art is to recognize when it is appropriate and necessary. Don’t be afraid to use unstable training equipment as another modality in your expanding toolbox. Remember that new research is always being conducted.

Next month researchers may conclude that training on unstable surfaces is without a doubt the most effective way to improve sports performance. Ultimately it comes down to you and I keeping current with the research, learning from other strength coaches and most importantly, learning from our own experiences, both successes and failures.

Other types of equipment can be very helpful as well. Medicine balls, various rubber bands, kettle bells, Indian clubs, dumbbells, sandbags, weight vests and other unconventional pieces of equipment have all resulted in some improvements in muscular strength and power. Ultimately a real understanding of program design and exercise science coupled with a knowledge of the client’s/athlete’s needs, abilities, and psychology will have the greatest “functional” effect on overall performance.

A Word About “Functional Strength Training” Exercise Modalities

Free Weight Barbell exercises on stable surfaces have been shown to provide the greatest overall functional effects. These exercises recruit many muscle groups including the core stabilizers. They also require intra and inter muscular coordination to perform.

While they may not be as exotic as standing on a stability ball while juggling some bowling balls these exercises do work. Keep it simple and you will get results. If you want more stability training try some traditional exercises standing on one foot or lift the bar with one arm.





Dumbbells also provide a great training effect because they require great coordination and can be performed with single arm and alternating arm action as well as at various speeds. Any exercise with a barbell can be performed with a dumbbell.

Chest press




Bands offer a lot of movement variety and can be taken anywhere. In addition they can be used standing, single limbed, with alternating limbs, and at varying speeds. This will increase the stress on the core and increase the functional transfer to other movements.

Chest press variations

Row variations

Squat and lunge variations

Rotational movements

Bodyweight Exercises-I consider bodyweight training to be the grand daddy of all functional strength training. If you can’t control your own body how functional can your strength truly be? The progression options are relatively broad. For example, try progressing from a regular knee bend to a lunge to a single leg squat. In addition the push-up variations are many and equally as challenging.

Squats-single leg and two leg versions


Forward reaches



I hope this article shed some light on a very popular yet sometimes controversial topic. If you are interested in training athletes but may not be sure exactly where to start I invite you to apply this information to your existing repertoire and see where it takes you. Adding functional strength training to your conditioning program will yield tremendous results.

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