How to train your body using functional fitness to live a longer and better life
Functional fitness is a classification of training that prepares the body for real-life movements and activities. Also known as functional training or functional movement, “It trains your muscles to work together and prepares them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work, or in sports.” –Mayo Clinic. Movements such as squatting, reaching, pulling, and lifting will be made easier with functional fitness integrated into your exercise routine. According to WebMD.com, functional fitness is focused on building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine. For example, you could be deadlifting 400+ pounds in the gym, but when you go to put a suitcase in the back of your car, you throw your back out. Or, you can bicep curl with 50-pound dumbbells with perfect form, but picking up your child makes you pull a muscle. If either of these things sound like you, it may be time to incorporate functional fitness training into your routine.
Components of Functional Fitness
There are a couple components of functional fitness. Before you can move freely in your everyday life without worrying about injury, you must nail the basics. These include strength, balance/coordination, power, range of motion, and mobility. Zeroing in on these aspects of your training will have numerous benefits that translate to your everyday life. Movements such as walking, jogging, running, sprinting, jumping, lifting, pushing, pulling, bending, twisting, turning, standing, starting, stopping, climbing, and lunging, according to the American Council on Exercise, will be made easier while training to improve functional strength.
Is Functional Fitness Right for You?
With any new type of exercise, it’s important to start at a beginner’s pace, and ease into it. If functional fitness sounds like something you are interested in, it’s important to consider the method in which you will be completing these exercises. While some may succeed in a gym unsupervised, when switching up your style of training, it is recommended to consult a fitness professional first. Also, MayoClinic.com recommends starting with exercises that use only your own body weight for resistance. As you become more fit and adjusted to this style of training, you can add more resistance. According to a Wikipedia article on functional training, this style of exercise should be individualized. They state that following a training program will lead to the most success, but the program should be tailored to each individual in order to help them achieve their goals through focusing on meaningful tasks. While group fitness classes may be beneficial for some, an individualized program ensures your success through strengthening your specific weaknesses and tailoring the exercises to your goals. Whatever method you end up choosing, functional fitness will be sure to optimize your performance inside and outside of the gym.
History of Functional Fitness
Functional fitness has been a buzzword in and outside of gyms for a very long time now. Why? It’s not just because of its benefits to people’s everyday lives, but because of the validity and truth behind its origin. Before functional fitness even had a name, all of our ancestors were doing it. According to History.com, early hunter gatherers are dated back to almost two million years ago. These people depended solely on their bodies and prehistoric tools to survive. An article written by Brodie Schroeder on musclearmory.com has a great explanation of what we mean.
“If we’re being honest, before the modern era, functional fitness was basically the only kind of fitness there was. Ancient humans hunted stuff and gathered stuff. That’s how they survived. If they couldn’t run fast enough to catch their prey or were not strong enough to wield their weapons, they simply would not live. Ever hear of the phrase “survival of the fittest”? This is how the human race was able to evolve over millennia. Our bodies adapted to our environment and what we needed to do to survive. By training for functional fitness, you are training your body the way it was designed to be used.” – Schroeder
What is functional training?
In summary, functional fitness is something that is rooted in all of us. Our bodies were developed with the intention of having all of our muscles work together and support each other to accomplish certain movements and tasks. Isolating certain muscle groups to add mass was not what our bodies were naturally made for.
What we know functional fitness to be today, or “modern functional fitness,” was developed on a foundation rooted in rehabilitation and therapy. According to Wikipedia, physical and occupational therapists and chiropractors often used functional training to correct and retrain patients with movement disorders. Whether it was through an accident, injury, surgery, or just basic movement inabilities, functional training was “prescribed” to patients to help them correct their weaknesses in order to live a more fulfilled life. For example, if a person under-go’s surgery that affects their hip mobility, exercises that mimic what they do at home or work will be given in order to help them successfully return to their everyday lives without deficits. If that person has a child, their training would be targeted towards moderate lifting and excellent mobility through the injured area. Wikipedia reiterates the point that this approach to treatment has always been based upon each individual person, not on a templated version of recovery. “Treatments are designed after careful consideration of the patient’s condition, what he or she would like to achieve, and ensuring goals of treatment are realistic and achievable.”
