They say "functional training" makes you the most well-rounded. They say it transfers best to everyday life. And they say it's the most ideal form of training for athletic performance.
But what does it really even mean? The term is so vague that it's basically just become a gimmicky word for people marketing their certification programs.
And those who are steeped in functional training talk as though anyone not doing it is just a meathead bro without any skill or intelligence. So let's dig in and figure out what "functional" actually means. Once we do, you'll see that the most functional type of training is... bodybuilding. Surprise!
Hey, I'm not even a bodybuilder, nor do I have any desire to compete, but it's the most functional resistance training you could do. We'll get to why in second, but first let's talk about what functional means.
Here's an explanation any fitness professional can agree on, whether you're a chakra-aligning yogi or a meathead whose traps are so thick you've lost your neck.
Functional training: Training that can make you more efficient in basic human tasks, resulting in a higher quality of life. This includes improved performance for common responsibilities that are generally required of most people.
Based off this definition, bodybuilding is hands-down the most functional type of training. Now, am I talking about pro-bodybuilders who are about to step on stage and have been taking truckloads of substances and diuretics? No, I'm talking about the style of resistance training that can help you gain muscle and burn fat.
Here's why this form of lifting is the most functional...
Our bodies are designed to move many different ways and at various angles. And everyday life often puts us in these different (awkward) positions. Think about trying to move heavy furniture up or down a cramped stairwell. Or carrying a very large, very anxious dog to a bath. Or how about trying to paint a huge ceiling by yourself with nothing but a paint roller.
These tasks require muscular strength and endurance that can only be built with a variety of exercises that hit different angles of musculature. And while bodybuilders get a lot of crap for using a variety of exercises to hit the same muscles, nothing is more functional than training every possible function for each muscle.
For example, those who try to build their biceps (bodybuilding-style) will often train all three functions of the biceps: arm flexion, forearm supination, and shoulder flexion.
The glutes are another example. These muscles have various functions from extending, abducting, and externally rotating. Bodybuilders – especially females – usually hit all of these functions. Sure, they're doing it more to maximize hypertrophy, but in doing so they've trained the glutes more functionally than anyone else because they were able to train the glutes in all of its functions.
Not to mention bodybuilders use different stances, grips, and lifting positions which further transfers over to the tasks of everyday life. Once you break down the roles of each muscle on your body, it's obvious that bodybuilding trains and strengthens them all meticulously... and more than anything else.
Meanwhile, functional fitness folks will claim BOSU lunges and stability ball balancing are functional, but their workouts usually consist of minutiae, while their programs end up not even hitting every muscle function... nor do they get anyone particularly strong.
What's body comp, anyway? It's your ratio of fat to muscle. You want less of the former and more of the latter. And no other pursuit improves body composition to the same degree as bodybuilding. It IS the pursuit of building muscle and being able to see that muscle clearly... no other form of resistance training is all about that.
Why is a better body composition functional? Simple, you're more functional in everyday life when you have more muscle and less body fat. You'll have more relative strength, which means more control over your own body as a whole. Plus more of your body can be used in everyday tasks. Keep in mind, fat is nonfunctional and will make you slower.
Plus, think about athletic performance. To perform well in sports, you need to train in a way that allows you to generate more force in a given movement. Force production can be improved two ways:
- Neurologically: By getting the nervous system to be more skilled at a task through specific practice, like punching bags, kicking a ball, swinging a club, or snatching a barbell.
- Muscle size: By increasing muscle size, you increase the potential for force production.
Most types of athletic training will improve force production neurologically through a specific practice. This is great, but transfers mostly to that specific skill. Punching a heavy bag will get you better at boxing, but it won't transfer well to trying to compete in powerlifting.
Building muscle, on the other hand, isn't chained to any one sport, so by simply gaining muscle your force production increases will transfer to a wide variety of athletic pursuits.
Improving your body composition is more overwhelmingly functional than any specific type of training. With less fat, you'll be able to walk, run, jump, and climb faster simply because you're hauling less (non-functional) weight around. With more muscle, you're able to lift, hit, push, pull, carry, and absorb force better.
Still not convinced that adding lean mass and destroying blubber is comprehensively functional and will lead to athleticism? Then build more and see what it does for yours. Or check out the science which demonstrates how improved body comp affects different sports.
Okay sure, competitive bodybuilders ironically aren't known for being super healthy. But the fact still remains that resistance training bodybuilding-style is a huge driver for health.
