What Is Functional Fitness?

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Happy Friday!

If you have been reading my blog for any amount of time, you may remember that I like to post about different forms of exercise. One, I find them interesting and two, sometimes I learn something and might add an exercise style to the list of things I want to try one day.

So what’s the exercise today?

Let’s Get Functional

Functional training, also referred to as functional exercise, is any workout that adapts or develops exercises that allow individuals to perform activities of everyday life more easily and without risk of injury.

The truth is that just because you can lift heavy weights at the gym and do 20 minutes of HIIT every other day, does not mean that the next time you lift your 65-pound suitcase on your way to the airport that you won’t throw out your back.

Functional fitness focuses on training the body in such a way that it can handle day-to-day real-life activities, like lugging groceries or picking up kids.

Muscles Working Together

So, instead of focusing on lifting a certain amount of weight or the proper form of a particular exercise, functional fitness trains us to become better at real-life positions and to perform everyday activities.

Your typical weight training or strength training workout isolates specific muscles but doesn’t train the body to use multiple muscle groups together. Functional exercise integrates different muscles and through proper form and motion teaches them to work together.

This yields an overall fitness to the entire body working in unison.

Finding Balance in Functional Fitness

While many people focus on weights and weight machines, they neglect to address a fundamental need — one for balance.

Balance training exercises, like the one-legged squat is more useful for everyday life than leg pressing 500 pounds.

Why Is That?

Because stability is what serves you in everyday life, like when you have to reach for something in a high cabinet or while walking up and down stairs.

Balance is an integral part of everyday life, but it goes beyond that.

A balance system that functions properly can help humans see clearly while moving, orient themselves in terms of gravity, assess direction and speed of movement, and also make adjustments to posture and stability while doing daily activities.

Training your body to control and balance its own weight can serve you when you are young and as you age because it makes you stronger and more stable. This, you can avoid falls which are some of the most common injuries seen in seniors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of 5 falls in adults age 65 or older results in moderate to severe injuries, including, the debilitating hip fracture or the very serious head trauma, both of which can increase the risks of early death.

Avoiding Compensation

One of the drawbacks of typical strength training workouts is that they can leave weaker areas in the body that then becomes a problem in day-to-day movement.

While you strengthen certain muscles, like the arms and shoulders, you may inadvertently neglect to train others. That creates a pattern of compensation. This means that when you use several muscles together, certain muscles work harder than the others which can cause injury.

Functional exercises teach isolated muscles to work together and thus when you pick up that suitcase, or your child, or reach for something on a high shelf you won’t tweak a weak muscle that is not properly trained.

Workouts that include, bending, pushing, pulling, lifting, sitting, reaching, balance and twisting, and those that mimic day-to-day life engage the core muscles while at the same time targeting other muscles of the body providing an overall “functional” state of fitness.

Other Benefits

Functional training goes beyond to mitigate bone loss through movements that support body weight and that helps to prevent osteoporosis.

The multi-joint, multi-plane movements utilize the body’s stabilizers that help improve coordination, challenge the brain, and ultimately allow you to become more functional.

Essential Components Of Functional Workouts

There are several elements to functional workouts. These need to be adapted to each individual’s goals and needs.

  • The workouts should be directed toward one’s specific everyday life activities.
  • Individualized programs that tailor to the specific goals and needs of an individual. For example, there can be specific exercises that are made for someone age 60 who would like to avoid falls or some for any adult looking to improve their day-to-day activity performance. No matter the circumstance, the workouts should focus on meaningful tasks.
  • The overall state of health of the individual should be considered when assessing the types of exercises to use and overall training load.
  • There should be a well-integrated program that includes power, strength, balance, and core exercises that focus on multiple movement planes.
  • The training should progress with increasing difficulty.
  • The training should include varying tasks.
  • Functional training should be repeated regularly on an ongoing basis.
  • Feedback as to progression is needed either through self-assessment or the assessment of a trainer or physical therapist.

Examples Of Functional Exercises

  • Any exercise that involves standing on two feet and supporting yourself while lifting any type of weight is typically a functional exercise. You can really do this at home just by repeating activities that mimic the above.
  • Balance Exercises – Various balance exercises without weights that teach the body to stabilize itself.
  • Exercise Ball – The greatest benefit to training with ball exercises is that they target core muscles. There are many different moves using the ball.
  • BOSU Ball – As opposed to the exercise ball, a BOSU has a round side and a flat side. The BOSU makes any exercise a lot more challenging because it adds an element of instability to each workout as it forces you to use the core to remain steady. BOSU workouts also work to improve strength and help muscles learn to work together.
  • Bent Over Row – This works the back, shoulder, and arm muscles and mimics life activities. It’s much more useful when compared to a seated row, where you are only working the chest and arms, and your body is not activating its core stabilizer muscles.
  • Stand On One Leg – You can start by holding onto a chair at first, then work to doing it on your own.

How To Get Started

The truth is that functional exercises, like other full body workouts are more difficult than machines, as they are more demanding on the body.

If you are over 40 or have health problems you should check with your doctor before starting functional or any other exercise program. Women who are pregnant should check with their doctors as well.

Begin with Bodyweight

When starting functional training, it’s best to start with bodyweight exercises instead of using weights. You can add weights as you get more fit because they will add resistance and, therefore, challenge your muscles.

People who are experienced fitness buffs can certainly engage in intermediate and advanced level moves in functional training. These types of exercises can be added into a regular workout routine.

Other Benefits

It’s important to note that many functional moves have other benefits. You can target other fitness goals, such as strength training, fat burning, and heart health. Choosing a specific functional exercise in lieu of say using a weight machine kills two birds with one stone.

It is important to learn proper form, and there are many videos and resources online that can help.

Outside Help

Hiring a personal trainer to teach you some moves is another great way to get started. They can be very helpful with showing you proper form and also for creating a customized workout plan based on your needs and lifestyle.

Final Thoughts

It’s never too late to get started with improving your stability and balance. This effort will serve you well in your everyday life.

Functional fitness appears to be similar to bodyweight exercises. When you do either of these types of workouts, it seems like you are basically doing both. As I get older, it is definitely something to consider. I also have noticed that when I thought I was in really good shape, there were muscles that were rather weak. This was demonstrated in the infamous Pilates incident –ha ha.

Have you even tried functional fitness as a goal? Tell us about it in the comments!

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This article provides general information and discussion about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this article, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. Consult your own physician for any medical issues that you may be having.


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