Maybe you set out to lose (or gain) weight, maybe you set out to build-a-booty, maybe you set out to improve confidence, meet like-minded people, boost serotonin levels, or honor a commitment to yourself. Whatever your reason is for committing to an exercise routine, one thing is for certain: the physical, mental, and even social benefits of fitness are undeniable. But what if being active can do even more than a bicep pump or an endorphin kick. What if, through specific training, fitness can actually improve how you navigate everyday life – now, and in the future?
May I present: Functional Fitness.
What is Functional Fitness?
At it’s core, Functional Fitness refers to exercises that improve everyday activity. You’re like, “Stop. Wait a Minute. Doesn’t all exercise improve daily life?” Sure, exercise of all shapes n’ sizes – from running, to swimming, to power lifting – enhances the quality of life by conditioning characteristics like endurance or strength, but not all of it actually prepares you for the physical demands and stressors of any given day. Keep scrollin’, I’ll explain 😉
Let’s take a look at conventional weight lifting, aka body building, aka what you’re most familiar with in a typical gym setting: sculpted muscles rotating from dumbbell, to cable, to machine. Conventional weight lifting is characterized by completing relatively high(er) repetitions of isolated movements that target specific areas of the body at a relatively low(er) weight. Think: bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, hamstring curls, flyes, etc. Now, I’m not knocking conventional weight lifting. It has it’s own unique set of benefits (just like any workout regimen). Most notably hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle (both in mass and visibility). Plump, pump, and gain.
Compare that to functional training, which is characterized by movements that simulate daily activity. The goal is still to build strength, but to build strength in a way that directly benefits the effective and efficient execution of activities of daily living – and to partner that strength with power, stability, and mobility.
- Where conventional weight lifting enhances individual muscle strength, functional training teaches muscle groups to work together.
- Where conventional weight lifting focuses on isolated muscle groups (biceps, triceps, quads, glutes), functional training focuses on muscle movement patterns (pushing, pulling, stepping, jumping, bending, twisting).
- Where conventional weight lifting finds postural assistance in machines, functional training relies on the body for stability.
- Where conventional weight lifting emphasizes one plane of motion (sagittal, or up-and-down), functional training utilizes all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal or side-to-side, and transverse or rotational).
Take it from someone who tried to bicep curl and lat pull down her way to pull-ups for almost an entire year without success before transitioning to a functional fitness routine: this method works, specifically when it comes to performance goals. Spoiler Alert: within just one month of functional training, I was stringing 5 unassisted strict pull-ups together.
So, hypertrophy as a result of conventional weight lifting allows you to crank out bicep curls (and look good doing it) ’til the cows come home, but functional fitness allows you to pick the cow up, and bring it home on your terms. Ya feel?
The Foundations of Function
Functional training aims to simultaneously enhance performance across four principles: strength, power, stability, and mobility. It’s the combination of these factors that allow us to (begrudgingly 😉 ) help our friends move a couch up a flight of stairs, pick squirming toddlers out of carseats, grab a glass as it falls from the counter, and more.
- Strength: Compound (multi-joint) and total-body movements
- Power: Quick, explosive movements
- Stability: Balance and coordination
- Mobility: Wide range of motion performed across various planes of motion
Implementing Functional Fitness
Whether you’re a runner, body builder, dancer, or yogi, functional exercises can (and in my opinion, should!) have a place in your fitness routine.
Let’s get to know some of the core functional strength movements:
- Back Squat (IRL: bending, sitting and rising)
- Front Squat (IRL: bending, sitting and rising while holding an object)
- Lunge (IRL: walking gait + mobility)
- Deadlift (IRL: picking something off the ground)
- Clean (IRL: standing up quickly, powerful extension of hips, knees, and ankles)
- Overhead Press (IRL: pushing + throwing from a standing position)
- Push Up (IRL: total body coordination)
- Pull Up (IRL: climbing + dragging)
- Burpee (IRL: total body coordination + explosive extension)
- Farmer’s Carry (IRL: moving objects across distance)
- Box Jump (IRL: jumping, stepping, total body coordination + explosive extension)
Now, let’s introduce our supporting principles:
- Power: In functional fitness, power is defined as “work over time”. This applies to both weight (where power translates as the amount of weight you are able to move for any given rep) and volume (where power translates as quantity of reps).
- Test your one rep max (or 1RM) of a movement. What is the absolute highest weight you can deadlift with proper form for only one rep? OR…
- Measure the number of reps you can complete in a set time, for example: How many burpees can you complete in 60 seconds?
- Take the MetCon approach
- Often synonymous with high-intensity, sweat-dripping, max-effort workouts in which an athlete’s goal is to maintain 100% intensity for a set period of time with minimal rest and maintaining a specific rep scheme and quality of movement. If you are familiar with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), this may sound familiar. Unlike HIIT, which follows a work:rest ratio (30 seconds of work : 30 seconds of rest), and life, Metcon does not define a standard rest scheme within the workout. AKA, you rest when you’re done, k? 😉
- Stability: Balance and coordination.
- Perform unilateral movements (working one side of the body at a time), where one side of the body is planted on the ground or a surface. Think: alternating dumbbell cleans (or snatches), single arm Farmer’s Carry (careful not to lean to the side you’re carrying on), alternating lunges, single leg step ups.
- Practice efficient transitions between movements in a circuit. Burpee to box jump, any one?
- Introduce additional movements to exercises. Take a burpee, and add a lateral jump over a dumbbell or barbell.
- Mobility: Range of Motion
- Add variety to and deepen your ranges of motion. Drop below parallel on a squat, move between power cleans and squat cleans, move between power snatches and squat snatches, touch your chest to the ground on push ups, touch your chest to the bar on pull ups.
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed Gym Rat or Living Room Warrior, you can hit these moves with body weight, barbells, dumbbells, or kettle bells. For demos of the moves above check out one of my favorite references here.