PT on the Net Research

The Evolution of the Functional Training Paradigm

The role of the personal trainer has evolved significantly in recent years to accommodate growing client needs and demands. In the past, clients primarily consulted personal trainers to achieve weight loss or general conditioning goals. These same consumers now expect personal trainers to have a broader scope of practice, including exercise prescription to mitigate back stiffness or soreness, along with a whole host of other musculoskeletal issues.

Moreover, during such challenging economic times, people are less inclined to pay specialized healthcare professionals for what they perceive to be minor issues, and instead are more likely to bring their health concerns to their personal trainer, whom they already know and trust. As a result, it is critical to be able to identify your clients’ positions on the health continuum – a scale that spans from illness to wellness to elite performance. You will find each one of your clients somewhere on this scale, and any trainer who is serious about exercise program design will determine where each client is on the continuum before training begins.

Most exercises are suitable for most people, but they can easily be prescribed at the wrong time. One example of this is core stability training; it can help some people but hurt others (McGill, 2003). Similarly, biomechanical issues such as a rotated pelvis and leg length discrepancy, with associated muscle spasm in the hips, will likely be aggravated if an asymmetrical exercise such as a lunge is prescribed. If no pelvic dysfunction exists, however, performing lunges is much less risky.

We, as fitness professionals, must be cognizant of these parameters and guard against taking a “jack-of-all-trades” approach when engaging our clients. Knowing only enough to be dangerous can unfortunately be just that: dangerous! Therefore, as we scan the health and fitness education marketplace searching for new science, modality concepts and delivery methods, we must be not only conscious, but also extremely sensitive to the changing demographic that forms the majority of our target audience. Being finely attuned to these consumer trends and needs may very well be the differentiating factor between our competition and us. So while we should not cross medical boundaries by becoming “pseudo-therapists,” we must accept the need for change and, ultimately, professional growth.

Functional Training Defined

The body is an integrated system, with each of its component parts linked together to provide coordinated movement in our daily lives. With its origins in rehabilitation, functional training helps us prepare for these tasks and ingrains the correct movement patterns with which our brains are already familiar rather than training isolated muscles.

There are many variations on the definition of functional training, including:

  1. An exercise continuum involving balance and proprioception, performed with the feet on the ground and without machine-assistance, such that strength is displayed in unstable conditions and body weight is managed in all movement planes (Boyle, 2003).
  2. Multi-joint, multi-planar, proprioceptively-enriched activity that involves deceleration (force reduction), acceleration (force production) and stabilization; controlled amounts of instability; and management of gravity, ground reaction forces and momentum (Gambetta & Gray, 1995; Gambetta, 1999).
  3. A spectrum of activities that condition the body consistent with its integrated movement and/or use (Santana, 2000).

Many experts also believe that training tasks should be chosen according to their mechanical specificity and relationship to the activities of daily living (ADL). In other words, their basic mechanics – but not necessarily appearance – should correspond to one or more target activities (Santana, 2000; Baechle & Earle, 2000; Siff, 2003; Zatsiorsky, 1995).

The Functional Training Paradigm and its Flaws

Needless to say, common definitions and understanding of functional training are quite similar. And predictably, they conform to the same existing paradigm.

In 1962, Kuhn defined paradigms as “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.” According to Burrell and Morgan (1979), a paradigm provides a conceptual framework for seeing and making sense of the social world. They also suggested that a paradigm “stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values and techniques, and so on shared by the members of a community.”

Paradigms are shaped based on our prior observations and understanding of the world. However, they also contribute to consensual thought processes, which invariably lead to restrained innovation and progress among a community of practitioners. So even as we evaluate the current functional training paradigm, we instinctively look for ways to deliver better variations of it rather than to challenge it. This conformity is evident in most research, too. Kuhn described this concept in the Kuhn Cycle, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Kuhn (1962) also recognized that a paradigm inherently gives rise to problems more frequently than it provides a framework for solving them. For innovative solutions, one generally needs to depart from accepted norms and apply unconventional wisdom in to detect system failings.

While many physical therapists found functional screening and training helpful during rehabilitation, they also identified large gaps in the approach and saw persistent problems in their clients. One key gap was the body’s ability to compensate for isolated biomechanical flaws, while maintaining acceptable positions during a functional screen.

This can be demonstrated with a traditional squat pattern. There are three main joints that perform this movement: the hips, the knees, and the ankles. Because the body is a master of compensation, it is entirely possible that your client could have a dysfunctional knee, yet still pass a functional screen due to the ability of the hip and ankle to compensate for it. In fact, it could be argued that abnormal functional movement patterns are merely a visible demonstration of the body’s amazing ability to compensate for its biomechanical flaws. In other words, we are very good at cheating – and the more athletic we are, the better we get.

Biomechanics Defined

There are two types of biomechanics: extrinsic and intrinsic (Siff, 2003). Extrinsic biomechanics is the study and measurement of movement patterns of a particular task. This approach is widely recognized and often studied in university sports science courses, and is part of the existing functional training paradigm. It can be seen in many different types of functional screening programs where the movement itself is the focus of assessment. An intrinsic biomechanics emphasis, however, falls firmly outside of the current paradigm. It is a scientific discipline that enables the analysis and assessment of an individual’s mechanical disposition and how that structure facilitates movement. Traits can be genetically inherited or influenced by extrinsic factors such as sitting at a desk, driving, doing the wrong gym exercises, or running in the wrong shoes. Intrinsic biomechanics frequently affect extrinsic biomechanical performance.

