The BIG LIE about functional training

Function First was incorporated in 1994.  I like to tell people that because the word “function” was not being used as every third word in a sentence in 1994 the way it is today.  As important as this topic is to human performance and rehabilitation, we should be treating it with a little more respect.

One positive note is that we are moving away from the notion that squatting on a physio-ball is the pinnacle of function.  So as an industry, we are heading back toward solid ground (pun intended).

Let’s start with semantics.  Very important semantics.  “Functional training” implies a mode of exercise, like resistance training or cardiovascular training.  Training for function implies an objective.  This is extremely important since function is ultimately determined by the individual, not the mode of exercise.

Those that believe that any exercise in and of itself can always be “functional” just by the nature of the movement are living the big lie.  They are relying on generalized movement patterns and/or props that have been used to train for function for specific individuals, but are not by default “functional”.

You could ask 50 trainers in a room to name just one functional exercise.  And inevitably you would get responses of lunges, squats, step ups, balance boards, etc.   And these all could be functional exercises, but are not by default functional exercises.  These trainers unknowing have bought into the big lie or are choosing to perpetuate it.

Before any answer to the question was given, every one of those 50 trainers should have responded with their own series of questions regarding a functional exercise:


Who is this exercise for?  Is this a functional exercise for my 48 year old obese client with osteoarthritis of the knees?  Or is this functional exercise for my 13 year old female with idiopathic scoliosis?  Or is this functional exercise for my 28 year old NFL linebacker?  The answer should be different for each one.

What is the functional goal?  Is it to avoid surgery?  Is it to better prepare them for surgery?  Is it to improve their competitive performance?  Is it to avoid boredom in their workout?  Is it so they can mow their own lawn?

Where are they in their progression with you?  Is their body demonstrating the necessary movement prerequisites for this exercise?  Are they compensating to get it done versus getting it done right?  Are they exhibiting any apprehension toward the movement?

The next consideration must then be can a “functional” exercise ever be dysfunctional?  Absolutely.  A lunge for example, can produce compensation, reinforce existing dysfunction and produce undesirable mechanical stress as much as any machine based exercise.

We must first understand our client.  Then we must understand functional anatomy.  And then we can understand what function for that client really is.

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2 Responses to “The BIG LIE about functional training”

  1. Gilbert says:

    Hi Anthony,

    First off, I wanted to say that I have been following you since I started personal training about two years ago. I was lucky enough to have access to Ptonthenet and I came across your articles, books and DVD which I also own. I have used many of your technique to evaluate my clients and help them to become pain free. I have to say the book was awesome for this as I was able to deliver corrective exercises for specific form. I look forward to buy more of your equipment and educational resources and hopefully, in the future, to attend one of your courses.
    I made a decision to go study for my masters in physiotherapy for the up coming semester but I really wanted to apply for your internship program but I’ll attend one course instead in due time. Thanks for your hard work and your passion in sharing your knowledge.

    Now to the article, funny enough, I sat down this weekend with a follow trainer and friend I use to work with before. We were just talking about this specifically, how one exercises is not a great exercises or functional by itself. It all depends on the person who you are using the exercises for. I do not consider myself very knowledgeable yet in training, every time I read from you, Michael Boyle, Paul Chek, Michol D. I learn something new and interesting which tells me I still have so much to learn. However, my ears and my head heat up when I hear other trainers use the word “functional” or “good exercise”. Especially when I look over to what they are actually talking about and see bad body posture, mechanics and compensation all through the kinetic chain of their client which do not come even close to have the pre-requisite for the so called good exercise.
    Anyways, I guess I felt like venting a bit but also to thank you for your work to help people, like me, help people, like my clients. Without you and others like you I would be injuring clients day after day and I don’t think I could be able to continue to be a trainer and live with this knowledge… although I suppose if you don’t educate yourself, you don’t know that you are injuring people when you could help them…

    I hope to see you in person this year, I am aiming for the October course in NJ. I live in Canada, Ontario to be more accurate so it would be somewhat closer to here. I’d love to open a clinic similar to yours in Canada one day, I am all for function first from client to clients.

    All the best to you!

    In health,


  2. As a teacher of teachers, students sometimes get stuck on the latest trend and think that it applies to all movement.

    Movement is dynamic. When we make the body rigid, we cause more problems.

    Thank you for your insight about neutral pelvis. We need to find the importance of neutral pelvis in simple movements in supine, sitting and standing. But it is not a goal in all movement.