“Functional fitness” is a familiar buzzword in health and wellness. But what is it, exactly?
Functional fitness is about preparing you for life, rather than something specific like a big race or setting a new personal best on the bench press. Things like squatting down to pick something off the floor, turning and reaching for an item on a high shelf, or carrying a child on your hip or a heavy suitcase.
Functional exercises mimic your everyday movements, which almost always involve multiple muscle groups at once. Almost all exercise can be considered “functional” depending on the context, because increasing strength will inherently help you become more functional in daily life.
Besides increased strength, functional exercise improves balance/stability, endurance, flexibility and mobility. All of these together reduce your risk of injury and increase your quality of life.
Basic Human Movement Patterns
Functional exercises are designed around the seven basic types of human movement:
|Movement||Real Life Example|
|Squat||Getting up from a chair|
|Hinge||Picking something up from the floor|
|Horizontal push||Moving furniture|
|Vertical push||Lifting something onto a high shelf|
|Pull||Starting a lawn mower|
|Rotate||Reaching behind you|
There are many variations of exercises based on these movement patterns, and these can be scaled up or down depending on your skill level. In general, they involve using your own body weight, or adding resistance with dumbbells, stretch bands , medicine balls, and even more exotic tools like battle ropes or suspension trainers like TRX.
Benefits of Functional Training: Strength, Balance, Mobility
Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve your overall fitness, the elements of functional training can help you achieve it – all while improving your ability to perform everyday movements seamlessly.
Stronger muscles play a huge part in maintaining a higher quality life, especially as we age. Age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging. Starting around age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% of your body’s muscle mass per decade. Most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes. While there are several underlying physiological causes for this, the good news is that lost muscle can be rebuilt, or to a large extent avoided – through strength training combined with proper nutrition.
And the more muscle tissue you have, the higher your metabolism. This means your body burns more calories while at rest, which helps stave off weight gain.
Body balance is so important in our everyday lives because it represents control. It’s an often-overlooked principle of functioning in everyday life. This is true no matter how old you are. Better body balance keeps you upright, makes it easier to move, and helps avoid injuries.
Physical balance begins in your core, which is more than just your abdomen: strong hips, ankles and gluteal muscles are also critical to good balance. Weak core muscles may lead to more to falls, decreased spine mobility, slower reflexes and lower back injuries. Functional training exercises commonly involve using the core plus other muscles together to improve balance.
Being fit isn’t just about how strong you are – it’s also about how well your body can move and perform everyday activities. This is what’s known as mobility.
Overall, mobility makes movement easier. For example, think of what it takes to get up out of a chair. Your quads, glutes, calves, low back and abdominals must all engage – while maintaining balance – to get you standing. What’s exercise that mimics all of this? The squat!
Squats not only build strength, but they’re also perfect for increasing overall mobility.
Add Functional Fitness to Your Workout
Your fitness program should be designed to help you achieve your goals and be tailored to your individual capabilities.
If you’re a beginner, then start with body weight movements. As your strength and range of motion improve, add resistance with dumbbells, stretch bands, and more complex exercises to continue challenging your body.
Importantly, if you’re coming off of an injury or have mobility issues, check in with a personal trainer or physical therapist before you begin training on your own. I’d love to help you with your functional fitness – reach out to me here and let’s have a conversation!