‘Functional training’ is a term that throws even the most seasoned fitness pros (… you rang?). Otherwise known as functional strength training, it’s a buzzphrase that’s dallied around in gym circles or class descriptions without most people being 100% clear what it actually means. Surely all training is functional? Kind of, but it’s the real-life functionality we’re talking about that’s often left out of workout routines, increasing risk of injury.
What is functional training?
‘Functional training is a form of exercise that conditions our body through strength, agility and stability movements,’ Emily explains.
It uses bodyweight or free weights, rather than machines, as functional exercises involve using multiple joints and moving in multiple planes — meaning forwards and backwards, from side to side and rotationally.
‘A compound exercise, like a squat, is a typical example of a functional movement. It uses a variety of muscles and joints in the knees, hips and legs, as well as having the benefit of strengthening your tendons, bones and ligaments around the leg muscle,’ she says.
So, compound exercises, which train multiple muscle groups at the same time = good for helping your body function as a whole, not just in the gym but for daily movements.
‘Isolation exercises, on the other hand, focus on a specific muscle group, with little input from other muscles. For example, a bicep curl only uses the biceps to lift the weight and just the elbow joint for movement. Though this is good way to gain muscle mass, it doesn’t translate into benefiting us on a holistic all round level,’ Emily tells us.
So, isolation exercises = less effective at training your body for real-life activities and range of motion. Which makes sense, right? Think of something heavy you’d pick up in the same way you do a bicep curl. We’ll wait.
What are functional training benefits?
Rather than focusing on maximum #gains and bulking, Emily says you’ll reap the following rewards:
- Build mobility
- Build power
- Build speed
- Strengthen muscles
‘In the real world we have no machines to support our body, so working on our balance while coordinating the body through these movements is hugely beneficial to day to day life, reducing our risk of injury as a great benefit,’ Emily explains.
Mobility, power, speed, strength, balance AND coordination — where do we sign up? (Scroll down if you’re already sold and you want to find functional fitness gyms or classes.)
Should everyone do functional training?
‘Absolutely everyone should be doing some form of functional training and it’s suited for all ages and abilities, which is part of its beauty. Any movement can be altered for ability level via tempo, reps or added resistance,’ Emily says.
‘It would be particularly good for anyone sat working at a desk for prolonged hours of the day as most functional training works muscles that keeps posture strong. It also improves mobility through the hips and shoulders, which are the typical areas of discomfort for those sat at desks.’
Not just for WFH-ers, from a strength training perspective, it’s far more efficient as it trains the muscles to work together — which is more a reflection of what happens IRL.
It’s also useful for older adults as, by mimicking everyday movements, it addresses uneven muscle balance and asymmetries that are more likely to lead to injury.
What does a typical functional training workout consist of?
‘A typical functional training session will vary depending on the goal, but typically it’s a mixture of exercise that will improve your cardiovascular system as well as your strength,’ Emily tells us. These can include:
- Plyometric exercises like jump squats and burpees
- Unilateral movements like lunges or single leg deadlifts
- Compound exercises like deadlifts, shoulder presses and squats
A key advantage of functional training is that you don’t need any equipment to have a good, effective workout.
Here are functional training exercises you can do at home or in the gym, recommended by Emily:
Best functional training exercises
Why? ‘This works our body unilaterally which is great for fixing any imbalances in the body.’
Why? ‘These are great for our upper body strength, as well as core stability and a great exercise for scaling up or down depending on ability.’
Squats With Overhead Reach
Why? ‘These are mainly targeting our quads, glutes and hamstrings. They are a great exercise for building strength.’
Why? ‘With this exercise you are strengthening your core, arms, shoulders and legs; it improves your posture and stability, and overall strength.’
Try our four-week functional fitness plan from PT, author and director of The Foundry, Laura Hoggins.
Where? St Pauls, LG One New Change, London, EC4M
Why? WIT’s Metcon classes are its take on CrossFit. Each sesh starts with a ‘daily skill’, such as a Turkish get-up, topped off with a WOD (workout of the day), and you have our word you’ll build strength in no time.
How much? £20 for a single class.
