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WHAT MAKES AN EXERCISE FUNCTIONAL?

Across the fitness industry we continuously hear businesses & trainers referring to ‘functional’ exercises. Now if you are like a lot of people, your health & wellness goals might be similar to the below?

  • “I just want to move a bit better.”

  • “I’m not entirely happy with the way I look.”

  • “I’d love to have a bit more energy to play with the kids.”

What exactly is a functional exercise & how could/would this help me?


In my humble opinion, functional exercise is defined by the customer (i.e. YOU) so setting goals with your personal trainer that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) will ensure that your program is tailored to your needs.

Think of it this way, if the programming police stopped you & your trainer mid-session and asked, “why are you doing this exercise?” could he/she come up with a valid answer? Can they justify how this particular exercise will help you to pick up your grandchild without low back pain, or help reduce your elbow pain when at the computer?

Let’s look at a few examples from clients I have worked with over the years:


Client 1: 50 yr. old male, post-shoulder surgery

Goal: Return to work as an air conditioning mechanic

Functional Exercise: Barbell shoulder press and reach, which replicates his movement pattern when lifting an external air conditioning unit on to wall-mounted brackets.

the four stages to lift the unit.

Client 2: 21 yr. old female, diagnosed with scoliosis of the spine (i.e. the spine has an ‘s’ shape when looking at them from the side)

Goal: Run without low back pain

Functional exercise: Kneeling superman which teaches the client to recruit the Glutes and Lats (Latissimus Dorsi) at the same time to essentially ‘brace’ the low back.

the two positions of a kneeling superman


Client 3: 42 yr. old corporate executive with depression

Goal: Improve working memory (i.e. focus, attention and short-term memory)

Functional exercise: Jogging outdoors to increase ‘feel good’ brain chemicals such as dopamine and increase oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain.


Exercise specificity has three (3) core elements:

  1. Movement specificity – does the exercise simulate/replicate the movement patterns that align to the goal? I.e. a floor to waist deadlift replicating picking up a toddler.

  2. Posture specificity does the exercise simulate/replicate the posture required? I.e. if the goal requires you to be standing, is the exercise also performed standing?

  3. Speed specificitydoes the speed/velocity of the exercise replicate what is required? I still can’t work out why 50-100m sprint swimmers complete long-slow distance sessions of 7-8km in the pool!



So how do you determine if your personal trainer is prescribing an exercise intervention that is ‘functional?’


I like to adopt what I call the ‘3 treatment rule.’ That is:

"After 3 sessions can you notice some improvement in your function and/or symptoms, and/or, can you clearly see a plan for how the trainer will get you to your goal/s?"

Here are a few other questions that will help you to identify a fitness and health professional who is customer-focused and functionally-minded.

  1. Do you have regular health and fitness appraisals to track progress towards your goal/s?

  2. Can you confidently finish this sentence? “I know my exercise program is effective because I notice…”

  3. Does your trainer document your workouts and adjust sessions to ensure that you don’t plateau?

Remember, you the client determine what is functional. Your trainer is the vehicle that develops a movement intervention to get you there!


Author: Brad McGregor

MSptSc, Accredited Exercise Physiologist.


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