What Makes an Exercise Functional?

Don’t get caught up in making an exercise appear functional. Instead understand that all exercises can be functional and focus whether your exercises are getting you to your training goals. In this article, Tim discusses how to select the right exercises for your specific training goals.

Tim DiFrancesco

Tim DiFrancesco

Doctor Tim DiFrancesco is the President & Founder of TD Athletes Edge. In December of 2011, he was named the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. While traveling with the Lakers for over 6 seasons from 2011-2017, Tim built TD Athletes Edge. TD Athletes Edge is nationally renowned for its evidence-based and scientific approach to training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Follow Dr. DiFrancesco on Instagram at @tdathletesedge

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// how to define a functional exercise

Making exercises look functional has become an obsession by both trainers (prescribers) and the people doing the workouts (users). There are two common ways that people believe they can make an exercise more functional. 

  1. Make the exercise mimic the activity that the user performs recreationally or competitively. The example here is to use bands to resist the action of running for someone who runs. 

  1. Make the exercise require multiple body parts and areas. The example here is a burpee. The burpee uses many body areas.

This becomes a problem because often, there is little evidence to suggest that these are effective ways to make an exercise more functional. 

Wait, what is the definition of a functional exercise? 

The root of our problem here is that everyone may have a different definition for functional exercise. 

Here’s how I define it: A functional exercise is one that improves a person’s ability, capacity, or tolerance to do the activities performed or play.

Having the right functional exercises

Given that definition, all exercises are functional. 

It has been suggested that isolation based exercises (heel raises) are not functional. Sure they are, runners need isolated calf and achilles loading to be prepared for running. 

Doing a bunch of burpees is not going to do that for you.  

Understanding that all exercises are functional will help us to stop being obsessed with making exercises look functional and instead return our focus to the more important question: Does your current workout routine or training program have the right functional exercises for you to reach your goals as efficiently and effectively as possible? 

If your only goal is to burn calories, burpees will be just fine. 

If you have more defined goals, burpees will likely not suffice. Focusing on how functional an exercise is, is unnecessary.

Focusing on selecting the right exercises for your goals is very necessary. I recommend you stick to the latter. 

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