Think about it – in order to build muscle, time under tension is the name of the game. Not necessarily pushing the weight every session or chasing heavier PRs. Don't get me wrong, there are bodybuilding monsters who combined the pursuit of hypertrophy with pure strength, like Ronnie Coleman, Arnold, and most of the guys we remember from the Golden Era.
But bodybuilding-style lifting for us mere mortals means more time under the iron, more muscular burn, more pump, more drop sets, super sets, slow reps, and occlusion training – things which are shown to build muscle, and things which are JUST heavy enough that they'll build muscle, but likely won't send you to the hospital with broken bones or torn soft tissues.
And as you build muscle with more moderate weight, your joints get stronger too. Ideally, you never exceed the amount of weight your tendons and ligaments can handle. So their strength increases proportionally with your muscles.
Let's go back to body composition. Improving it improves hormonal health, lowers chronic inflammation, increases insulin sensitivity in muscle cells, bone density, gut flora and other markers of health. There are countless studies showing lean muscle mass is a predictor of both quantity and quality of life.
Same can be said about reducing body fat, assuming you don't take it to the extreme like competitors do... but even then, let's not forget competitors only stay in this state of extremely low body fat a few times a year at most.
The argument still stands that the core of what bodybuilding aims to do will improve your health more than any other style of training. Not to mention, bodybuilders are able to reap the benefits of both strength training and cardio as both are often involved in their programs.
Simply put, being healthier makes you function better all-around, and improving your body composition will improve your health.
Strength is one of the greatest aspects of being functional. Being strong transfers to just about everything:
- It can make you faster and more powerful.
- It can help you absorb force.
- It can improve muscular endurance.
- It'll enhance joint stability.
- It can give you control in new ranges of motion.
- And clearly, it can make you harder to kill.
Some misguided functional fitness gurus rely on things like balance boards, agility ladders, and bodyweight core exercises. But past a certain point, these rehab-y things don't make you very strong, and they don't strengthen the entire body like a program full of squats, bench presses, pull-ups, rows, deadlifts, and dips.
Even the machines bodybuilders use are functional! Anything that efficiently improves muscle size or muscle strength is going to transfer to improved performance even if the machine puts you in a position you might never be in.
In a 2017 study, handball players improved performance, sprinting ability, and vertical jump by adding in two types of leg presses to their training. This is just one little piece of evidence that bodybuilding makes everything stronger – even muscles that other practices neglect, like calves and biceps.
Strength is so important for function that you could even argue that any practice which doesn't get you stronger isn't that functional. Sorry, marathon runners.
Bodybuilding-style lifting makes people look their best. That's why lifters turn to it even if they're not planning to get on stage. But functional training trolls will say that bodybuilding can't be functional if it's all about aesthetics.
How is that an argument? Looking good IS functional.
If it wasn't, then fashion, make-up, fitness, and plastic surgery wouldn't EACH be multibillion-dollar industries. People want to look better because it serves a greater purpose. They want to be admired, respected, and perceived a certain way. Even people who pretend they don't care about their looks intentionally look a certain way to make an impression. How much beard gel does a hipster use to get that perfect "I don't care" look?
Everyone wants to look a certain way, and looking incredibly fit (because of bodybuilding) has a lot more advantages than other appearance-based trends.
Research has told us fitter people are often thought of as responsible, hard working, and smart. And while this is a huge overgeneralization, there's a kernel of truth to it. You can't stay lean without at least a little discipline and work ethic. Especially if the standard (universal) diet is mostly just fast food and junk food, which it is.
Now obviously, doing bodybuilding-style training is not what makes a person more qualified for a job, but leaner people are often more likely to get a job offer than those who aren't lean. You're also more likely to attract someone else with a fit body if you yourself have a fit body. Plus if you feel good about your so-called non-functional aesthetics, you'll have more confidence, which may lead to a healthier, more pleasing sex life.
And even though character traits are far more important than looks, you'll be a much better role model for kids when you eat in a way that keeps you lean, instead of letting go of your diet and accumulating body fat. Plus children love knowing that their parents are strong and can protect them.
Speaking of being a protector, if you look like a bodybuilder I can guarantee that nobody's going to want to mess with you. So even though bodybuilding places such a high priority on aesthetics, you'd be delusional to deny how functional it is to everyday life.
It's a bold claim, but when you break it all down, bodybuilding is inherently more functional than any other style of training, especially the stuff that's marketed as "functional" these days.
Take the competition aspect out of bodybuilding and it's simply just lifting weights by training every muscle function and pairing it with some cardio in an effort to improve body composition. And nothing's more functional than that.