The Ultimate Guide to Functional Trainers
Everything You Need to Know About Functional Trainers
When it comes to working out in the gym -- be it in the comforts of your own garage or your local establishment -- what’s the one piece of fitness equipment that, if all other equipment disappeared, you could still build an impressive physique?
The answer: functional trainers.
A functional trainer cable machine is one of the most versatile pieces of gym equipment - which is why they're so common in commercial gyms, and should be a staple in every home gym. You can do so much without moving more than five feet away from it. And when it comes to building your at-home gym, you want to have equipment that does a lot with a little. Functional trainers do just that.
In this article, we’ll go over everything regarding functional trainers, including what they are, how to use them, the specific facets of a functional trainer, and how they benefit us. We also give you workout examples, plus what you need to consider when buying your own functional trainer.
Let’s get functional...
What Is a Functional Trainer?
This is a piece of equipment that is essentially a combination of many different, separate machines. A functional trainer looks like a gigantic cage, chock-full of weight stacks, bars, pulleys, and cables.
Functional trainers help people work out different parts of their bodies and perform a ridiculous amount of movements and exercises. Most commercial gym institutions have a version of a functional trainer tucked in the corner or displayed prominently in the middle of the floor.
It includes a lot of adjustable mechanisms and handholds to vary your workouts and improve specific muscle groups. This makes it one of the most versatile pieces of equipment ever conceived, and something to consider for your at-home gym arsenal.
The reason why it’s called a functional trainer is because you can simulate functional training movements in your day-to-day life with it. This is due to the trainer being a multiplanar machine, which means you can move your body through multiple planes (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, etc.). For example, you can do a pull-up, a row, and a straight-arm pull-down, which are multiplanar exercises for your back. This allows you to move your body in a variety of NATURAL ways. Hence the name functional trainer.
How to Use a Functional Trainer Cable Machine
This is an interesting one because the answer is: In many ways.
A functional trainer has multiple uses, from repping out pull-ups to doing a single-arm tricep pushdown. So there are a few key things to know so that you can use your own functional trainer to the best of your ability:
- Can you adjust the height/weight? If so, use the pins and pulleys it comes with to set the training apparatus to your needs. For example, if you want to perform lightweight cable chest flyes, adjust the weight down to a lower setting and set up the ends of the cables either near the floor, at shoulder height, or above your head, depending on your preference for the exercise.
- Does it come with multiple attachments? We’ll go over the specifics in-depth below, but if you can attach multiple handles to the weight stacks, then simply clip and unclip them to your needs or preferences. You can go from a single-hand grip for one exercise to an EZ-bar grip for another exercise.
- Does it have static options? Pull-up bars, footholds, T-bar slots...there can be a lot of additional resources on your functional trainer. Use these for the calisthenics and weight training they’re intended for. We’ll go over how to perform these exercises below in our example workout.
As you can see, you can use a functional trainer in a variety of ways...it has so many uses! But here’s a deeper dive into the pieces and parts of a trainer, which will give you a better understanding of how to utilize it within your workout routine.
Functional Trainer Weight Stacks and Adjustable Pulleys
Most functional trainers feature dual weight stacks, and that is the optimal setup. However, single weight stack functional trainers can be more affordable. Weight stacks are stacks of weighted plates that allows you to select how much load you’ll use for a specific movement. Two weight stacks will help to improve imbalances and ensure you will have unilateral strength. The most common weight resistance is 150lbs per stack, but there are commercial grade models that can go all the way up to 300lbs per stack.
They also allow you to do a substantial amount of different exercises versus a trainer with one weight stack. You can even have multiple people workout at once!
The pulleys are connected to the weight stack, which slides up and down its path and is separated from you by an enclosure (a super neat safety feature). The adjustable pulley mechanism ends with a carabiner, with the pulley gliding along the edge of a wheel that can be adjusted straight up or straight down. This allows the carabiner to be either on the floor, the tippy-top of the machine, or somewhere in between. (This is how the functional trainer is multiplanar.)
What use is the carabiner at the end of the pulley system attached to the weight stack? Well….
Functional Trainer Cable Attachments
The cable attachments are what connect to the carabiners. With the weight stack, pulleys, carabiners, and attachments altogether, you get to lift whatever weight you want safely and with more potential time under tension.
- D Handles: Can be grabbed with a single hand for unilateral exercises. Typically has a black rubber handle and nylon/fabric connected to the carabiner.
- Triceps Rope: A single rope, split in half where the carabiner connects, that has a giant knot on both ends. This can be used for triceps exercises (more on this later).
- Long/Short Bars: Similar to Lat pulldown bars, you can use these to perform push and pull barbell movements (rows, standing chest press, shoulder press, etc.).
