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Why Functional Training Does Not Work and What To Do Instead

Functional training is a popular thing right now and over the last 2-3 years it still seems to be gaining momentum. You might have F45 in mind here but they didn’t invent the term. Before F45 there was crossfit, before crossfit there was pump class and before pump class it wasn’t branded. There was just your average gym goer who decided to do a workout of 20 push ups, 20 lunges, 20 squats and 1 minute of rowing and threw it into a circuit because it increased cardio and allowed them to get more done in less time.

So my prediction is that over the next few years you’ll see functional training lose popularity and that strength, conditioning and even competitive weightlifting sports start to take it’s place. This is already happening - we’re just at the beginning of the curve right now.

What’s the difference? Functional training is strength and conditioning done worse. It’s the McDonald’s of fitness. What functional training means in most cases is that it’s strength and conditioning but missing a few key elements like consistency, progressive overload and learning great technique (don’t worry, you’ll learn more about this in a second).

This was all to make training more “fun” for those with the concentration span of a Facebook feed, more convenient and it allows gyms to turn over larger amounts of clients in the same amount of time. This effectively means ka-ching: $$$.

And the cost is you don’t get your best results when training like this. Not even close.

And if you train 4 times a week for a year that’s a sub-optimal result you’re getting from over 200 hours of time invested.

So here are some of the key differences between the two. My intention in this blog is to educate you, so you can know when you’re investing your time in high quality training or sub-optimal BS.

1. Variety

The first problem with functional training and classes is there is too much variety from the get go. Too much variety and not enough attention to detail means you won’t get the chance to get good at anything. Building competence in motor patterns takes repetition and consistency. There is no consistency if you’re changing your workout routine every day of the week.

The fix: Learn compound whole body movements (the big basics) and practice them until you start to see some progression. Then you can increase repetitions or weights. The most notable big basics include squats, deadlifts, pull ups, military presses, push ups, kettlebell swings, running, sprinting and carrying things. If you practice squats and your back squat increases from 30kg to 45kg, this is a measurable progression. Another example would be progressing from not being able to do pull ups without assistance to doing your first pull up.

2. Exercise choice

The other good thing about being able to do the big basics is that they carry over to all your other athletic endeavors. A good back squat and deadlift means you’ll be able to jump, run and sprint safely and with ease. Swiss ball skills, crunches and pilates mean doodly squat (in my experience pilates practitioners are usually the WORST movers). The message is choose compound movements, like the big basics, and that isolation movements, swiss balls and Pilates should make up no more than 20% of your workout. Big movements are also time efficient ways to really burn more calories.

3. Progressive overload

Results don’t make giant leaps, they happen incrementally. Progressive overload is a fancy way of saying you increase the weight by a kilo or two every week or two, or increase the amount of repetitions. If your gym only has two sizes, extra small or extra large, then they’re ill equipped. If you’ve been training there for a few months and you haven’t made incremental gains this is even worse.

4. Athleticism

So the last thing to mention here (and a shameless self promo) is that you need to stop training yourself like a pleb, and you need to start training like an athlete. I know I say this all the time but it grates on me how many trainers in the fitness industry train their clients and classes completely differently to how they train themselves. If you respect yourself and your time then start acting like it and train like an athlete. If your trainer follows their own program, does everything with decent technique and progression, then throws you on to circuits and doesn’t bother teaching you impeccable form then fire them because you deserve better.

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