Functional training is a type of training that allows full freedom of movement and that attempts to mimic various life activities and tasks. This form of training has its origins in rehabilitation and Occupational therapists still use this approach to retrain patients with movement disorders. Their interventions are designed to incorporate task and context-specific practice in areas meaningful to each patient. The overall goal being functional independence. (For example, exercises mimicking home life are included to help patients return to everyday life following injury or surgery).
From a functional perspective, there are two primary problems with most typical gym routines. The first is that they train individual muscle groups (biceps, pecs, quads, hamstrings, etc.) instead of movement patterns (e.g., pushing, pulling, lifting, stepping, walking, crawling, jumping, squatting). Second, they typically occur in a single plane of motion: the sagittal, which involves forward and backward movements used in classic exercises like the squat, biceps curl and even running.
Problems with Conventional Resistance Training Methods
The issue is that human movement doesn’t usually recruit one muscle group at a time, and isn’t limited to just one plane of motion. Indeed, it occurs in three planes of motion: the previously mentioned sagittal, the frontal (side-to-side), and the transverse (rotational). Traditional forms of resistance training and cardio have been heavily criticised due to this.
Many trainers broke away from this type of training and adopted functional training methods to make training more relevant to everyday life. Functional methods of training have since become very popular and widespread in the realms of health and fitness world.
Examples of functional training equipment include suspension trainers and kettlebells. Typical strength training machines have movement patterns that are a product of the machine’s dimensions. These are great for learning exercises patterns and isolating muscles. Suspension trainers and kettlebells, however, offer a much more dynamic, versatile environment and both offer incredible variety as to the exercises that can be performed.
Other popular tools that can enhance function are plyometric equipment, speed ladders, cones, chutes, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, tubing and the ViPR (See Functional Equipment).
Functional training thought also favours using free weights over machines; Choosing to focus on working muscles through their full ranges of motion. Furthermore, they also incorporate much instability work, placing heavy emphasis on the core and synergist muscles.
The Components of Functional Fitness
The components of functional fitness include muscular strength and endurance; aerobic endurance; flexibility; agility; dynamic balance and body composition. A functional fitness program should engage and challenge all of these aspects to some degree. Dependant on what you are training for, these, in turn, will have numerous benefits that translate to everyday life.
Movements such as walking; jogging; running; sprinting; jumping; lifting; pushing; pulling; bending; twisting; turning; standing; starting; stopping; climbing; and lunging… (phew, I’m out of breath) will be made easier while training and improve overall functional strength.
Is Functional Fitness Right for You?
As with any new form of training it’s always recommended to start with lighter exercises first and then progress. So start with using your own body weight for resistance for example. As your fitness increases and you become more adjusted to this style of training, you can add more resistance. As mentioned above, the aim of the game with functional training is to create training specific to the individual’s requirements and/or lifestyle. In other words, what would benefit you and what do you enjoy doing?
The program should be tailored to each individual in order to help them achieve their goals by focusing on meaningful tasks. Functional group fitness classes (Circuits/HIIT) are very popular at the minute and indeed may be beneficial for some. However, an individualised program ensures your training is optimised to your specific needs and requirements. Whatever method you end up choosing, functional fitness is guaranteed to optimise your performance inside and outside of the gym.
Some of the Benefits of Functional Training
Real-life value/Improves everyday life:
by improving the overall function of your body; boosting muscle strength and endurance, everyday activities can be improved vastly. For example, parents looking after toddlers; people undertaking jobs that require them to bend over/pick up heavy loads frequently; lacking the strength to lift something overhead safely; or people with tight muscles and joints when reaching and rotating or decreased range of motion and flexibility.
This type of training is usually more fun than others since you are essentially training for your everyday life. Ultimately what would you rather do…repeated crunches on a resistance machine or smash a tyre with a sledgehammer?
Greater muscle memory
By performing regular functional fitness exercises you are not just building muscle and core strength, but also exercising the brain. Effectively boosting the brain’s memory in undertaking familiar movement patterns in everyday life.
Functional fitness helps to improve balance, coordination, flexibility, muscle strength, and agility. All of these components will leave you more agile and mobile, which in turn helps with everyday life.
Improves balance and posture
Functional fitness enables the body’s muscles to work together compared to isolation muscle training. As a result, overall strength and balance will improve. The training encourages muscles to manage weight properly and so reduces stress on the body.
Furthermore, functional training will improve your postural gait markedly. The human body is not meant to be sedentary all day and maintaining this position can impair your body’s natural posture. Functional strength training can help to improve your posture and by regulating muscular balance.
Muscle tone & density
Functional strength training can help develop lean muscle mass. They will tend to avoid isolation movements (such as biceps curls) and concentrate on compound movements. Compound movements are much more effective for improving strength, endurance and raising your metabolism.
Additionally, they are time efficient, providing a total workout in the same time an isolation workout has targetted a singular muscle group. They work the whole body and not just specific points, ensuring you get that lean, toned look in half the time.
Increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy) increases Basal Metabolic Rate (so you naturally burn fat more efficiently). Many functional high-intensity workouts such as HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) circuits are great for encouraging hypertrophy due to their use of increased reps using often challenging weight.
Furthermore, this fat burning effect from functional HIIT training can continue long after your training session has finished. Particularly if the session has involved little rest between sets, sprints or super-setting exercises. This bodily process is known as EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) aka the ‘After-burn’ effect’.
EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to homeostasis which is its normal, resting level of metabolic function. The energy used for an intense workout can leave the body in oxygen deficit. In fact, your oxygen consumption is elevated for up to 24 hours and sometimes more! This oxygen then has to be paid back for the bodies cellular repair and to help it make adaptations to exercise undertaken. To help pay back the debt quickly the body needs fuel to produce ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) or energy and for this, the body will utilise its fat stores.
Full body movement
As mentioned before, most exercise equipment in the gym tends to focus on individual muscles whereas functional training helps hone the movement patterns of your entire body. Your body will learn to move the way its supposed to. This will help prevent problems (joint problems, muscular imbalances, arthritis etc) further down the line from underuse.
The core muscles are among the most used muscles during a functional training session and indeed in everyday life! During exercise, our core muscles help stabilise the spine whilst we transition between movement patterns and positions. Increasing your core strength will make daily tasks and work-life easier. Improved core strength will also help prevent injury by improving stability during recreational sporting activities (snowboarding for instance).
Functional strength training will prepare your body for undertaking sports activities. Since training yourself only on machines restrict your movements to a single plane of motion, it is unnatural for your body and thus makes you more susceptible to injuries.
Functional training, on the other hand, improves the relationship between your musculoskeletal and nervous system. This results in quick, reactive and powerful movement patterns regardless of your plane of movement. Your body will also be more flexible for any kind of athletic endeavour.
Functional strength training not only helps to perform daily activities more easily but will assist in preventing injury to your body. By mimicking the movements done in everyday life, the body is more likely to be able to withstand everyday external stressors.
Functional training strengthens the tendons, ligaments and supporting muscles of your limbs and surrounding your joints. It will help prepare your body for sudden, unpredictable movements such as slipping down the stairs or maybe trying to catch a cup you just dropped. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you will be ‘the immovable object’ but it might make the difference between some bruising or a fractured wrist.
The benefits of incorporating functional training are or should be obvious. Regardless of your fitness goals, training background, abilities, or limitations, functional training should be an integral part of your exercise routine. Plan ahead to live a long, healthy life, by preparing your body with training that has real-life value, covers all of the major components of fitness and more importantly is damn good fun!