Core training and functional training are two fitness buzzwords that are increasingly used within the fitness industry.

These terms are often used (sometimes inaccurately) to describe the various forms of training that incorporate movement patterns rather than traditional strength exercises.

The terms (core training and functional training) are similar, but not the same, and shouldn’t be interchangeable.

However, both terms have the same aim – to guide the average gym goer into incorporating exercises that involve functional muscular movements into their workouts.

For too long, many trainers have focussed their workouts primarily on traditional strength building exercises that attempt to isolate specific muscles for growth.

In doing so, they have often ignored strengthening and improving the body movements that are of most use in daily life.

A barbell bench press on a Smith Machine, for example, can help us develop tremendous looking pecs but the movement itself is seldom utilised in day-to-day life. It will be a rare occurrence (outside of the gym) that you will be lying flat on your back pushing up a heavy weight in one plane of movement.

And yet that is what we have trained our bodies to be good at.

When you need to lift a heavy weight in ‘real life’ it is far more likely that you will need to use your glutes, your quads, your core trunk muscles, your back and arm muscles as well as your chest, in a much wider range of movement and with much more weight ‘wobble’ than with a fixed resistance weight machine.

We explain below the principles of core and functional training to understand the relationship to each other and their associated benefits:

Core Training

Core strength and stability is the foundation on which a strong healthy and energetic body is built. You wouldn’t build a house on foundations of wet sand without expecting serious problems – the same is true of the human body.

Core stability is the ability of the trunk muscles to stabilize, support and assist the spine in all activities. From taking the shopping out of the car and maintaining good posture at our desks, to throwing a cricket ball, running a half-marathon or skiing a black run confidently.

Our core muscles are responsible for stabilization, flexion, extension and rotation of the trunk.

Unfortunately as technology has evolved and lifestyles have changed, there is less and less effective use of this important muscle group in everyday life.

At least 70% of the adult population will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their life. A high percentage of these will be due to weak core muscles and poor lifting technique.

Functional Training

Functional strength training is a discipline in which, the training emphasis is placed upon strength throughout movement patterns, rather than isolating muscles like a bodybuilder would. 

The brain controls the muscular movements of our body and does not isolate individual muscles when looking to accomplish a task (movements, bends, lifts, jumps, walking, running, etc). It works via a range of motions rather than by utilising and isolating individual muscles.

The musculoskeletal and the nervous system are designed to work in synergy with each other to produce optimum performance, so the body requires training that enhances the coordinated working relationship between them.

As fully functioning humans, we are capable of a huge range of movement activities. We may walk or run, jump or crouch, lift or put down, push or pull, climb or lunge, stand or turn, twist and turn, etc.

We are afforded this luxury because our brains can control our bodies to produce smooth, rhythmic motions in the fundamental planes of movement – sagital, frontal and transverse.

Functional strength training is resistance training that improves strength and coordination for the performance of various movements. The goal of the functional exercises is help make daily tasks and activities easier to perform. 

In functional training, the aim is train the specific movement as much as the muscles involved in achieving that same movement.

A sportsman doing a one-armed plank at the gym. Core vs functional training

The Correlation

So let’s look at core vs functional training and whether either is right for you.

To follow any functional training program, core training should be implemented at the same time.

As mentioned, our core muscles are responsible for stabilization, flexion, extension and rotation of the trunk.

It would be inconceivable to perform functional movement patterns of the whole body without involvement of the core.

Core training should be implemented into every exercise that you do and not left as an afterthought. Too many of us leave core exercises to a few token ab cruches at the very end of the workout.

The gym junkie in me covets the fabulous high tech, fixed resistance machines that you see online (and in many of the upmarket gyms) with a sense of envy and awe. I must have one of those for my home gym, I think as I calculate costs and dimensions and which child to sell.

However, if the truth be told, they are mostly unnecessary. Grandiose fixed resistance machines are expensive, take up precious space and don’t live up to the promise of giving us more strength for less effort.

Free weights and a rudimentary knowledge of functional strength training will do more good. You can easily initiate the core into each exercise you undertake and reduce the risk of developing muscle imbalance (which can occur with extensive use of fixed weight machines).

Your body is the best piece of gym equipment

Our body provides us with the best resource we can have for training.

People often overlook how effective our own bodyweight can be as a tool in functional strength and core training. To be functionally fit is to be fit for the demands and stresses put upon our body in everyday life, and in the sports and leisure activities that we pursue.

You can find many abdominal classes in gyms today. Certainly there are now more than ever with smart science behind them. These exercises teach how to initiate one’s core trunk muscles through through hollowing and bracing techniques.

However, I often wonder how effective can it be to learn how to initiate these muscles when only lying on the floor?

Our bodies and spines are under far more duress throughout the day when we are standing and moving around, than it is when we are in bed asleep.

In my opinion, it is imperative for the success of any core training program to implement these same principles into various movement patterns and load dynamics that are specifically aimed at countering the realities of our twenty-first century lifestyles.

These are the postural imbalances and sedentary lifestyle issues that prevail in our working and recreational lives today and which we must consciously look to remedy through focussed exercise.

The rising popularity of F45 workouts (the ‘F’ stands for Functional) and CrossFit studios worldwide is a sign that the fitness industry and its client base is embracing this challenge.

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