- EZ-bar: This bar is contoured to look like a squiggly line. This switches up your handholds, which is nice for curls and also triceps exercises.
- Ankle Cuff: Similar to a D handle but it has a loop to fit your foot through. Ideal for hip movements.
- Lat Pulldown Bars: These are long/short bars with the edges flared out for a more natural grip.
- Ankle Straps: The ankle strap is perfect to use for abductor and adductor or hip flexor exercises
The entire world is at your fingertips with these attachments. But what does that world offer you?
Functional Trainer Benefits
There’s a reason -- a few reasons, actually -- why every gym in America has a functional trainer. Here are the advantages of owning your own for your at-home gym:
- Unparalleled Versatility: Whether you use splits or not, you want gym equipment that can offer you a full-body workout. A functional trainer can work your traps, LATs, core, biceps, triceps, pecs, quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. What’s more, you can go from one muscle group to another with relative ease and never compromising additional rest time. It’s incredibly efficient to be able to work out your entire body with a single machine, and functional trainers are just the ticket. Adding an adjustable bench to a functional trainer will create an endless amount of exercise variation!
- Space Effectiveness: Not only can you do nearly everything with this singular piece, but it doesn’t take up as much space as you’d think. Considering the functionality, the fact that it can still fit in a quarter of your garage is pretty impressive. Most trainers measure five feet by six feet while reaching eight feet in height. (Of course, with pull-ups you’ll want to put it in a place that’s relatively taller than eight feet, so you don’t bonk your head.) This thing does everything and more, and without taking up an entire room.
- Progressive Overload: This is the reason why you work out. Progressive overload is when you do one percent more in this workout than what you did in the previous workout. This can be a number of things: reps, sets, time under tension, rest time. In short, you want to be increasing your volume slowly over time. This is how you get stronger, and, by association, more muscular. With easy-to-change weight stacks and attachments and angles, you can easily increase the difficulty of exercises. Simply go up the weight stack, then choose a range of reps and sets (example: three sets of 8-12 reps). When you hit the top of the rep range, up the weight on the stack and start back at the bottom of the range. With this strategy, and with a functional trainer, you’ll be ripped in no time!
- Continuous Tension: Depending on the angle, you can maximize your time under tension with a functional trainer. Time under tension is when you feel the weight you’re lifting. A lot of times, you don’t feel the tension when in the eccentric phase of a movement, where you can let the weight dead-hang. Functional trainers ensure that tension is constant; otherwise, you’re banging your weight stack and potentially damaging your machine. This additional tension is super beneficial for the breakdown of your muscle fibers, giving you a higher quality workout experience.
- Isolation/Isolateral Exercises: You can focus all of your energy on a single joint or muscle when using a functional trainer. This is critical for lagging body parts. Another cool aspect of functional trainers is that you can do isolateral exercises, which means you work one side of your body at a time. Isolateral exercises help you avoid asymmetrical strength and protects you from injury. And functional trainers can give you both types of movements.
- Multiplanar Angles: This is what puts the “functional” in functional trainer. Multiplanar means you can change the plane through which your body moves in an exercise. Continuing the chest fly example from earlier, you can fly from low-to-high, high-to-low, or parallel to the floor. You can do triceps extensions from on high or directly behind the back. With multiplanar exercises, you can dial the focus in even more, choosing which shoulder muscles and other specific muscles to work.
- Incredibly Safe: The weight stacks are separated from you by a plastic sheathing, the pulleys keep you from being underneath unstable weights, and you can safely “drop” the weight whenever you’ve hit your failure rep. Functional trainers are super safe, which is why they are also….
- Rehab-Friendly: Because it’s safe and you can do unilateral work with it, a functional trainer is terrific for rehabilitation purposes. If you need to do regular exercises to bring you back from an injury, then a functional trainer should be your go-to machine because you can make the weight stack extremely light, plus the tension will allow complete rehab capability. So whether you’re 100 percent healthy or not, this equipment has you covered.
- Cost-Effectiveness: In the grand scheme of things, a functional trainer is a drop in the bucket, considering it’s an investment in your health, fitness, and general well-being. On the lower tier, your basic cable crossover machines cost about $1500, while the midrange is roughly $2500. And if you want to get really fancy, high-end cable machines can carry a price tag of $3500 or more. While this may sound like a lot, they are durable and can last you years. Say you grab a midrange functional trainer and use it for 15 years. That $2500 price equates to about $165 a year, or 14 bucks a month. How much do local gyms cost again? Oh yeah, more. Much more.
As you can see, functional trainers are worthwhile tools for your ultimate physique. And, in the long run, it’s way more cost-effective to go with a personal functional trainer you can put in your spare room, the basement, the garage, or even a covered patio in the backyard! Its versatility and safety cannot be beat, making it one of the best pieces of equipment you can buy.