Where? They have 265 UK locations, including 103 in London.
Why? Better offer a huge range of exercise options, from gyms and fitness classes (including, of course, functional classes) to outdoor swimming and squash — and they are EVERYWHERE.
How much? A monthly membership costs from £28, (but more if you include swim, ice or spa options), with two months free if you sign up annually, but there are saver options for those who can go off-peak, as well as discounts for juniors and seniors. You can also buy one-off passes.
Where? They have 260 gyms nationwide.
Why? An inclusive gym that invites everyone to ‘come in, work out and leave feeling good’, they are open 24/7, offer a range of classes, commit to always keeping prices low and memberships are contract-free. Look out for the ‘full body’ icon, as seen next to strength and sweat classes, meaning it involves functional training.
How much? From £29.99 per month, plus £25 joining fee, or £12.99 for a day pass
Where? They have three locations; two in London, Clapton and Shoreditch, and one in Manchester.
Why? Focusing on increasing fitness, improving mental clarity and meeting your body’s changing needs, BLOK has built up a loyal fanbase despite only having three studios. BLOKFIT 50 works on muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness, as well as building a strong foundation.
How much? £20 per month for online classes.
Where? Chester and Flint
Why? Having worked with pro rugby, football and even NFL teams, The Athlete Factory’s credentials speak for themselves. With leading coaches and a welcoming atmosphere, they use their knowledge of elite sports to change up your functional training game.
How much? From £45 per month
Why? They’re a small but specialist facility, with expert coaches and a community feel, that focuses on getting maximum benefit, progress and enjoyment out of functional fitness sessions while staying safe — for all ages and levels of fitness.
How much? From £45 per month and they do drop-ins (£12 peak/£7 off-peak)
The best functional fitness gyms in the UK
Why? Not only does Marchon pride itself on being the top functional fitness community, it’s also all about an ‘inclusive’ space for ‘all abilities’, with fitness coaches qualified to help each and every member. Their MO: ‘To educate, inspire and empower all bodies.’ Enough said.
How much? £179 for your first 30-day trial.
Where? There are over 1,750 studios in 45 countries, including 60 in the UK.
Why? Training specialising in functional fitness (hence the F for functional and 45, referring to the 45 minute high-intensity group workouts), F45 has gone truly global. Offering circuit and HIIT style classes geared towards everyday movement that are ‘fast, fun, and results-driven’, with a solid community spirit, they keep motivation high.
How much? Unlimited is £205 per month, three months unlimited is £170, a 10-class pack is £170 and single classes are £25 — we recommend finding your studio and looking at the options to find which will work best for your schedule and budget.
Where? High Wycombe
Why? Voted ‘best gym in the UK, Wild Training aims to help you live to the max, getting the most from your time and delivering results by maximising power, endurance and control across the full range of natural movement — from strength training with free weights to aerial silks.
How much? £58 per month, including gym access and one class session every month with our coaches, then from £7.17 for members and £12 for non-members per class.
Where? Dunmow, Essex
Why? Perfect for people who don’t get working out inside when they could be in nature, the award-winning Farm Fitness blends ‘modified strongman, functional bodybuilding, calisthenics and blistering cardio efforts […] against a countryside backdrop’. Programmed to be accessible for all fitness levels, the back to basics approach and team format will see you rolling tyres, climbing frames, using weights and machines together, so motivation stays sky-high and you never get bored.
How much? Monthly membership is £85, but you can get a five-class card for £45.
Where? Chiswick, West London
Why? Taking a holistic view, aiming for a healthier body and mind, FORGE focuses on keeping determination high and your workout routine sustainable with group strength, conditioning, muscular, endurance and lift training sessions — all based around functional movement.
How much? Unlimited monthly classes are £115 and a single session is £16.
Why? One of the TRX HOST facilities, Functional Fitness TRX has a unique approach to fitness and exercise — as seen in the ‘Foundations of Movement’, focusing on giving your body what is needs, rather than boring gym slogs or repetitive machines, by adapting sessions to suit your fitness level and ability.
How much? Monthly membership with unlimited sessions are £40 or it’s £6 for one.
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