Functional Exercise for Sports Performance


Functional Exercise for Sports Performance


Many top professional and collegiate athletes are using functional training to improve their game, and there’s a reason that many coaches and trainers are requiring their athletes to use functional exercise as a big part of their training. Some athletes, particularly younger ones, make the mistake of training to build muscles they can see in the mirror, but it’s more important for athletes to ensure they are functionally strong if they want to improve their sports performance. Whether an athlete plays basketball, football, hockey, or volleyball, incorporating functional training into regular workouts is an excellent way to improve performance while minimizing the chance of injury.


Defining Functional Exercise

Functional exercise focuses on training movement instead of muscles, and these exercises involve using multiple joints across multiple planes of the body. Functional training uses exercises that train athletes to handle their body weight, and eventually the exercises can be made harder by adding unstable surfaces, adding resistance, or balancing on one leg or using one arm. This type of training is not muscle isolation training, it’s not machine based, and it doesn’t use single joint or single planar exercise.


Functional training actually has its roots in rehabilitation, and physical therapists often use this type of training to retrain patients who have movement disorders, which are often seen after injury. Physical therapists found that injuries commonly occur when stabilizing muscles are weak or inactive, shifting stress to another area of the body. By using functional training, it’s possible to find weaknesses and retrain the body so the risk of injury is reduced.


Functional training allows athletes to improve performance in everyday live and sports situations, and this is achieved by adapting or creating exercises that, as in playing real sports, emphasize the body’s ability to move in various ways while working multiple joints. Weight training machines only isolate and target certain muscles, and those movements may not have any relationship to the movement athletes make when engaging in their sport. For real movements, multiple muscles have to work together. While functional exercises train the muscles and help them grow, it also trains muscles to work together, improving coordinative skills that make it easier for athletes to use their power.


The Benefits of Functional Training for Athletes

Adding functional exercises to an athlete’s training routine offers many helpful benefits, including:


  • Benefit #1 – Improved Endurance – Functional training sessions help to improve anaerobic and aerobic endurance in athletes, allowing them to play harder and longer.


  • Benefit #2 – Greater Strength – This type of training includes exercises that engage the lower body, upper body, and the core, helping to improve the overall strength of an athlete’s muscles. Just like real sports, functional exercises work with multiple muscles and joints, which challenges whole muscle chains.


  • Benefit #3 – Increased Flexibility – Using functional training also helps to increase flexibility, since these exercises help athletes train for real sports range of motion. The increase in flexibility ensures that muscles and joints are better prepared to perform, improving sports performance and increasing the body’s injury resistance.


  • Benefit #4 – Injury Prevention – Injury prevention is essential for all athletes, and it’s one of the main benefits of using this type of training. To avoid injuries, athletes must use the correct form when performing exercises. This not only prevents injuries during workouts, but it also helps to program the muscles to use the correct form when playing a sport, which also reduces injuries.


  • Benefit #5 – Coordination and Balance – Coordination and balance are important, no matter what sport an athlete is playing, and it’s the secret to ensuring the body can appropriately react to changing conditions and various situations. It’s not enough to have muscle strength. The body depends on intramuscular coordination, which is the ability of multiple muscle groups to work together to move in the best way for the specific situation. Improving coordination and balance helps athletes enjoy their best performance.


  • Benefit #5 – Focus – Adding functional exercise to an athlete’s workout also helps to improve focus. This type of training involves intervals of working hard and periods of rest, ensuring that athletes learn to stay focused when they are performing while collecting energy and relaxing during rest periods. Since the exercises are challenging, athletes also learn how to stay focused, even when their body is tired.


By increasing endurance, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and focus, athletes have the building blocks they need to optimize their sports performance.


Incorporating Functional Training into Workouts

How can athletes incorporate functional training into their workouts? Are there specific exercises that should be used by all athletes? Assessing the range of motion of each joint of the athlete is the most valuable tool in my opinion for the appropriate program design. If an Athlete has poor hip range of motion not only will speed and vertical jump be impinged, but it will most likely lead to other power leaks and greater chance of injury. Any athlete can use certain exercises, such as squats, lunges, and rotation exercises, to improve their sports performance, trainers generally tailor functional exercise to meet the needs of the athlete. For example, an athlete that plays basketball moves in different ways than an athlete that plays football. For this reason, it’s important to implement movements that are specific to the sport an athlete is playing. Exercises can also be tailored to address the weaknesses of an athlete or to help an athlete improve specific skills. If a football player wanted to increase vertical jump and speed, then exercises that developed power in the legs by training movement patterns would be helpful.


A popular Hip flexing test is a lying knee to chest test. Hip range of motion should be between 120-130 degrees. This can be tested by lying on the floor and bring one knee to your chest while keeping the other leg flat on the floor. By measuring with a goniometer at the point of the hip joint and measuring the angle of the femur and the spine gives you a reading of hip flexion.




The multidirectional lunge is a great exercise for athletes. Because they need to move freely in all directions this exercise helps improve strength and motor recruitment of different muscles compared to a standard lunge. It is also a great tool for increasing hip mobility.



Although functional exercise should not be the only type of training used for athletes, it should be an integral part of any athletes training program. Functional training specifically works to develop athleticism and improve sports performance, enhancing athletic movements like jumping, lifting, and running while developing optimum speed, sound technique, and excellent focus.


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