Functional Training for Athletic Enhancement

Performance & Sport

We all want to improve our performance, play better, stronger, faster, and maybe even be the best. In order to be the best, you must train like the best. And what we hear is that the best are using functional training to improve their athletic performance.

If you want to take your training and your performance to the next level, you might want to consider adding functional training to your program. Read on to learn more about what functional training is and how it can help enhance your athletic performance.

What is Functional Training?

Functional training is purposeful training. The key is to exercise a muscle in the way that it is used. For example, if you think about performing a leg extension on a machine. This exercise definitely trains your quads, which will increase your leg strength. But in your sport, whether its hockey, soccer, or tennis, you will likely never be in a seated position, moving your legs in a similar manner to the leg extension. Therefore, it is not a functional movement for you.

The theory behind functional training is that the best way to train for a sport is to mimic the movements that you would be using while playing. So, instead of performing a seated leg extension on a machine, you might try a single-leg squat, which more closely mimics movements that you would actually perform in a game.

Functional training allows you to apply strength to a sport skill and is arguably one of the best ways to improve sport performance without performing sport-specific drills.

Functionality and Balance

One important focus of functional training is on balance and stability.

Often, in athletic settings, such as a football or basketball game, athletes must deal with moments of instability. Functional training intentionally incorporates balance into athletes’ training programs in order to prepare them for game day.

For this reason, exercise machines are rarely used in functional training programs, since in competition, an athlete’s stability comes from within, rather than from a machine. Functional training often uses single-leg movements that require balance in order to develop the muscles in the way they are used in sport.

To take it one step farther, some athletes even train on unstable surfaces, such as an Indo board, in order to increase their core strength and balance. Some exercises that you can perform on a wobble or Indo board are squats, lunges, push ups, oblique twists, and athletic stance holds.

Four Major Movements

The major movements in sport, and in everyday life, have been classified into four categories:

  1. Locomotion

Locomotion involves using alternating leg movements to get you from point A to point B. The best example of locomotion, that is present in many sports, is running. One key point to note here is that when running, or skating, or performing any other locomotion movement, you use a single leg at a time.

Because of this, the most functional way to train for this is by performing single-leg exercises.

  1. Level Changes 

Level changes involves changing your center of mass. This could be bending over to pick something up or getting into a low athletic stance.

This is extremely important in sport because often your explosive power will come from a level change, such as squatting down before jumping up.

  1. Pushing + Pulling

Pushing and pulling occurs in sport as well as very often in every day life. One example of the pushing and pulling movement that may not immediately jump to the front of your mind is a baseball pitcher. The pitcher will perform a pulling motion as they bring the ball back behind their head and then a pushing motion as they bring the ball forward and release it.

  1. Rotation

To stick with the pitcher example, a baseball pitcher will also rotate his body while throwing the ball. This is an example of the final category of movement, rotation.

These four movements are important to think about when planning a functional training session, as functional training primarily trains movements, rather than muscles. In order to improve your performance for game day, you will want to strengthen these movements and apply that strength to your sport.

How to Create Your Own Functional Training Program

The first step in creating your own functional training program is to analyze your sport, determine what movements you will need to strengthen in order to increase your performance in that particular sport. Does your sport require running, skating or jumping? If yes, then it will be important to develop your lower body strength. Does your sport require a lot of pushing and pulling movements? If yes, then it will be important to develop your upper body strength.

For lower body strength, one of the best places to begin is with bodyweight squats. You will have to check your ego here and ensure that you are performing a bodyweight squat with perfect form before adding weight to the movement.

Squatting is extremely important for athletes because it can help to develop your power and speed. Speed and power are essential for almost all sports, therefore one of the keys of improving athletic performance is improving your ability to produce speed and power.

Next, when thinking about traditional exercises used to increase strength in particular muscles, such as the leg press, think about how you can make these movements more functional. For example, with the leg press, the first step would be to take out the machine and ensure you are standing. In most sports, if you are sitting, something is wrong (i.e. you have fallen or been knocked down). Therefore, it is not functional to train like this.

Instead of a leg press, you could perform a barbell squat. In this exercise you are standing and it requires stability. However, you can still take it farther and perform a single-leg squat, or even a single-leg squat on an unstable surface, in order to incorporate balance and train in a way that will be useful in your sport.

Lastly, remember that in order to continue improving, you must continue to challenge your body. One way to do this is through progressive overload. Learn more about how progressive overload can make you a better athlete.

Functional training is a great tool to help you increase your athleticism and perform better come game day, but it is only one piece of the overall puzzle. Don’t neglect all exercises that aren’t deemed functional, as you may require some isolation exercises in order to strengthen certain areas on your body.

Practice balance, in your training and in your program design.