Functional Trainer Exercise List
- Legs: Glute kickbacks, cable squats, pistol squats, long-bar cable deadlifts, leg raises, lying hamstring curls, weighted step-ups, Smith machine squats (if it has a barbell attached)
Back: Standing row, single-arm lateral row, LAT pulldowns, pull-ups, chin-ups, front lever pulls, chainsaws, Australian pulls, straight-arm pushdowns
Chest: Flyes, chest press, decline/incline push-ups, dips, muscle-ups, cable weight press (keeping hands together in front of chest and pushing out and squeezing pecs together)
Shoulders: Cable crossovers, unilateral shoulder press, lateral raises, reverse flyes
Arms: Pushdowns, curls, overhead triceps extensions, hammer curls, close-grip Australian pull curls
Core: Hanging leg/knee raises, L-sits, high cable crunches, woodchops, plank variations
BONUS READ: The 7 Most Popular Functional Trainer Exercises
Functional Trainer Workout Example
So what can you do with a functional trainer? A lot, as you can probably imagine.
This is just a taste of what a functional trainer workout can be. Below, we’ll also show you the litany of movements you can do with this piece of equipment.
- Straight Bar Deadlifts: 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Assisted Pistol Squats: 3 sets x 8-12 reps each leg
- Push-ups: 4 sets x 10-20 reps
- Pull-ups: 4 sets x 8-20 reps
- Standing Upright Row: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Unilateral Cable Shoulder Press: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Cable Chest Bench Press*: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Rope Curls: 3 sets x 12-20 reps
- Rope Pushdowns: 3 sets x 12-20 reps
- High Cable Crunches: 2 sets x Failure
- Hanging Leg Raises: 2 sets x Failure
This full-body workout will definitely kick your butt. Ideal for overall fitness and strength development. Add or subtract exercises based on your goals, but you should have at least an upper body push, an upper body pull, a lower body push, and a lower body pull, with maybe a core-centric movement.
*This requires a bench, but anything low that you can lie your back on will suffice.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Functional Trainer
Now, you don’t just want to get the first functional trainer you see when you search Amazon. There are some characteristics you’ll want to look for when buying your very own all-in-one gym.
- Quality Materials: You want to make sure your functional trainer is built with the best metal for the frame, as well as durable weight stacks and pulleys. As well, the attachments need to be made out of high-quality nylon or rope. Look for stainless steel, iron, or any other tough metals that can withstand wear and tear. Speaking of which….
- Maximum Durability: Your trainer should last you for almost your entire lifting career. That means it should last a good long while. Along with premium materials, make sure the entire assembly is built to remain as strong as you’ll become.
- Weight Stacks/Pulleys/Attachments Included:These are the specific aspects of your functional trainer. How big do you want the weight stack to get? How do you want the pulley system to adjust? Which attachments do you need for your workout experience? These are questions you need to be asking.
- Sturdy Pull-up Bar: No matter what, your functional trainer starts at the top. And by that, we mean the pull-up bar (or chin up bar). Within a year or two, you’ll probably be adding weight to your own body and repping out pull-ups. Therefore, you need a trainer with a decent weight capacity. Most product descriptions will tell you how much the machine can handle.
- Adjustment Simplicity and Smoothness: How well do the cable mechanisms slide up and down their tracks? You don’t want to spend your entire rest periods struggling to put the attachment into position. It should be seamless and smooth. The setup shouldn’t be the workout.
- Trusted Companies: There are fitness brands out there that have made a good, honest name for themselves. By choosing a functional trainer from a trusted company, you ensure you get quality materials, lasting durability, and a guarantee that you’re getting your money’s worth.
- Warranty: This is some simple common sense here, but get a warranty with any gym equipment you buy. Some pieces may be faulty, others could be damaged easily or before you even set it up. With a solid warranty, you’ll be covered for anything that happens. (See how many years each functional trainer is covered.)
What are the Best Functional Trainers?
We have a full comparison guide about the best functional trainers on the market that you can read here:
Find the best functional trainer for you home gym, commercial grade or most affordable! With all of this in mind, we have no doubt you’ll find the perfect functional trainer for your fitness needs.
With a functional trainer, you can get an intense workout with just one piece of fitness equipment. Whether its for your home gym or commercial use, a functional trainer is a must have in any facility. And with all of the characteristics we’ve listed, you can be sure that a functional trainer will become a staple in your strength training program.
Grab yourself a functional trainer, get to work, progress continuously, and you’ll see the difference. Happy lifting!
Suggested Continued Reading:
- The Top 5 Reasons You Need a Functional Trainer Right Now
- The 7 Most Popular Functional Trainer Exercises
- The Best Functional Trainers of 2022
- Shop All of our Functional Trainers