The Myth of Functional Training For Sport


A lot of fitness trainer’s today talk about a concept called functional strength or functional fitness. In fact as a trend you could place it up there with Zumba for group exercise and low carb dieting for nutrition. In a lot of centres you will find “functional” training for everything from sports performance to fat loss. Functional Training and a lot of the core themes are more related to rehabilitation and in effect were invented by physiotherapists as a transition from injury back to full fitness- most people though are not injured.

The definition of “what is actually functional” is misunderstood by the trainer and therefore gym participants are even further away from the benefits. The general explanation would sound something like this, “Functional training works your core to improve balance and has transfer to what you do every day.”

Firstly, is this type of training effective and secondly is it relevant to actually getting individuals the results that they want. You cannot just call an exercise functional because it mimics a certain action or challenges balance.

When you compare it to training for sport (and at Results FAST we have a number of high level junior swimmers and tennis players) the question I ask is does it make the individual better at their chosen ability? Now when you break it down and write a strength and conditioning programme for a swimmer then you don’t necessarily want to mimic their sport. Why is this though? Well a lot of the time the key is to balance against the overuse of certain muscles in their sport keeping them in balance avoiding overuse. Emphasizing flexibility, mobility or stability instead of strength in certain areas. Before I explain why the logic behind functional training is flawed, let me say that this is not a personal attack on any of the fitness instructors who currently teach this method, nor anyone who believes it to be a worthwhile form of training. It is rather an objective look at the approach, which hopefully will stimulate some thought provoking discussions.

If you are experienced enough to have tried to get results with a broad range of training styles then you will realise that squatting on a bosu board or functional Vipr circuits are not really transferring the ability to perform better and are a distraction away from enhancing performance, they may “feel” hard but what is the transfer to performance apart from the drill you are performing? This form of training does not emphasise muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or speed which are the fundamental facets of fitness. At best these methods are a vanilla form of training which will perhaps develop the abilities of inexperienced trainees but there is no transfer to enhanced performance.

When you do a needs analysis of any exercise ask if it is improving muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or speed in the right areas for the right person. Performing circus style balancing acts is a regression in training. Analyse the drill and then consider if the exercise is truly functional to your goals.

Published by ianmellis

Ian Mellis MSc. CSCS is the co-founder of Results FAST ( in Ware, Hertfordshire. Specialising in athletic development, physique improvement and injury rehabilitation he provides personal training, strength and conditioning and nutrition coaching for motivated exercisers and those looking to make a long term change to their health, fitness and performance.

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