I know I just made some of my readers puke a little in the back of their throats. These two terms are abused to the point of almost complete uselessness by people who don't have or know what it's like to use their body for a living. I mentioned a while back that I see these terms as a sort of revolt against the purely aesthetic reasoning behind strength training. Train your body to do something worthwhile. That "something" obviously is a very fluid concept. Everyone's got a slightly different demand on their body and their "something" may be different than yours. So, their ideas of practical exercises also varies.
I was party to a discussion (okay, it was the internet...ARGUMENT!) about the practicality of rope climbing. One side considered it a very practical exercise, claiming that it's very important to develop the strength needed to climb a rope in real life. After all, your life may depend on it! The other side insisted that there is no situation in life where you'll ever climb a rope like you would when you train. So, rope climbing is impractical!
I beg to differ with the latter, but I don't totally agree with the former's assessment either. I consider rope climbing to be a legitimately awesome and very practical, real-world, functional strength exercise. Anyone who is strong enough with pull-ups/chin-ups to attempt rope climbing is going to realize that this is one of the ultimate ways to develop grip, arm and upper-back strength. There's an element of danger to rope climbing because of the fact that if you can't hold on, you'll fall will force you to be powerful in ways that you just can't replicate with pull-ups. If you have a "something" that demands that you have all of the above, it's hard to beat rope climbing in training.
The critics are right though too. You'll probably NEVER actually climb a rope, or anything else, like that. I'm no rock climbing expert, or even novice, by any stretch of anyone's imagination but I do know that the classic mistake of a beginner is NOT USING THE LEGS WHEN YOU CLIMB! This leads to rapid fatigue in the upper body. Strength training-based rope climbing never uses the legs except as a progression to full-upper body rope climbing.
Still, that doesn't mean that it's not practical just because it doesn't replicate how you climb in real life. If you really think about all exercises like that, then there aren't very many practical exercises at all. Take the farmers walk for example. It's got to be the exercise most brought up for functional strength since it mimics carrying two, heavy objects in each hand. Still, I can find several reasons why it's not practical because it doesn't replicate real life:
1. dumbbell, trap bar, barbell... it doesn't matter. Most farmers walks are using weight that's pretty nicely balanced in the hand. I've never carried anything at work in both hands as nicely balanced as any of these objects. Most of the time, the weight is below the hand, not on either sides. Most of stuff that I farmer's walk with are liquids, which are way more unstable than solid weight. Have you ever tried carrying two 5 gallons pails of hydraulic oil? If only it was like carrying dumbbells!
2. Most Farmer's walks are done in the confines of a gym, or outside of a gym. That means nice flat, hard and even ground to walk on. Have you ever tried to farmer's walk through mud? Or maybe up a hill? Or how about walking down a hill?
So, is everyone wrong? Is the Farmer's Walk, like Rope Climbing, an impractical exercise?
OF COURSE NOT!
Neither of them are impractical. They're both legitimately awesome for training your body for real-world, functional training (Come on guys and gals, don't puke again!). What this whole witch hunt over practical exercises misses the point: It's PRACTICE! The whole point of practice is to make the task a little easier in order to become better at certain, key points of the task at hand. That's why I'm not here suggesting that you farmer's walk with heavy liquids up and down a steep hill. I do stuff like that at work because I have to. I'm fully aware that work can be a little abusive on the body. That's why I don't train exactly like I work.
That brings me to my second point about strength training: it should condition you to withstand the rigors your "something" will put you through. That's how exercises that don't mimics anything you do at all can be so beneficial. I still hold firm that one of the most practical BW exercises that I do is the ab wheel roll-out, even though I don't do anything even remotely close to this action at work or at play. In order to do this exercise properly, you have to contract the abs and glutes powerfully prior to and during the exercise. This has helped me out immeasurably at work.
If you're seeking out practical exercises, exercises that keep your body healthy and injury-free are also great. Somewhere I came across these words from Dan John:
Things that I believe can help anyone improve on the road to health and fitness
1. Pick stuff off the ground
2. Put stuff overhead
3. Carry stuff for time and distance
I can't put it too much better than that except to add one more thing: put stuff down, under control. All four of these actions also pretty much sum up what practical exercises are made of. They may not be a similar load, moved in a similar style to what you're doing in that ever-changing "something" but they're still awesome for building the kind of strength that you can use almost anywhere.