Functional training fitness trend: The most important questions and answers

Functional Training: Everything about the perfect full-body workout

Balance and body tension play a central role in functional training – like here with the so-called Russian twist

© Tobias Hase / Picture Alliance

It came to Germany from the USA almost 20 years ago as a fitness trend. Today, functional training is omnipresent in this country. But what is functional training anyway and what does ex-national coach Jürgen Klinsmann have to do with it? An overview.

Like many other fitness trends, functional training has its origins in the rehabilitation of injuries. Holistic functional movement therapy was used for sick patients as early as the 1980s. By definition, “functional” means nothing other than fit for purpose. If you assume that almost no everyday movement is limited to just one joint, it is at least inexpedient to target a single muscle group in training. To put it plainly: It is useful, i.e. functional, to use as many muscle chains as possible and thus improve the interaction of the muscles. And that’s exactly what functional training is all about. In contrast to classic, isolated strength training with barbells, leg presses and the like, functional training basically uses your own body weight as an “opponent”.

“Functional training is ultimately about not isolating muscles as much as possible, but stressing them in so-called functional chains,” says Dennis Sandig, sports scientist and science coordinator of the German Triathlon Union. Functional training is ultimately designed to improve the software that works with the muscles.

1. Functional Training: That’s how it came to Germany

The functional training trend swept over to Germany around 2004. At that time, the German Football Association hired former international striker and football world champion Jürgen Klinsmann as national coach. And the American-by-choice brought several fitness trainers to Europe, including Mark Verstegen, who stated at the time that “medicine balls are not as old-fashioned as you might think.” And so Klinsmann, Verstegen and the others made the DFB-Elf fit for the 2006 World Cup in their own country, where they only failed unhappily in the semifinals against Italy. Training with rubber bands and other devices that have become dusty in the meantime has certainly made its contribution.

2. What is trained during functional training?

While conventional strength training on machines is primarily intended to build muscles, functional training is about stabilizing the body as a whole. Therefore, the term full-body training nowhere fits as well as in functional training. It is not muscles that are trained, but rather movements – precisely those that are needed again and again in everyday life or at work and that correspond to the usual functions of the body – also known in technical jargon as fundamental movement patterns. examples? Simply climbing stairs, carrying your own children or shopping boxes into the apartment, preparing the garden for spring and much more.

3. Who is functional training suitable for?

The use of functional training ranges from rehabilitation to leisure and fitness sports to high-performance sports. “It’s not about looking good shirtless,” sports scientist Sandig clarifies. Rather, the bodily functions should be optimized. “Whether this is used in the training of a professional athlete or with Aunt Erna, who wants to get back on the bus on her own, is of secondary importance,” says Sandig. The purpose is unlimited. Even people who want to get rid of a few pounds can achieve this through functional training. For example with different forms of interval training in small groups. “The large functional training toolbox can be used universally,” emphasizes Sandig.

Collage: Portrait of two men and one woman

4. What are the advantages of functional training?

In his book “Functional Training: The Great Manual”, the well-known US exercise physiologist Juan Carlos Santana describes five key advantages of functional training over isolated strength training. Santana is the founder and director of the Institute of Human Performance (IHP) in Florida. The IHP is considered the best training center for so-called core training in the USA. Core training is an essential part of functional training. During core training, the muscles that connect the upper and lower body are particularly stressed. In the broadest sense, the middle of the body or the core of the body. One of Santana’s guiding principles: “Functional training describes everything that is not bodybuilding”.

The 5 advantages of functional training according to Santana

  1. low logistical and time expenditure
  2. Build strength without significant impact on body weight
  3. Load is distributed to different muscle systems
  4. Reduced risk of injury in sports and everyday life
  5. Whole body training for athletes of all sports

5. What is the difference to isolated strength training?

Dennis Sandig explains this using the example of the leg flexor muscles. You can train them in a classic way or in isolation by going to the appropriate machine in the gym and doing leg curl exercises. The problem: This movement does not exist in reality. In everyday life, for example when running, the hamstring stretches – contrary to its name – the hip. Ergo: The hamstrings have to be used in the same way during training – that is exactly the approach and the idea of ​​functional training. In this case, you can lie on your back, bend your legs and lift your butt. Then the leg curl does exactly what it should: it stretches the hips. This is particularly interesting for “desk perpetrators”. Because: “When sitting, the hamstrings and buttock muscles do not function as hip extensors,” says Sandig. The back muscles try to compensate. It quickly reaches its load limit, which leads to problems in the chain of functions and thus to back pain. If you also train the hamstrings in isolation, you will put an additional load on your back.

6. Functional training at home: does it make sense?

Yes, you can also train functionally in your own four walls. There are suggestions and tips on various YouTube channels and in the online portals of specialist magazines. “Anyone who is already active in sports can do it,” says Sandig. Ideally, everyone else should find a personal trainer or physical therapist to help them get started.

What many people don’t know: even banal climbing stairs is nothing other than functional training and – depending on the floor – represents a real training load and a training stimulus for one or the other. The push-up, in which you alternately turn left and right, is a bit more demanding “wanders”. Attention attention! If you get on your knees, you change the lever and leave the functional chain of the muscles. This exercise is then no longer considered functional.

What’s the point and where’s the catch

Above all, functional training brings one thing: great fun. The reason: you can use training aids and equipment in functional training that you have not previously associated with training at all. “I’m thinking ropes, rubber bands, sling trainers or even medicine balls,” says Sandig. “There are so many ways to bring variety into training. That guarantees that it’s fun and ultimately useful.” Nevertheless, functional training cannot be tied to the accessories alone. What matters is the idea behind the training. “A good functional training program is characterized by the fact that the exercises are tailored to the trainee and their problems,” says Sandig. His current book “Programme Design in Functional Training” is available here.

But there is a small catch. Meaningful functional training is usually more difficult to implement than isolated strength training in the studio because it is easy to make mistakes. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases, it requires guidance. But if you have found a good teacher, you can quickly do many of the exercises without help.

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Sources: “”; “Fit for Fun”

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