In the past five years the number of studios and gyms offering various forms of ‘functional training’ has grown exponentially. There are now estimated to be more than 300 providers of some sort of functional training class or programme in New Zealand.

The vast majority are group-based and are delivered by diverse providers: from international brands such as F45 (the ‘F’ stands for ‘functional training’) and Orange Theory, New Zealand’s own Les Mills’ ‘Ceremony’ class, all the way through to single studios and trainers developing their own version of functional exercise activities.

But before diving into why this growth is happening, and the various benefits of this type of training, let’s explore what functional training actually is.

Ask 10 different exercise experts for their definition and you’ll get 10 different answers, but they will generally agree that functional training could best be described as exercise that helps us function and move better in real life.

So what does this mean? It means most functional training exercises will be multi-joint, moving the body in a variety of directions with lots of changes to what you are doing many times during the class (sometimes several times a minute).

While functional classes can still incorporate more traditional exercises, variety is always a central concept with functional activities. Functional training can be at any level of intensity, with many offered in a class format at the higher end of the intensity scale, but being class-based, individuals are able to work out at their own levels.

Given that it more closely reflects what we do in real life, the gains from these activities show in the ways our bodies feel and move. Rather than being just about squatting more, having a body that can more easily get up and down from a chair (yes, that’s a form of a squat) means that everyday life can feel better and we move better.

This could mean everything from feeling stronger and moving better, right through to being able to do something, such as lifting grandkids – the ultimate functional exercise for some! The variety of exercises in functional training is good for both our brains and our bodies.

There are degrees of ‘functional’, and the term can be overused, and even mis-used by some. Just like HIIT (high intensity internal training), it can be a really effective exercise type but can also be misused in marketing and social media posts – after all, almost all forms of movement are ‘functional’ to someone. And just to be clear here – some classes are HIIT and are also functional – so these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive.

More or less?

Like all forms of exercise, for most people the message “do more” is going to be the right one, but for a small proportion, doing less might be a better message.

Functional training, like all forms of exercise, still puts load and strain on the body (that’s how exercise works – the body adapts to this stress from the exercise to come back stronger / fitter), but more isn’t always better.

When considering how much to do, we need to consider how and when to rest muscles and the cardiovascular system. In addition, many forms of exercise put load on the central nervous system, which needs time to recover (it takes around 48 hours to fully recover from some intense workouts), so those taking part in the same functional training sessions five times a week may benefit from one or two breaks mid-week to let their bodies recover fully.

Just as functional training provides a variety of exercises, the body may benefit from a variety of classes too – so throwing a yoga class into the mix or going to different types of class can help the body feel and move well.

When picking an exercise class or type, functional exercise can be one of those to consider, but like everything the key is what you enjoy and feel good doing, as this will be the #1 factor in helping you stick to the training.

Many fans of functional training will say exactly that – it’s fun and they love it, and for them that means it’s the best thing; for others, functional training might be just an occasional class to throw into the mix. The key is keeping the body moving in lots of different ways – and whatever helps you to do that is good.

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