“Functional” “Training”

by Mark Rippetoe | February 08, 2023

lifter playing games with functional nonsense

It's become the dominant fad in Strength and Conditioning. Sports coaches love it because it looks “sporty” to them. Strength and conditioning coaches love it because it's easy to coach (far easier than learning how to correctly coach a squat), and because it looks “sporty” to their bosses, the Head Sports Coaches. The Fans love it because it looks “sporty” and – very important to this discussion – accessible to anybody who can walk and chew gum; they like to think they can participate, they can do it too, and fans pay the bills. “Functional training” therefore has broad support across the wide world of sports, despite the fact that it is not functional, nor is it training, and it has no relationship with strength and conditioning.

Books on “functional training” all have one thing in common: they offer no way to quantify improvements in strength, or anything else. There are long lists of pictures and brief descriptions of interesting-looking sporty exercises that remind you of agility drills, ladders, one-legged balance exercises, and roadside sobriety tests. There are no heavy weights, and no way to program improvement – just do the same thing tomorrow.


First, definitions: “Strength” is defined as the ability to produce force against an external resistance. And “Skill” is the ability to execute movement patterns with accuracy and precision. There is no disagreement about this. However, the term “functional” simply means “having or serving a utilitarian purpose” or “capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.” The exercise people took it in a different direction: “Functional training” refers to “exercising in a way that helps you better perform the physical tasks encountered in everyday life.” At least that's what the internet thinks. Coaches that specialize in “functional training” have many different definitions of the activity, from generalizations such as “derived from functional anatomy” to “challenging movements performed on unstable surfaces to recruit and strengthen the stabilizer muscles and therefore prevent injuries.”

Anything functional for a sport's performance is acquired during practice of that sport. Sport coaches provide input for performance improvement if they know how to communicate effectively, and if they can correctly analyze their athletes' problems and provide solutions for them. This ability is the foundation of coaching, and is derived from the coaches personal experience with the sport. Elite athletes are almost universally bad coaches, because elite athletes have very few problems becoming elite, and don't know how to solve problems they never encountered.

From my article The Two-Factor Model of Sports Performance: “Practice is the repetitive execution of movements that depend on accuracy and precision under the conditions in which they will be displayed during the performance.” Dancing on unstable surfaces with 15-pound dumbbells in the weight room in lieu of adding weight to the barbell is not “functional” – it's not practice unless your sport is Dumbbell Dancing; it's just easier for everybody. Head coaches should not permit their S&C staff the option of wasting their players' valuable time in this way.


From the same article: “Training is the process of accumulating the specific physiological adaptations necessary for improved performance in an athletic event. These adaptations depend entirely upon the physical nature of the performance in question. They may be 1.) metabolic, involving changes to the chemistry in operation within existing tissue, as in endurance-based sports, or 2.) structural, involving the growth of new contractile/connective tissue and bone densification, as in sports involving explosive maximal effort, or 3.) a combination of the two.”

In short, training produces strength, and practice produces skill.

These definitions explain a lot of things very nicely. Since strength is the ability to apply force against an external resistance, strength training – properly performed with full range of motion barbell exercises – uses fundamental human movement patterns loaded with a barbell that incrementally increases in weight. This results in the accumulation of strength over time. If your deadlift goes up from 225 to 405, you have gotten stronger. If your squat and press double – which they can do in 6 months – the entire kinetic chain that contributes to the squat and press has doubled in strength.

And for purposes of this discussion, it's important to observe that in a heavy squat, press, and deadlift there are no relaxed muscles – everything is in contraction, especially the “stabilizer muscles,” since stability is obviously important when standing with a very heavy weight. Strengthening the “stabilizer muscles” of the “core” are a huge concern in “functional training,” because “stabilizer muscles prevent injuries.” The fact that you have not fallen down with your 495 deadlift means that you were stable, and that the muscles that contribute to stability have strengthened as your deadlift went from 225 to 405 to 495. This basic observation seems to have eluded “functional training” coaches: it is not necessary to “target” the stabilizer muscles, since a PR set of squats, presses, and deadlifts calls them all into contraction anyway, and not in isolation with a little dumbbell, but in the context of the entire kinetic chain involved in the movement pattern. As the lifts go up, everything gets stronger, because it has to.

Everyone who has personally gone through the process of getting stronger knows this to be true. Those coaches who only have an academic relationship with strength may not understand this, but stronger is always more stable, and always facilitates performing to the limits of individual athletic talent. If the strength program only produces sporty-looking displays of the already-present athletic talent that the recruiter puts in the locker room, and fails to quantifiably increase strength, then it is not a strength program. If your program does not have all your athletes at what is essentially unexceptional baseline strength – a double-bodyweight deadlift for the men and 1.75x-bodyweight deadlift for the women, and proportionate squats and presses – for juniors and seniors, and college freshmen, you're not running a strength program. If nobody gets stronger because of the program, you don't have a strength program.

Talented kids with good genetics will get stronger accidentally, as a side-effect of going from 18 to 22 while working hard and eating enough. This is still not a strength program, any more than Pilates is a strength program for middle-age women. Most Division 1 university programs function this way. Bad coaches have hidden behind great athletes for a very long time, but calling your silly balance games “functional training” does make wasting athletic potential okay. Any Strength Coach that cannot double an athlete's barbell exercises in 6 months, or doesn't understand the value of doing so, is not a Strength Coach.

“Functional training” is not concerned with forcing an adaptation that is not already present, but rather with demonstrating the ability to execute unilateral movement patterns with light weights which do not and cannot increase strength, but which still look very “sporty.” When force production is not the limiting factor, strength is not the adaptation. And when the movement patterns are not those of the athlete's sport, skill for the performance is not improved.

In reality, “functional training” – as it is commonly understood in the fitness industry – is just Physical Therapy in the gym. And “functional training” coaches will tell you this, because they adore Physical Therapy. I do not.

If “functional training” stayed in the PT clinic, I'd have no problem with it: if you want to waste time and money on Physical Therapy, go ahead. But when it replaces actual strength training in the school weight room and interferes with practice on the field, it costs athletes their potential for improved performance. Strength – the ability to produce force – is the basis of athletic performance, and practice is the basis of skill improvement. The side effects of strength improvement and practice are all the things “functional training” purports to produce, and is incapable of producing.

I realize that this will not be well-received by the “functional training” community. But the truth is that “functional training” is neither functional, nor is it training. Instead of being mad at me, stop wasting everybody's time and potential and learn to coach the barbell lifts, so you can do your job better.

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