The Rise of Functional Fitness
In recent years many have written and identified the history behind the rise of functional fitness training. They explain how it was a three-tiered process to gain the immense popularity it has today. Writer Elisabeth Fouts explains that the evolution began when a large number of trainers started leaving big “globo” gyms filled with traditional equipment to start their own concept of training that included more functional movement training and less expansive cardio and strength training equipment. The next phase began when boot camps and outdoor fitness classes that incorporated bodyweight and suspension training exercises became more popular (Fouts). Things like kettlebells, medicine balls, battling ropes, tires, and sledgehammers were used in this new style of training. Then, a new fitness trend was born – HIIT training. While both HIIT training and functional fitness are not new concepts, these trends gained more and more popularity with the decline in demand for large-scale “globo” gyms. Finally, phase three in the evolution of functional training, according to Fouts, began with the construction of fitness rigs, commonly referred to as “adult playgrounds” of sorts. Things like “ninja warrior” training, small group training, and obstacle course racing have gained immense popularity recently, due to their “real life” simulations to everyday activities. It is clear to see that functional fitness training is becoming more mainstream due to the benefits people see in their lives inside and outside of the gym.
Functional Fitness Benefits
Besides making you more well-rounded as a person, functional fitness has a number of benefits. These include benefits for your health, everyday life, and athletic performance. Let’s take a look at five of the major benefits of functional fitness:
1) Improves everyday life: In an article by orbitfitness.com, they identify that by improving the overall function of your body, boosting muscle strength and endurance, and developing muscle and body stability, everyday activities can be completed with ease. “Compared to conventional training, the benefits of functional fitness tend to out-weigh everything else because it’s actually targeting the movements we are doing every day.” In addition, functional fitness improves overall quality of life due to the stress relief factor. This type of training is usually more fun than others since you are essentially training for your everyday life.
2) Greater muscle memory: In the same article by Orbit Fitness, they state that by performing regular functional fitness exercises you are not just building muscle and core strength, but actually exercising the brain too – effectively boosting your brain’s memory.
3) Increased mobility: Functional fitness helps to improve balance, coordination, flexibility, muscle strength, and agility. All of these components will leave you more mobile, which in turn helps with your day-to-day life.
4) Improves balance and posture: Since functional fitness is all about training the body to make the muscles work together instead of targeted training, overall strength and balance will improve. Training the muscles to manage weight properly will also reduce stress on the body. In turn, posture will be improved.
5) Reduced risk of injury: By mimicking the movements done in everyday life, the body is more likely to be able to withstand stressors. Functional fitness training encourages muscle and ligament strength, which are the areas that are highly susceptible to injury.
While this is just a consolidated list of benefits, it is easy to see that functional fitness can be highly beneficial to your well-being.
How Does Functional Fitness Differ from Other Forms of Exercise?
Functional fitness is designed to prepare you for all aspects of your life, not just to successfully lift heavy weights in the gym. If you can hit a 300-pound back squat, but you’re out of breath walking from your car to your front door, functional fitness may be the answer. This style of training will help you become a more well-rounded athlete which will translate to your everyday life. There are three main styles of training that “compete” with functional fitness. They are conventional weight training (with machines), group classes, and bodybuilding.
Functional Fitness vs Weight Training
First, let’s take a look at conventional weight training with machines. Machines force you to lift a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture. This teaches you to build muscle in isolated muscle groups. The major characteristics of traditional weight training, according to Shapefit.com, are as follows:
Focuses on one muscle at a time
Seated or supported position
Slow movement speeds for machine reps
Not related to movements of everyday life
Range of motion restricted
Can lead to muscular imbalances/overuse issues
While there is a time and a place for traditional weight lifting, functional training will value your time more greatly. In an example given by WebMD, we can see the true difference between conventional weight training and functional fitness. This example looks at the difference between a seated row which would be performed in a conventional weight training setting, versus a bent over row which would done in functional fitness training. “The bent over row will prepare you for other aspects of life like picking up a child, a nurse transferring a patient to a different bed, or a carpenter working bent over all day. Contrast that with a seated row where you sit in a chair with your chest pressed against pads, and you pull two levers back. You may be strengthening certain muscles, but the rest of your body is not learning anything. You don’t have to activate your core or really your arms and shoulders. The machine does it for you.” We can see through this example the benefits of functional fitness. It forces you to utilize your entire body in order to maximize your physical potential.
Functional Fitness vs CrossFit / Group Training
Like stated earlier, functional fitness training is most successful when done in an individualized manner. Tailoring the program to the specific individual is key to solve for any movement deficiencies, as well as ensuring that your goals are going to be met. In a group fitness setting, it is hard to guarantee that each person is using proper form, using the correct weights, or if the movements are even beneficial to them. While movements performed in some group fitness classes can be classified as functional training, the main goal behind this style of programming is impossible to achieve. Functional fitness must be done in a more individualized manner to optimize results. With that being said, there are some group workouts that name themselves as functional fitness classes, due to the fact that they are doing functional movements. Examples of these group training sessions take place at such as Orange Theory Fitness gyms and CrossFit “boxes.”
