Functional vs. Traditional Exercises – Which Method Works Best


Which training method is for you? Functional and traditional training both have their place. And both can be used to build strength and power. But you need to choose which one will work best for you. Just because someone else gets great results from lugging sandbags around doesn’t mean that you will get the same results, especially if you’re just starting out.

The hard and fast distinction between functional and traditional training is really a misnomer. Functional training focuses on movements that are similar to those that you use in everyday life, while traditional training focuses on increasing strength in discrete muscle groups. Neither is inherently better, and you can build strength that can be used outside the gym with both. Weigh the pros and cons below, and see which one is right for you.

Traditional Training:

  • Going Slowly

Traditional training is done at a slower pace. This doesn’t mean that it will take you longer to build strength, but that the actual pace at which you move your weights will be slower. So, you won’t be developing the dynamic strength and power that come from functional lifts. But, this is a much safer way to start working out. Especially if you have old injuries, bad knees, or other issues that make it difficult or impossible to do faster lifts, taking it slow is perfectly fine.

  • Use Machines and Controlled Free-Weight Movements

Using workout machines is one of the hallmarks of traditional training methods, along with, to a lesser extent, barbells and dumbbells. These are relatively safe pieces of equipment, and perfect for beginners.

functional-vs-traditional-exercisesI personally don’t like machines very much. They only allow you to only work the specific, controlled movement that you have chosen and support you fully and they do not allow your stabilizer muscles to kick in and help hold your body in balance. It’s those stabilizer muscles that help you use strength in the real world, since you are rarely perfectly supported and in an ideal position when lifting something heavy.

But, machines just let you focus on the movement that you’re doing. There are no other distractions, and your body’s stability helps you focus on fatiguing the muscles in action. They are perfect for beginners and if you haven’t done anything physical in a while and don’t have very much body awareness, machines are a great place to start.

As for barbells and dumbbells, they are great for beginners, intermediates, and even advanced lifters. Once you learn how to use them correctly, they give you the benefits of working with unstabilized weight (yes!), are still pretty darn safe, and have been used successfully to build massive amounts of strength.

Functional Training:

  • Real-Life Focused

Functional training focuses on compound movement exercises. An example of what’s not a compound movement is a bicep curl where you have the bicep doing most of the work, and the triceps helping to lower the weight. It only involves one joint, two muscle groups, and is a very limited motion which is not at all like how you move in real life.

In real life, when you lift groceries, take out the trash, wrestle your kids into the car, or help move your friend’s sofa, you’re using all your muscles together. Thus, exercises that use many joints and muscles all together simulate those real-life movements that you’ll want to use your strength for.

Barbell movements like the squat, deadlift, and shoulder press do that. Other more creative lifts, like manhandling sandbags across the lawn, flipping huge tires, and dragging weights with thick ropes, all share that emphasis on using your strength in real life situations.

  • Dynamic

Dynamic movements force you to exert strength throughout an entire range of motion and use weights that significantly fatigue you. Lifting a kettlebell from the floor above your head, lifting a barrel to your shoulders, and even doing clean & presses with barbells give you that energy and range of movement.

In contrast to calf extensions, ab crunches, and wrist curls. There’s a place for those exercises to firm up your weak points, but small, isolated exercises will not be the bulk of any functional training routine.

  • Use Barbells, Dumbbells, Kettlebells, Sandbags, and Anything Else Heavy

As you may have picked up from the paragraphs above, functional training is all about building strength that you can use “in the wild”. This means that training has an “in the wild” component also.

If it’s heavy and an object that you can lift, carry or move around, you can use it for functional training. Even carrying heavy boxes can be functional training since there is no hard and fast definition that prohibits some forms of exercise equipment.

You can even do functional training with barbells and dumbbells. All you need is the desire and the right exercises that will use as much of your body together as possible.

So, Which Should You Choose?
If you’re a beginner, start with traditional training. Working with machines will give you a base level of strength and a chance to learn about your body. From there, you can move onto barbells and dumbbells, and introduce a component of balance into your workout. Then you can do more functional training type movements with barbells and dumbbells, and gradually transition into the more crazy types of training.

If you’re more experienced and excited, by all means try the more advanced ideas above. Just don’t blame me when you get sore!

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About Author

Aaron McCloud

Aaron McCloud has had a longstanding interest in exercise and fitness. When he was 13, he started practicing martial arts (Japanese swordsmanship and Aikido), which then grew into a passion for strength training and exercise in high school and college. See my profile page for more information!

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