There are no functional exercises!

By Hans Lindgren, June 17, 2011

Functional training

So called functional training is getting more and more popular. People are leaving traditional gym training to participate in cross-fit, boot-camp and kettle-bell type of training. Don’t get me wrong - I am definitively not criticizing functional training. On the contrary, I think it can be very effective for the right people. What I am aiming at is the fact that it is not the exercise that makes the training functional, it is the person performing the exercise that determines if it is functional or not. A functional movement pattern requires good joint movement as well as proper stabilization. The more joint movements that are involved in each exercise the more things can go wrong. In a compound exercise where only one joint might be unable to perform its duties,it will wreck the whole exercise.

Functional training must start with creation of functional movement patterns.

Performing exercises with a non-functional pattern is not going to improve the pattern, it is only going to make it worse and more fixed in the nervous system. The insufficiency of stabilization is not only due to lack of strength it is first of all an activation problem. If the person does not know how to activate the stabilization system properly there is no point performing the exercise.

Olympic lifting is another feature that has made its way into the normal fitness population and athletic world. Olympic lifts should be practiced without any resistance until a perfect movement pattern has been achieved. We have to remember that all these functional training methods as well as Olympic lifting and so called strong-man training are very advanced forms of training that require a lot of specific technique coaching. I personally know weight-lifters who started their lifting careers as young athletes lifting only broom-sticks until their form of execution was perfect.

I think it is time to stop for a second and think about what is going on in the world of strength training. How can a person that struggles to perform a deep functional squat without any extra loading be able to benefit from holding a kettle-bell in one arm above the head?  Or a person that cannot do a push-up with good stabilization then training with the hand support on a Medi-ball?

The whole functional training concept has gone too far. Most people would benefit from breaking the exercises down into smaller trainable segments and practicing these smaller movements without any form of resistance until good functional patterns have been achieved. Once all small segments have been perfected, they can be re-assembled into a good functional exercise.

Functional screening and Testing

Movement patterns should be screened and dysfunctions corrected before attempting any form of functional training. There are a number of different assessment and screening systems for functional movement patterns available. One example is the DNS program (1) which offers methods to test, activate, and train the body’s stabilization systems using reflex-stimulation and/or specific exercises.  DNS utilizes Developmental Kinesiology as a norm for ideal stabilization, where the development of the stabilization patterns of a healthy baby during the first year of life offers a template to compare the examined subject’s patterns to.

The basics of Functionality

 A Functional movement pattern consists of: Stabilization, Joint Centration, full range of movement, and sufficient core stabilization (diaphragm activity to create Intra-Abdominal Pressure).


Before any movement can occur there has to be proper stabilization. Even the most trivial of movements demand proper stabilization to occur not only around the joints involved, but also in all joints involved in the global support function. Without stabilization there can be no strength, and the quality of the stabilization dictates how much loading the joint can be exposed to. Once the ability to stabilize properly is exceeded, the functional pattern is lost.

Joint centration

The functional testing and screening should also include an evaluation of good joint centration. Joint centration is the position of a joint where there is maximum contact between the joint surfaces. When joint centration is achieved the surrounding muscles are balanced in their activity. Proper joint centration ensures for increased loading capacity of the joint.  Any joints not properly centrated and stabilized will buckle when loading is applied, and are therefore very susceptible to overloading injuries.  There is rarely loading of one joint only, and in the chain of loaded joints it will always be the weakest link that will let the team down.

Range of movement

Apart from insufficient stabilization and joint centration, the lack of full range of movement in joints will negatively affect a person’s ability to train functionally.  Ankles, hips, and parts of the spine are some very common areas where joint stiffness occurs that will hamper the person’s mobility. Studies have shown that people with back problems tend to load their spines more than non-sufferers (2). In power-lifting it was also noted that the lifters closer to the world-records loaded their spines less than the lifters who actually lifted less weights(2).  Limited hip movement is a very common cause of increased spine loading. Stabilizing the spine with the core and performing more of the movement in the hip-joints is a good spine-saving method that should be practiced.

Testing of Diaphragm Function and Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP)

The first tests performed should always evaluate an individual’s breathing pattern as well as their ability to develop sufficient Intra-Abdominal Pressure. Synchronized activity of the diaphragm’s respiratory and postural functions is essential for real core-stabilization. Lack of proper stabilization of the inner-centre of the core will ultimately affect the stabilization of the rest of the body and render testing of other body-segments fairly unreliable. The core gives the anchoring support necessary for functional movements of the extremities. Once the core has been activated from the inside out all other stabilization programs of the body will improve.

Before functional training

People who are attempting to participate in functional training should first invest some time into making themselves more functional. Good movement patterns should be developed to replace dysfunctional ones. Completely ideal patterns often cannot be achieved, but a vastly improved function is still going to make a huge difference in the individual’s chances to participate in functional training without getting injured. It is important that participants in functional training programs take on the responsibility for themselves of becoming more functional.

"Functional training is not going to make you more functional, you have to be functional to perform functional training!"


Functional life

Functional patterns should also be integrated into everything we do. Training good patterns for an hour a couple of times a week is not going to make any difference if the rest of the time is spent in non-functional patterns. Life can indeed be used as a good training ground for better movement patterns, and Health Professionals such as Chiropractors, Physiotherapists and Trainers, can only help you to fix yourself.

Once we start to pay more attention to how we walk, sit, bend and move in general, things can really start to change for the better. Wishing you a functional life!



2-      McGill S, Ultimate back fitness and performance- p14