Functional Fitness vs Bodybuilding
While traditional bodybuilding differs from functional fitness, modern bodybuilding does have a crossover to functional training. According to bodybuilding.com, bodybuilding is “a type of weight training applied in con-junction with sound nutritional practices to alter the shape or form of one’s body. Typically, bodybuilders will focus their training on building specific muscle groups in order to gain muscle mass and decrease body fat percentages. The biggest difference between bodybuilding and functional fitness is that bodybuilders are solely training for their performance on stage. The way they train in the gym typically does not involve training for everyday life. For example, somebody might be able to do a “500+ pound leg press, but they don’t have the control to do one rep of a one-legged squat.” – WebMD. In addition, bodybuilders tend to be more prone to injuries. According to Brodie Schroeder from musclearmory.com, a lot of bodybuilding routines neglect some of the smaller stabilizer muscles that are emphasized in functional training. Focusing on building mass and definition in specific large muscle groups can leave a person more susceptible to injury in their everyday lives when performing simple tasks.
While they have their differences, the crossover between these two worlds can be called functional bodybuilding. OPEX Fitness and Marcus Filly coined that term and describes functional bodybuilding as a way to build a rock-solid body, correct bad movement patterns, increase training volume and build strength in balance, and use isolation and tempo work to meet the needs of the individual and sport. This method of training supports your body, so you can handle the demands of any sport.
Functional Fitness Training Exercises For Beginners
Here is a list of 5 functional training exercises for beginners:
Box Step up
DB Seated Press
Functional Fitness Exercises For Seniors
Here is a list of 5 functional training exercises for seniors:
Half Kneeling Chop
Functional Training Benefits: Your Training, Your Life
It’s been said multiple times before, but the advantage of functional fitness is that this training translates to your everyday life. Whether it’s through bodyweight exercises like lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups, or weighted exercises like deadlifts, squats, and bent over rows, functional fitness training can benefit everyone for their specific needs. Let’s dig deeper into how this style of training can translate into your life:
Are you the parent of a toddler? Or does your job require you to be bent over/pick up heavy items frequently? Functional movements like the deadlift and the squat can be highly beneficial for you.
Do you worry about not having enough strength to lift an object overhead safely? Try exercises like the dumbbell shoulder press and the straight arm plank.
Do you find that you have tight muscles and joints when reaching and rotating? Do you feel like your range of motion and flexibility could use some help? Try functional exercises that will help increase your mobility. We found some great exercises to help with movement deficiencies on Onnit.com.
These are just a few examples of functional fitness exercises that directly translate to your life. There are thousands of more exercises, movements, and methods of this training that can be incorporated into your individualized training.
Functional Fitness Gyms
Functional fitness shows up in a multitude of different gyms, boot camps, boutique studios, etc. It is important to consider what your goals are when selecting a method of functional training. While some people can see results in a group setting, we have found that the most success comes in an individualized model (but more on that later.) Here’s a couple of the most common functional training methods:
CrossFit: One of the most widely popular methods of functional fitness, CrossFit consists of “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” – CrossFit.com. Although CrossFit is typically performed at high intensity, all exercises can be scaled to fit the individual’s needs.
Orange Theory: Orange Theory is a “one-hour, full-body workout, focused on training endurance, strength, and power.”- OrangeTheory.com. It is a group class format where your intensity level is based off of your heart rate zones, making it effective for all fitness levels.
TRX Training: TRX training has become increasingly popular due to their simple yet effective equipment and workouts. TRX workouts will have you performing a variety of bodyweight exercises that utilize your entire body.
Obstacle Course/Ninja Warrior Training: Obstacle course racing and American Ninja Warrior training are considered a sport in which “a competitor must overcome various physical challenges that are in the form of obstacles” – Wikipedia. A majority of the training required for these events can be done at obstacle course gyms, rock climbing facilities, or certified Ninja Warrior gyms. Functional fitness embodies this method of training due to the need for mobility, strength, and agility. Find a local Ninja Warrior gym near you.
OPEX Fitness: OPEX Fitness focuses solely on the individualized approach to functional fitness and functional bodybuilding. Instead of using templated workouts or the group fitness approach, each client has their own individualized program given to them by their coach. The personalized programming is truly what makes OPEX unique, as this method allows coaches to be heavily involved with helping clients achieve desired results and crush their fitness goals.
While there are thousands of different routes to take when it comes to functional fitness training, these methods listed above have been proven to be effective. If you aren’t ready to fully commit to a set program, you can still practice functional movements by hiking, running, stretching, etc.