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What Does Functional Training Mean

sandbag training

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist, (Co-creator of DVRT Restoration, Pelvic Control, & Shoulder Course)

It was absolutely devastating, it always is! When you see your dream, that you are so close to achieving, come crashing down. That was me, I was well on my path to qualifying for the Atlanta Olympics in swimming when both back and shoulder injuries ended up not only derailing my efforts, but ending my career.

You aren’t human if you don’t sit back at such situations and say, “ what could I have done differently? ” The positive side is that this traumatic incident drove me into the field of physical therapy. I wanted to help others that had a chance to improve not only performance, but just the quality of their lives.


I saw myself as a pretty innovative therapist. I had studied the works of some of the fathers of functional training like Gary Gray. The idea of movement and function weren’t foreign to me, but I soon discovered that I wasn’t approaching it in the right manner. And after almost a decade of being a therapist, my whole philosophy was turned upside down.

In 2008 I met a strength coach, Josh Henkin. Our relationship didn’t start as a professional one, we actually met and began dating. Josh and I initially made a promise not to treat or train each other, but you know how THAT usually goes. I kept complaining about how my back still really bothered me. Even with all my knowledge, I couldn’t even perform a bodyweight squat without having pain in my back. It wasn’t after long before we broke our rule.

I’ll admit it, I didn’t know much about what Josh actually did. Yea, I kinda knew him as the “sandbag guy” too, but I didn’t know much else about his Dynamic Variable Resistance (DVRT) Program. What I learned from him was not so much about sandbags, but how much I didn’t know about movement.

It started off within seconds, he had me perform a DVRT squat variation and BOOM, I was actually squatting. I always had good mobility, but pain hindered me from doing such exercises. This was the first time in over a decade I was able to perform such a movement without pain. I joked that the Ultimate Sandbag he gave me was magical, but he told me a much different story.

Now not only can I squat pain free, but I understand better through functional training that it is about picking the RIGHT squat for you!


Josh started to explain things that seemed obvious, but yet, brand new. So much of our movement isn’t a byproduct of “tight” muscles, or even “weak” ones but rather, our nervous system understanding how to tap into the dynamic systems of the body.

“What is functional training?” he asked me. I told him my rather standard reply, to improve how people move and perform daily activities. “What does that mean, what does that look like, how do we KNOW something is truly “functional”?”

Hmm, I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. It made sense though, how many of us have been introduced to functional training as a philosophy, not a methodology. We began discussing the questions that people SHOULD be asking themselves when they approach the idea of functional training. What are the PRINCIPLES of functional training?


“Movement, not muscles” was revolutionary since bodybuilding was the predominant training form in most gyms. Yet, we can look at the landscape of fitness and ask the question, “is our training any smarter?” I find many have transitioned to training exercises instead of training movements. People will squat, deadlift, clean, pull-up, etc. Those are great, but when people discuss them as functional they miss the point.

Why? Because it doesn’t offer the right form of progression or direction with training. Most people forget that the foundational concept of training is “Progressive Overload”. You might THINK you are using it by making your exercises heavier, but that is only one way you make an exercise harder.

How many of us can truly say we manage and progress ALL of these variables during the formation of a program? I wasn’t! Not being aware or properly using these variables can completely alter the outcome of a well-intended fitness program, impeding performance and fitness.

functional training

Sound like a lot? Well, it is and it isn’t. It does ask us to have more responsibility for the workouts we create, but it also allows us to make safer, BETTER programs, and more effective workouts. Many of you have probably used these concepts individually, but now the challenging task is to start looking at having them interact with one another.

Here’s a video demonstrating a few of the variables to give you a few ideas on creating alternative challenging movements:


Of the variables above the ones that we spent a lot of time really delving into were the ideas of load position, body position, plane of motion, and stability of implement. Why? This is because we want to challenge the kinetic chains of the body rather than muscles. A kinetic chain can be thought of simply as a connection of muscles, fascia, and other attributes that are used to produce a movement.

Consider this million dollar challenge that fitness expert, Alwyn Cosgrove, gives all the time at his talks. Super easy, just pick-up a pencil from the ground. Oh wait, you have to do it with just ONE muscle! Can’t do it, right?! That is why talking about specific muscles in isolation is really not having a good perspective on functional training, it is more about HOW the muscles work together and why the connection has a problem.


Now that more of my work focuses on fitness and performance training, I meet and speak to a lot more strength and fitness coaches. When I ask them to break down movement, they typically will give me a list like the following….





Some will vary a bit, but if you take a quick examination of this list from leading spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill , you will see some BIG differences!







It isn’t simply the addition of movements, but how more complex and integrated these movements tend to be. While many in the strength community will argue the best “lift” for improving function, Dr. McGill has a much different perspective, “The most essential of human movements is the ability to walk.” How many people set-up their training programs to improve the most fundamental of human movements? If functional training is supposed to make people better in life, then don’t we have to start training people to get better at those real foundational movements?

I realize this is asking people to think differently. For me this change in thought really improved my quality of life. In fact, recently I got a follow up MRI of my back, just to make sure things weren’t changing for the worse. I found my results to be astonishing. Without making any other changes to my lifestyle except for following the guidelines I have explained above, I have seen remarkable improvement in my back.

Don’t miss out on helping yourself or others achieve something special in their fitness programs. Right now, for THIS week only, save 30% AND get 2 FREE L.I.F.T. certification modules (per customer during holiday sale ) when you invest in our best selling Ultimate Sandbags HERE with code “holiday30”. *excludes live events and online coaching