Functional fitness

Functional fitness… The term gets thrown around a lot. It’s that fancy buzzword that everybody’s talking about. There are over 1 million hashtags on Instagram, every workout video has to include some functional fitness exercises and every gym has a functional fitness area.

So what does functional fitness really mean?

Let’s start with the word functional. It means having a special activity, purpose or task and designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. This description actually have a slight negative ring to it by focusing on the usefulness over the looks. It indicates that if you do it, you’ll benefit from it but you wont like it.

The second part, fitness means the condition of being physically fit and healthy.

So if you were to put the two together it would mean that you’re usefully fit and healthy. Useful is different for everybody but there are certain tasks and situations where everyone benefits. These are for example climbing stairs, carrying shopping, picking things up, etc.

In the fitness industry functional fitness is referred to as something that mimics everyday life. In our every day life we rarely isolate muscles and joints. Most tasks require multiple muscle groups and joints to work together in harmony. Even if you think of things like getting up the sofa or walking upstairs you can see that you’ll be working from your calves through your hips to your core. So the aim of functional fitness is to make your body work more efficiently in order to complete everyday tasks. It achieves it by building strength, stability, balance, stamina and mobility across the whole body and makes it work as one unit.

It’s not a new term but got picked up by the media due to the popularity of crossfit, ninja warrior training and calisthenics. As functional fitness in general doesn’t require a great range of equipment, more and more smaller and garage gyms are popping up focusing on functional fitness.

There are several exercises that can be done without any or minimal equipment using your own bodyweight. For example

  • Pull ups – a whole upper body exercise, using several of the back, shoulder, forearm and core muscles at the same time. As well as improving general strength and coordination within your upper body and core, it also improves your grip strength.
  • Squats – can be performed with or without weights using several variations and progressions. To get up from a sofa, chair, desk, etc you’re sitting down and standing up which is pretty much a squat. By working on your patterns, strength, balance and technique in the gym you will make your life a lot easier every time you sit down or stand up.

And there are exercises that you will need equipment for. For example

  • Deadlifts – have you ever had to lift a box? Well, I thought so. Deadlifts are the perfect exercise to teach you how to safely do it. If you’ve ever completed a manual handling training at work, you’ll know that they are basically teaching you how to deadlift. Correct technique can save you injury both in and out of the gym.

However when we label an exercise functional we need to be able to explain how it will transfer into everyday life for the client. For example a client is very overweight, has never been to a gym and is very self conscious could be better off using the leg press machine first before we introduce them to a squat. In this scenario using a machine would actually benefit the client. As they get more and more competent we can start introducing compound exercises and free weights. We always need to bare in mind that whilst something might be beneficial for one person, it might not be for another one therefore what we deem functional can change from person to person. This is also true for people with limitations (for example muscle imbalances or limited range of motion) or recovering from injuries. For example I do wrist curls to improve strength in my forearms and wrists to build up strength after an injury. It’s an isolation exercise with a good old dumbbell therefore people wouldn’t think of this being functional but it helps me in my daily life by increasing grip strength to pick up my shopping or open a jar (as well as with my training).

Functional fitness also focuses on how your joints are moving along different planes to enhance each movement. A big emphasis is placed on proper muscle length to ensure smooth movement patterns, improved balance, posture and mobility which in turn helps reduce injury.

The good news is that apart from making your day to day life easier, functional fitness exercises can be tailored to suit your individual goal whether that be losing weight, getting fitter or stronger. Due to the different demands placed on the body it will make you more well-rounded in terms of the different components of fitness (such as cardio, strength, speed, etc).

A general misconception is that functional fitness is basically crossfit or using fancy equipment in innovative ways. Whilst crossfit incorporates a lot of exercises that can have a positive effect on your daily life, unless it’s individualised it doesn’t necessary mean you’ll improve your quality of life. The same applies to using the most recent cool equipment. Just because you were sold a TRX as a functional fitness equipment, a plank won’t be any less functional on the floor than on the TRX. And this is where you need to think about whether it will help or potentially hinder your day to day life. If you haven’t got the strength, form, technique, mobility, etc by progressing too fast you are increasing your risk of injury, not mentioning that you won’t get the relevant benefits from the exercise.

All in all functional fitness means exercises that enhance your day to day life. Whilst in general people think of pull ups, push ups, TRX, bosu ball, etc exercises, this is true for some gym goers, however for a complete beginner or someone struggling with limitations it might be something a lot more simpler for example isolation exercises. You always need to think how an exercise will have a carry over effect and don’t progress too fast, learn the basics first.

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