Functional Fitness training is a form of exercise that everyone seems to a have a strong opinion on. Whether you’re a keen enthusiast or a firm sceptic, we thought it was about time that someone broke down exactly what makes functional fitness Training different to regular weight training — and more importantly, if it’s any better.
So, with a little digging and the help of Daniel Campbell (@danccampbell), Head Coach at a functional fitness training gym in Manchester, we tried to settle the score.
What are the main differences?
1. The exercises
Although there is definitely some crossover, a lot of exercises that would be right at home in a functional fitness training class, probably wouldn’t be spotted in your local PureGym.
“Regular weight training tends to centre around bodybuilding,” explains Daniel, “whereas the functional fitness training combines weight training with gymnastics and cardio. This means that the effect isn’t just hypertrophy, but a combination of hypertrophy, cardiovascular conditioning, and skill work.”
2. The intensity
This is probably the biggest one. Simply mentioning “functional fitness training” can evoke pretty violent reactions from people — ranging all the way from admiration to pure shock.
“Why would anyone want to do that?!” is very common response.
Functional fitness training workouts are certainly not for the faint-hearted and they require a huge amount of physical exertion, not to mention mental willpower, to complete — or, in some cases, even attempt.
This is not necessarily because they incorporate wildly complex exercises though, as Daniel explains, it’s more to do with the imposed time frames.
“The intensity often comes from having a huge amount of volume of the basic movements — push, pull, squat, hinge — in a very short period of time. Take for instance, the workout ‘Murph’ — in a 30-40-minute period, the aim is to accumulate 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and run 2 miles all whilst wearing a 10 kilo vest. That volume is significantly more than some people will do in a week’s worth of training.”
…you don’t say.
3. The community
There’s no denying that cross trainers seem to form tight-knit communities with genuine and long-lasting friendships. In general, this definitely isn’t the case at your average gym, which is more like a place where strangers go about their individual workouts, trying to avoid eye-contact unless they’re forced to ask someone how many sets they’ve got left on a machine.
The thriving social aspect of the sport doesn’t just help bring people together though, but may actually be a driving force behind individual development too, as Daniel explains;
“In a cross training gym everyone in a class is training together — which stokes a little competitive fire, and often means people try a little harder, pushing for an extra rep or kilo on the bar. Whilst being competitive, the whole environment is still friendly and everyone will cheer you when you hit a personal best.”
Finding the motivation to get yourself to training is probably made a whole lot easier if it means seeing all your friends there too. There’s a lot to be said for the difference that a “we’re in this together” attitude can have on your progress.
Are you more likely to injure yourself through functional fitness training?
After point #2, it’s the question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? Placing such high demands on your body sounds more than a little straining to us, and leaves us wondering whether a sport like functional fitness training is actually safe.
“There’s a lot of talk about functional fitness training being dangerous — it’s hugely exaggerated,” counters Daniel. “People do get injured, yes, but I guarantee you, even when factoring in the relative number of people participating in functional fitness training compared with, say, 5-a-side football, there are vastly more people that get hurt playing football.
In my experience, those most likely to hurt themselves are those who lift with their ego. If you have a decent coach and some sensible programming, I would argue that mitigates the risk of more dynamic movements.”
To squash any accusations of Daniel being biased towards the sport he spends the majority of his waking hours practicing or coaching — we thought we’d throw in some impartial research too. A recent review from the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found that, “the injury risk from functional fitness training is comparable to Olympic weightlifting, distance running, track and field, rugby, football, ice hockey, soccer, or gymnastics.”1
Which is better?
As with any sport, a lot comes down to personal preference and your own individual goals. Working out with other trainers around to compete against and cheer you on might just be the motivation you need to push through that mid-week workout. Or, the very idea of it might send you running back to the safety of your own gym, where you can complete your leg-day session in peaceful solitude.
Despite the fact he basically does functional fitness training for a living, Daniel has a pretty balanced approach to the debate too.
“I wouldn’t say there is a better option between weight training and functional fitness training — there are many cross trainers who would benefit from some traditional weight training, to iron out imbalances and make them stronger for functional fitness training.
At the same time, there are plenty of people who just lift weights that could improve their conditioning with a few functional fitness training classes a week. They’d probably find that the extra fitness improves the quality of their sets in their regular resistance training.”
Take Home Message
We’re on the fence on this one. While it’s definitely not for everyone, it has to be said that functional fitness training can be a more diverse, well-rounded form of training, that incorporates cardio and skill work with building muscle and strength.
We can probably all agree on one thing though — that cross trainers are seriously tough individuals, with incredible determination and dedication to their sport.