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Functional exercise has been becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise as the health and fitness industry continues to grow and expand. For the purposes of this article, functional exercise refers to free-weight loaded exercise (barbell or dumbbell) that uses multiple joints to accomplish the movement; for example squats, lunges, power cleans etc. Conventional exercise refers to machine based exercises or free-weight loaded exercise that uses a single joint to accomplish the movement; for example the quad extension machine or dumbbell bicep curls.

Principles of Training Specificity

You and/or your trainer want to consider specificity, overload and progressive overload when planning a strengthening exercise program. Specificity is a simple but important basic principle of strength and conditioning training. The principle of specificity states that training needs to be specific to the muscle or group of muscles and energy systems required by the activity. If the goal is to become a better sprinter, short distance sprints should be trained rather than endurance running. Similarly, if the goal is to get stronger at the bench press – then by all means, train a bench press. If the goal is to become better at volleyball, a number of questions should be considered. Which joints perform the activity? Do the joints work together or sequentially? What is the sequence of movements? What is the velocity of the movement? For example, a volleyball player may want to improve their vertical jump height for sports performance. To jump, an individual will explosively extend the knees, hips and plantar flex the ankles until he or she has left the ground. This explosive movement can be replicated with a front squat, a back squat, a power clean or a power snatch, to name a few.

Functional Exercise (Free weights and multi-joint loading)

Considering the principle of specificity, functional exercise is certainly of high value to enhance and support activities of daily living and sporting performance. As its name suggests, functional exercise often incorporates relatively natural human movements that require multiple joint loading, with the addition of extra weight (barbells and dumbbells etc.) to gain strength within that natural human movement repertoire. For example training a squat motion would assist an individual in getting up from a chair or sitting down into a chair with controlled movement. Functional exercise can also replicate sports more accurately as they can be done at high velocity, and train the body for multi-joint movement. Whilst exercises like the leg extension and the leg curl may strengthen the knee flexors and extensors, they do not involve exerting force against the ground, the do not required the activation of additional stabilising muscles, and they do not prepare the individual to use the hips, knee’s and ankles at the same time.

Other benefits of functional exercise include a potential higher energy expenditure. If the goal is to burn more energy in an attempt to reduce weight, or to combat a largely sedentary job, functional exercise requires that multiple muscle groups, as well as stabilisers, are activated to perform the movement. It is therefore assumed that more energy is consumed to perform these movements than single-joint movements.

Technique performed during functional exercise is often more difficult to achieve appropriately as the individual is activating multiple muscle groups, surrounding multiple joints, generally consecutively moving in multiple planes of direction. If you are a beginner to functional exercise potentially starting with body weight motions of the activity and a very gradual progression of load (weights) is recommended. Feedback from personal trainers, physiotherapists and mirrors can be of assistance.

Conventional Exercise (Machine weights and single joint loading)

While functional movements are important, there are times when an individual may want to address more specific muscles or joints in a strengthening program. This may be to prevent injuries, to rehabilitate injuries and to address technique deficits for functional exercise. For example, a baseball pitcher may want to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles more heavily to prevent injury and stabilise the shoulder joint for the high velocity stress put through the shoulder to pitch. Whilst these muscles are activated as stabilisers during some functional movements, they aren’t specifically prioritised or strengthened. In terms of technique deficits for functional exercise, an individual may continuously twists the hips whilst performing a squat as the gluteus medius and glutius minimus (muscles surrounding the hip) are not strong enough to hold the body erect with additional loads. In both circumstances the goal is to eventually achieve functional exercise, but conventional exercises are required in order to achieve said goal without injury and with correct technique.

Other benefits of machine weights and single joint loading is when an injury has already occurred. Strength in smaller muscle groups away from the injured joint can be maintained with the use of some conventional exercise machines. Because functional exercise is almost always multi-joint, it is difficult to offload a particular joint whilst it is healing. For example a patella (kneecap) irritation will be loaded for most functional exercises as the quadriceps, which are attached to the patella, are used during deadlifts, squats, lunges etc. However some strength may be maintained in the hamstrings with hamstring curls, the gastrocs with calf raises, and the quadriceps muscles may potentially be maintained with a static load (static machine leg extension) until the injury has been addressed.

The Bottom Line

Functional exercise is a highly beneficial option for improving an individuals strength for a range of purposes from activities of daily living to enhanced sport performance. However conventional exercise has its place and can assist functional activity, injury rehabilitation and injury prevention.