Understanding Functional Fitness

Have you heard the phrase, “Functional Fitness,” or “Functional Training,” but not sure exactly what it is? This week, Martin defines Functional Fitness and we look at the 3 Criteria Martin Uses to Design a Functional Training session.

There are so many terms that get treated as interchangeable in training and fitness circles, especially online and on social media. As all language is ever-evolving, so are fitness and wellness terms. Some have well-established definitions, accepted in the industry and some are more open to interpretation and context-specific use. We like discussions around terminology because one of our missions is to educate readers. We want you to be

    • empowered to clearly define your own goals and priorities,
    • equipped to communicate your priorities to your trainer, and/or
    • confident and precise when searching for inspiration online.

For example, when searching for vids on youtube or the gram, there is a LOT of stuff out there. So, it is good to have sufficient language and knowledge in hand to determine whether or not a specific video or personality is worth trusting and following.

Also, we always try to stay open to learning more about training, moving, and the things we love. Especially when we discuss emerging practices or ideas, we find that different parts of the world and different communities of practice can have very different understandings and uses for terms. We like to consider all the many voices in this sphere.

We want you to be empowered, equipped, and confident with sufficient language and knowledge to determine who is worth trusting and following.

What does Functional Training mean?

First the short, simple answer, and then we’ll dive deeper into each aspect of our 3-pronged definition of Functional Training and look at how Martin uses this approach to structure Functional Training sessions.

Vinn Diagram Functional Training

Train Capacity

Your body is smart. It knows how much load, or work, is being asked of it, and its current capability. When you ask very little of your body, it becomes capable of doing very little work. And, generally speaking, when you ask more of your body, it works and reorganizes to become more capable. Furthermore, your body works to become more capable in the direction and to the extent to which you are asking it to work. (That’s pretty abstract – we’ll get into a more concrete example below…bare with me.)

However, your body doesn’t know the reason behind the request. Your body only knows tension. So, you don’t exactly need to train your goal; you only need to train your body’s capacity toward that goal.

Now let’s get real: Let’s say that one of my great priorities in life is to carry all of my groceries from the car to the house in one go! (Don’t ask why – it doesn’t matter. Just know that it would make me feel like a very accomplished human.) I don’t need to carry groceries every day to train toward my goal, but I do need to train my body’s capacity toward my goal. So, I need to train something that builds my biceps’ ability to contract and my lower body’s ability to coordinate walking with carrying heavy loads. Specifically, I need to be able to sustain a contraction long enough to walk from my car to the house, and while carrying weight approximately equal to the weight of my typical grocery load.

What is functional for someone else, may not be functional for you.


Read this twice: What is right for someone else, might not be right for you. This is where professional trainers use their expertise. We all have a slightly different starting place. We all have baggage we bring into the training, like old injuries, cranky joints, muscular imbalances, hyper-mobilities, distinctive movement patterns, and idiosyncratic tendencies. We each have a unique pool of exercises that meet us where we are.

In our grocery bag example here, we might discuss the appropriateness of an exercise in terms of weight. Maybe my groceries weigh an average of 10 lbs per bag and I usually get 4 bags at a time. I need each arm to be able to lift 20 lbs and hold that 20 lbs for the five minutes it takes me to get from the car to the house. I also need my legs to be able to carry 40 extra lbs while walking the 20 feet from car to house.

Say, I am currently no where near able to lift and carry that much weight. Instead of diving right into a program that requires me to lift and carry 40 lbs for 20 feet every day, I might work in smaller increments. Or, I might work on the lifting aspect of the task one day, and the organization around walking with weight another day. Or maybe the lifting aspect of the task is no problem for me, but maintaining core stability while walking is harder. Then, I might lightly train the lifting aspect but focus more attention on building core stability and endurance while walking. Add to this equation an old knee injury or an obstacle, like a few stairs going up to my house, and it becomes even more important to train appropriately. The point is, what is the “right” way for me to train toward this goal might be very different than what is the “right” way for someone else.

Meaningful, Valuable, Fun

Only you can determine what fits into this pool of exercises. Obviously, fun is subjective. And what exercises, movements, and patterns you consider meaningful and valuable are quite personal.

Martin performing single leg squats with dumb bells

A bedrock of any fitness program, behavior change, or new habit formation, is that YOU need to see the value in it and believe it will create change for you.

You are more physically committed to an exercise that you find meaningful and valuable, ie. you put more into it. So, you get more out if it and you stay more motivated, which improves the sustainability of the program overall. Going back to my example, there could be a fabulous machine out there that could do wonders for building my bicep’s contraction capacity. But I don’t much like machines. So, while that particular exercise could be great for someone else’s program, it wouldn’t be meaningful, valuable, and fun for me. (I prefer dumb-bells.)

What does a Functional Training session look like?

Martin, after consulting with clients about their goals, their limitations, and their preferences, works to create Functional Training sessions using these criteria

Which exercises train the body’s capacity toward this goal?

Which exercises are appropriate for this individual?

Which exercises are meaningful, valuable, and fun for this individual?

Then, he makes adjustments for availability of equipment and time, works to avoid boredom and overuse, and creates a program that will be sustainable, motivating, and productive.

Back to me: there is a large pool of exercises that train a bicep’s ability to contract and another big pool of exercises that train coordination. Thankfully, there is a reasonably sized pool of exercises that are appropriate for my body. And there are lots of exercises that I enjoy doing (although, this pool is admittedly shrinking every year.) So, my trainer’s job, is to find the exercises that fit into all of these pools, or categories, and to set a program that will be Functional for me.

If you’ve also read Strength: Defined , then you know Martin’s magic trick for how to determine the amount of weight and number of reps to get the most out of your training.

Understanding Functional Fitness

If you are looking to create your own Functional Fitness program, start by asking yourself these three questions:

    • Which exercises train the body’s capacity toward my goal?
    • Which exercises are appropriate for my body?
    • Which exercises are meaningful, valuable, and fun for me?

Don’t skimp on the self-reflection – take time to consider what your goals really are. No matter how big or small, how serious or silly they seem, if you are working toward goals that will truly make you happier and healthier, then you will stay motivated.

And be honest with yourself about your starting place and your current limitations. Again, no matter where you start and how far away the goal feels, you can make huge strides when you stay consistent and realistic.

It may take some research to find the appropriate exercises and some trial and error to find the ones that are valuable and fun for you, but be persistent.

Look back to our article, Mobility: Defined, for our three components of Mobility and it you are wondering, What does a Mobility workout look like?, we recently published an article all about it. Find it in our catalogue at TrainMovePlay.com/blog.

If you are interested in having a routine or program designed specifically for you and your needs, contact us at TrainMovePlayPT@gmail.com and let’s chat.

Train Smart. Move Well. Play Hard, friends.

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