July 2002


Marc Dagenais, BSc, MHK (completing), CSCS

Most fitness and training facilities now have stability balls, foam rolls, balance boards and other “fun” toys as part of their conditioning equipment. These are part of a new trend in the strength and conditioning field called “functional training”.


Functional training is the action of training “function”, a general term that means “role” or “duty”. Functional training is the science of training the body to meet the specific demands of life and sports. It is based on 1) the principle of specificity and 2) muscle function. The principle of specificity also known as SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) means that the body responds and adapts specifically to the type and amount of physical demands under which it is placed. In other words, you only improve what you’ve specifically trained. Since muscle form dictates the role and function of each muscle, muscle needs to be trained the way it is designed to function.


Functional training is nothing new and comes primarily from the rehabilitation field. For many decades, therapists have been experimenting with ways of helping their patients regain function. Their goal is to retrain muscles to work properly using special exercises. In their quest to help their patients to become more functional, they have a developed functional training approach.

Traditional vs. Functional

Traditional strength training usually consists of trying to develop strength and build muscle through isolating specific muscle groups. This type of training could be called “dysfunctional training” because it develops segmental strength. It is adequate for building muscle but it does not train the body to meet the specific demands of life and sports. It does not reproduce real life conditions and therefore, can be considered to create “non-functional” strength.

Peter Twist, Vancouver Canucks Strength and Conditioning Coach, explains: “Typical strength training attempts to develop the body through a piecemeal approach, isolating specific muscle groups. Worse yet, this is often done with the body unloaded, sitting stationary on a machine while moving one isolated body part through a controlled range of motion, usually in a strict linear, straight ahead motion”.

Traditional strength training uses isolated muscle function while the functional approach trains the body to work as a unit. The central nervous system is programmed to make the body function as a unit, not to work in terms of isolated muscle function.

Benefits of Functional Training

This type of training has many benefits but most importantly, it creates a healthy, well-conditioned body. Some of the major benefits are:

  • to develop kinesthetic awareness and body control
  • to improve posture
  • to improve muscle balance
  • to decrease incidence of injury
  • to improve athletic performance
  • to have a positive effect on spinal health
  • to enhance movement efficiency
  • to improve both dynamic and static balance

Current opinions of some strength and conditioning specialists indicate that functional training offers more benefits overall than traditional strength training. A combination of both is still possible if you are looking for the benefits of functional training while looking to specifically develop muscles. As a rule of thumb, always perform functional training first when your nervous system is still fresh.

Functional Exercises

“Highly functional exercises need to facilitate as much multi-joint involvement as possible to create muscular and joint interdependency. It also needs to challenge the body with proprioceptively enriched exercises in an unstable environment that excite and develop the nervous system” says Mark Cibrario, a specialist in functional training.

The body is designed to work as a unit with muscles firing in specific sequences to produce the desired movement. In each movement, various muscles are involved and they all play a different role. The central nervous system, responsible for muscle activation, is programmed for integrated kinetic chain movement which involves the agonist (prime mover), antagonist (opposite to prime mover), synergists (assist prime mover), stabilize joints while prime movers and synergists perform movement), and neutralizers (which counteract unwanted action of others muscles). They all work together to reproduce efficient movements as the body is not designed for isolated muscle function.

It has been shown that the body responds better to training in an unstable environment that challenges the nervous system. This is the reason why functional training uses so many tools to create instability. To train function, an exercise must engage the superficial core muscles to help produce force, reduce force, or dynamically stabilize the spine, along with the deep inner musculature to provide segmental stability and stiffness to the spine. To be functional, an upper body exercise must also activate shoulder joint stabilizers and neutralizers and a body exercise must activate the hip, knee and ankle joint stabilizers. These exercises also need to balance body segments over one’s base of support and challenge the body to maintain ideal posture.

Mark Verstegen, a popular strength coach from the International Performance Institute, says, “Your world is 360 degrees: it’s chaos”. In other words, your body needs to train at every angle and in every plane to mimic real life.

Additionally, functional training is based on the principle of individualization. What is functional for one person is not necessarily functional for another. Each person has different functional needs and these needs have to be assessed before a functional training program can be recommended and implemented. Thus, the exercises will vary, based on a person’s needs and the specific demands they have to meet in their daily life and in sports.


Functional training has many benefits and should be part of any exercise program whether it is for sport-specific conditioning, rehabilitation or general fitness. Traditional strength training should serve as a complement to functional training. Not only is functional training an excellent concept but it is also fun and challenging. Become familiar with stability balls, balance boards and foam rolls and add a whole new dimension to your workout.