Functional training is a term that I rarely use anymore. I have talked about it in the past, and in fact I’m quite proud of this article that I wrote on the topic: “Functional training and bicep curls“.

A recent discussion on the forum about whether certain exercises are functional revved up my mental gears. The discussion was about whether farmer’s walks and sled pushes were functional. The discussion evolved to include Turkish Getups and rear foot elevated split squats. I started thinking about whether I would consider those exercises functional. Or do I think they’re functional for some people but not others? Then I thought about some of my favourite exercises, and how functional they are. Is a shoulder elevated hip lift functional? I mean, how often does one sit on the floor with their shoulders leaning against something, lift one leg and then use the other leg to thrust their hip to the ceiling repeatedly?

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Maybe not so functional of a movement.

I started applying this logic to just about everything we do at our facility:

I believe deadlifts and squats are truly functional for everyone. Every time you pick something (or someone – hopefully we’re both thinking about babies and toddlers) off the floor, or take it out of the oven, or from the washing machine to the dryer, you’re doing some variation (or combination) of a deadlift or squat.

Beyond that, I think virtually all exercises fail a literal “is it functional?” test:

  • How often am I really lying on my stomach and needing to repeatedly push myself off the floor without taking advantage of the fact that my body can hinge at both the hips and the knees?
  • When was the last time I had to pull my chin up above a bar only to then lower it again?
  • Or grab a cable and pull it diagonally across my body and then push it the rest of the way until my elbows are straight?
  • Or lie on my back on a bench that isn’t even big enough to  nap on, and then push something straight up and down from my chest?
  • Or hang upside down holding a ring in each hand and then pull my body up as far as I can and then lower it back again?
  • Or lie on my side, with only my forearm and feet touching the floor? And then for some arbitrary reason do the same thing again but facing the other direction? (…that one time I was lying on a couch with poisonous bugs in the middle of it…in a room with a TV on each wall, great shows on each, and no PVR…)
  • Or stand on one leg and bob forward, like that water-drinking bird toy.
  • And I can’t count the number of times I have had to stand with one foot about a meter in front of the other while holding heavy things in my hands and bow down (with my legs only!) to an imaginary person in front of me, then get up again and repeat several times.

Yet these are all “functional” exercises. It’s no wonder  that I’ve stopped using the term functional, and instead have moved to the term SMART. I know SMART gets used to describe a lot of things, and usually it’s set up as some catchy acronym (remember the SMART goals everyone?).

So what does SMART stand for when talking about training?

It stands for smart. As in intelligent. Oxford defines intelligent as “having or showing intelligence, especially of a high level“, and intelligence as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills“.

What does that mean in relation to training? It means we select exercises for our clients based on the knowledge and skills that we have acquired about exercise, about their body, about their fitness level,  about their goals, and about their lifestyle.

  • Do they play a sport? What does that sport entail?  What do they need to be able to excel and not get injured in their sport?
  • What do they do for a living? Do they need to be stronger in certain movements so they can do their job better and more safely? Or do they have certain damaging postures at their job so that we need to do certain training movements that keep this from causing damage?
  • Do they have an injury that might mean some movements are not a great idea right now, while extra movements in other areas should be done to help put the injured joint into healthier alignment?
  • Do they have a baby that they pick up and put down from the same side of the crib several times a day, and we need to give them the strength to tolerate this without crippling pain?
  • Are they overweight and need exercises that will increase fat burning as well as building lean muscle?
  • Are they incapable of doing the exercise we asked them to without pain? If so, do we know how to adjust the movement so it doesn’t hurt? Do we know how to regress the exercise so they can do it?

Given this criteria, most of the exercises referenced above will be smart training choices for most people.

The shoulder elevated hip lift may or may not be functional, but will it help a person generate power through their hips? In a manner that ensures they are able to do so with each hip instead of having one side do double the work while the other side naps? Sounds pretty smart to me.

Next time you find  yourself having a hard time explaining what functional training means, consider dropping that expression from your vocabulary and replacing it with the term smart training.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, specializing in smart training.



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