Across the fitness and health industries we often hear people referring to ‘functional’ exercises. Now if you are like a lot of people, your health and wellness goals might sound similar to the examples below:

“I just want to move a bit better.”

“I’d love to have more energy to work in the garden.”


But what exactly is a functional exercise and how could/would this help you achieve your goals? Read more from Brad McGregor, Exercise Physiologist and Clinic Manager, about functional exercise, and its benefits.


What exactly is a functional exercise and how could/would this help me?

Functional exercise is defined by the client (i.e. YOU) so setting goals with your clinician that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) will ensure that your program is tailored to your needs.

Think of it this way, if the programming police stopped you and your clinician mid-session and asked, “Why are you doing this exercise?” could he/she come up with a valid answer? Can they justify how this exercise will help you to pick up your grandchild without low back pain, or help reduce your elbow pain when at the computer?

An example from a client I have worked with was a 50 yr. old male, post-shoulder surgery. His goal was to return to work as an air conditioning mechanic. Therefore, the functional exercise I prescribed was a barbell shoulder press and reach, which replicated his movement pattern when lifting an external air conditioning unit on to wall-mounted brackets.


Exercise specificity has three (3) core elements

Movement specificity – does the exercise simulate/replicate the movement patterns that align to the goal? I.e. a floor to waist deadlift replicating picking up a toddler.

Posture specificity – does the exercise simulate/replicate the posture required? I.e. if the goal requires you to be standing, is the exercise also performed standing?

Speed specificity – does the speed/velocity of the exercise replicate what is required? I still can’t work out why 50-100m sprint swimmers complete long-slow distance sessions of 7-8km in the pool!


So how do you determine if your clinician is prescribing an exercise intervention that is ‘functional?’

I like to adopt what I call the ‘three treatment rule.’ That is:

“After three sessions can you notice some improvement in your function and/or symptoms, and/or, can you clearly see a plan for how you will achieve to your goal/s?”

Here are a few other questions that will help you to identify a health professional who is client-focused and functionally-minded:

  • Do you have regular health and fitness appraisals to track progress towards your goal/s?
  • Can you confidently finish this sentence? “I know my exercise program is effective because I notice…”
  • Does your clinician document your exercise plan and make adjustments to ensure that you don’t plateau?


Remember, you the client determine what is functional. Your clinician is the vehicle that develops a movement intervention to get you there!


Author: Brad McGregor

Brad McGregor Exercise Physiologist


MSptSc, Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

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