A New Paradigm and its Benefits

Given the challenges we face when introducing completely new ideas and ways of thinking within a well-established paradigm, let us step outside of it for a moment and consider the following: Should we primarily focus on movement patterns and preparation for ADL tasks? Or should we be more interested in the way each joint or system is actually intended to move and the best way to utilize or leverage that existing structure?

As stated previously, each individual has unique, unconditioned (genetic) and conditioned (acquired) reflex codes that determine movement over the course of their life. Each person starts with unconditioned codes and during their life begins to acquire conditioned movement codes, which often compensate for injury and biomechanical flaws. Compare this knowledge to the methods we currently employ under the precepts of accepted health, fitness and wellness care and a stark contrast becomes apparent: The current paradigm encourages us to accept that by patterning a movement “correctly” we automatically ingrain the ability to perform the pattern instinctively, without taking into account the causes of the conditioned movement codes. The new paradigm proposes to first identify and manage the conditioned movement codes, then teach and prescribe relevant functional movements.

While recognizing the effectiveness of functional movement to prepare for function, it would seem that the logical, precursory step would be to add an intrinsic biomechanics component. This would illuminate unconditioned and conditioned movement codes and better prepare our client for the onset of functional movement training. By adding this practical foundation to our current training and delivery methodology we would mitigate detected biomechanical flaws. We would also remove the need for the body to intrinsically labor and compensate for flaws a functional screen would otherwise not detect.

Simply put: isolate and integrate. This approach is already in use by “early adopters,” and as usual with cutting-edge science, in time, the “followers” will follow, ultimately resulting in a new and improved paradigm.


The movements we are required to perform nowadays are quite different from those performed by our ancient ancestors. The rigorous and varied movements essential for the survival of our hunter/gatherer cousins have transformed within a hundred years. Activity these days is often limited to small static movements such as typing, steering and using TV remote controls. While some people exercise, the vast majority does not. So if functional movement and training is defined by the ability to prepare people for ADL, why are we not considering these activities when prescribing exercise in our health, fitness and wellness facilities? One might raise an eyebrow in response to this logic, but actually if we are not following this logic we are simply not adhering to the definition of function (Boyle, 2003; Gambetta & Gray, 1995; Santana, 2000). Therefore, we must deduce that either the definition of – or our approach to – functional training is currently incorrect.

As functional concepts start to transcend medical fields into fitness, it is important to recognize that biomechanical screening must as well. Functional and biomechanical screening and training are very important aspects of an overall conditioning program for any sport or activity and are complementary in every way. However, there are many people who pass a functional screen, yet fail a biomechanical screen. Therefore the two modalities, while both detecting different factors, provide the personal trainer and, indeed the therapist, with essential tools for safe and effective prehab, rehab and general exercise prescription. Of course, you must always be prepared to refer to someone who is more qualified than you to perform any kind of screening, especially if you are inexperienced in the field.

We need to develop a fundamental understanding of specific-joint biomechanics of the pelvis, spine, shoulder and knee. We must also consider nerve biomechanics and function within this new paradigm. Once we understand these intrinsic biomechanics principles, how to objectively analyze screens, and how best to implement them as a system, we can prescribe the most efficient and relevant exercises to meet our client’s goals. After these biomechanical issues have been resolved, functional training and/or any other modality of training has a much greater chance for success, not to mention reduced exposure to injury for our clients and members.

Many professional sports teams and organizations around the world have already adopted this intrinsic biomechanics approach. And daily they are realizing that intrinsic biomechanical screening and corrective exercise prescription is a critical precursor to functional screening and training. It provides a solid foundation for movement patterns that can otherwise be flawed. On the cutting-edge of our industry you will already find “early adopters” practicing intrinsic biomechanics as part of their personal training client care. There are some fantastic courses currently being run in the US, the UK and many other countries, so consider attending an intrinsic biomechanics course as you work toward becoming a more complete trainer or therapist.


  1. Baechle, T.R., & Earle, R.W. (Eds.). 2000. National Strength & Conditioning Association. Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Boyle, M. (2003). Functional Training for Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life. London: Heinemann.
  4. Gambetta, V., & Gray, G. (1995). Following a functional path. Training & Conditioning, 5(2): 25-30.
  5. Gambetta, V., & Clark, M. (1998). A formula for function. Training & Conditioning, 8(4): 24-29.
  6. Gambetta, V. (1999). Force and function. Training & Conditioning, 9(5): 36-40.
  7. Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  8. Santana, J.C. (2000). Functional Training. Boca Raton, FL: Optimum Performance Systems.
  9. Siff, M.C. (2003). Supertraining (6th ed.). Denver, CO: Supertraining Institute.
  10. Zatsiorsky, V.M. (1995). Science & Practice of Strength Training. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics.