What is functional fitness? [Ultimate Guide]

March 8th, 2019 Functional Fitness
functional fitness

If you’ve spent any time recently down at the gym or perused any fitness and well-being sites, chances are you’ve come across the phrase functional fitness.

It’s currently creating a little bit of buzz in the health world, and increasingly, more and more people are becoming involved in this form of exercise.

But the question is:

What exactly is functional fitness?

And equally as important:

Is it just the latest 21st-century fad with little basis in science? Or could it be a powerful technique to improve your day-to-day well-being?

Well, you’re going to find out. This article provides everything you need to know. Consider it as your Functional Fitness 101. In it, I’ll explain exactly what it is, how it works, and its benefits. Then I’ll provide you with some powerful functional fitness workouts.

This could be the most important article you read this year.

So What Is Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness (sometimes known as functional training or functional movement training) is an approach to well-being. It considers the best way to boost health and remain injury-free is to concentrate on exercises that are similar to the actions carried out in everyday life.

When you consider it, that makes a lot of sense. We don’t pass our lives living in some kind of protective bubble. Even if you live a fairly sedentary life, you still require a certain amount of strength, stamina, and balance to fulfill your daily functions.

If you think about your own personal duties, it’s surprising to realize how active we actually are.

Consider pursuits such as:

  • Gardening
  • Carrying groceries home from the store or simply lifting them into the back of your automobile
  • Bending over to lift your child into your arms
  • Reaching upwards to retrieve that jar of peanut butter from the cupboard
  • Pushing a vacuum cleaner around your home
  • Climbing in and out of your vehicle
  • Changing the sheets on your bed
  • Moving furniture around your home

I’m sure you get the idea. All of the above activities require strength, muscle power, and flexibility. The issue is, if we currently lack functional fitness, completing some of the above tasks can lead to injury, especially when doing an action that we’re not used to.

Equally, our employment duties may include physical exertion, to a greater or lesser degree. If you’re working on a building site, naturally the work is very physical, and you require a certain level of strength.

But conversely, even working in an office involves some activity. It might be reaching for a ream of paper in the cupboard or just having the correct posture at your desk.

And this is the key behind functional fitness. It focuses on exercises that enable us to complete our daily tasks with ease and lowers the risk of injury.

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History of Functional Fitness

Although functional fitness seems to be a new trend, it actually has a long history.

You could consider the original practitioners as prehistoric man. Stealthily hunting and pursuing prey, short-bursts of activity, combined with using all the main muscle groups. That was a type of functional fitness.

However, the modern concept grew out of medical rehabilitation. That is, exercises designed to allow a person to return to their employment, sport, or home after a period of illness or injury.

These rehabilitation activities are usually aimed toward specific aspects of a person’s life. For example, someone who has suffered a stroke may work on trying to rebuild mobility in their limbs. And a runner who has suffered a hamstring injury pushes to strengthen the affected leg before returning to competition.

However, there’s one main difference between rehabilitative fitness and functional fitness. Rehabilitation is reactive, i.e., it’s completed after an injury has taken place. Functional fitness is proactive, strengthening the body to prevent an injury from taking hold in the first place.

Today, functional fitness remains one of the top fitness trends, with the current opinion that its popularity will continue to grow.

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Who Is Functional Fitness Designed For?

The attraction of functional fitness training is it can be completed by anyone—and often, anywhere.

But a quick word of caution.

If it’s been a while since you’ve completed any exercise, diving headfirst into a powerful functional fitness program could do you more harm than good. I recommend checking out the physical activity readiness questionnaire from the American College of Scientific Medicine (ACSM).

Quite simply, if you answer yes to any of the seven short questions, you should first get yourself examined by your physician or current health practitioner.

The beauty of functional fitness is that its difficulty and intensity can be adjusted, depending on your ability or aims. For younger trainees, seniors, those who haven’t exercised for a while, and people recovering from injury, it’s perfectly sufficient to use your body weight for resistance—weights aren’t essential.

Functional fitness is ideal for:

  • Kids: As it’s low impact, it will cause no damage to the joints or cartilage.
  • Seniors: A great way to improve mobility and offset the pain of aching joints or limbs.
  • Sportspersons: All-around fitness and a strong core will intensify your competitive performance.
  • People needing rehabilitation: Whether a sports, work, or home-induced injury, functional fitness can increase mobility and improve recovery time.
  • Everyone: Unless you never move from your sofa, you’re completing daily activities that involve movement and muscle.

How Does Functional Fitness Differ from Other Training Programs?

Functional fitness is designed to ensure you’re fully prepared for the physical challenges that life may throw at you. There’s little point boasting to your friends that you can bench press 350 pounds if you are out of breath walking up the stairs or put your back out lifting a child into your arms.

Below, I will compare functional fitness training with other regimens: bodybuilding (resistance training) and cardio (CrossFit, HIIT). However, don’t assume that these are mutually exclusive.

Functional fitness can enhance both of these other two schools—meaning that you reap more rewards from also lifting weights and running or cycling—and with fewer risks of injury.

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Functional Fitness vs Bodybuilding (Resistance Training)

The key differences are as follows:

Muscle Groups

It’s true that bodybuilding includes some compound exercises (i.e., they work more than one muscle group). However, they tend to concentrate on individual muscles (bicep curls, calf presses).

Functional fitness training aims to hit as many muscle groups as possible with the body working in unison. This leads to a more proportioned physique and means every muscle is as powerful as its neighbor.

Supported Position

The activities involved in weight training are often in a supported position, whether this be seated or prone, usually on a bench or other equipment. Again, this allows the bodybuilder to concentrate on one particular set of muscles.

Much of functional fitness is unsupported—the body itself has to compensate by using other muscles to keep you in a balanced position. This has greater benefits for your lifestyle. When lifting that heavy box off the top shelf of the closet, it’s unlikely you’re going to work all those muscles on a weight bench.

Unrelated to Normal Bodily Function

Doing set after set of bicep curls will undoubtedly build large upper arms. But how often is that action completed in everyday life?

Weightlifting is restrictive. The movements involved tend to work a limited range of motion. In a bicep curl, the forearm simply goes up and down.  It doesn’t go from side to side or in a circular movement. And those are the actions you’re more likely to use in your daily routine.

Functional fitness concentrates on the full range of movements and those that are going to assist you in the home or at work.

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Functional Fitness vs Cardio

Here’s what differentiates these two training regimens:

Low Impact

While not all cardio exercise is tough on the joints, some can really put them under stress. Pounding the streets, or even running with a cushioned treadmill, can put serious strain on your body.

Some people are of the opinion that it can promote knee and ankle osteoarthritis in later life, and there’s evidence that it raises the thickness of knee cartilage.

Functional fitness is low impact and more likely to prevent injury than cause it.

Toning and Weight Loss

Many types of cardio (CrossFit and HIIT) can concentrate too much on getting the heart rate racing through intense exercise. Some workouts literally push you to the state of exhaustion.

This can lead to a calorie deficit, i.e., your intake is less than what you are expending. Naturally, this promotes weight loss. However, when taken to extremes, it can lead to a physique known as “skinny-fat.”

There are insufficient calories to power your workout sessions, so the body looks to its own reserves, including protein and muscle. So although overall you have lost weight. it can often be at the expense of tone and tightness.

Functional fitness tones and strengthens all the muscles of the body, creating a pleasing, defined physique.

Just a couple of points.

First, some cardio exercise, when combined with functional fitness, is an excellent workout regimen. Just don’t overdo the cardio. Second, some of the best CrossFit exercises do crossover with functional fitness, working much of the body in one exercise.

What Is Functional Fitness Good For?

The popularity of functional fitness hasn’t grown out of marketing hype or simply currently being “on-trend.” Its success lies in the fact that it provides numerous health-boosting benefits.

Here are the six main advantages of functional fitness training.

Prevents Injury

When our bodies are subjected to stress that is unusual, the muscles cannot cope. This is what causes injury. Ensuring that we’re both flexible and strong means we are not going to lose days at the gym, or work, through injury.

As it is designed to mimic your daily activities, functional fitness increases the muscle strength and flexibility required for everyday tasks. Furthermore, it can promote tendon and ligament power, reducing the chances of unwanted twists or pulls.

As mentioned earlier, functional fitness is a proactive approach designed to prevent injuries from occurring. This is equally as relevant if you are a sportsperson or just completing home and work duties.

Furthermore, as functional training is low impact, there’s little chance of injuring yourself during the workouts themselves.

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Improves Posture and Appearance

Functional fitness is an exercise regimen that works all the major muscle groups. This ensures the body is being toned, tightened, and strengthened in proportion.

What’s more, many functional fitness training exercises lack any external stabilization (such as a bench) and require a certain amount of balance. So while completing a specific exercise, other muscles in the body are compensating for this action, which in turn builds smaller muscles.

This results in your body not only being improved proportionally, your balance and stature are also improved. Furthermore, functional fitness is an exercise program that concentrates very heavily on the core (the abdominals, lower back, and upper gluteus muscles). A strong core improves stability.

As many of us lead sedentary lives—both at home and at work—this means we spend a lot of time sitting improperly in front of a screen. Poor sitting style is a known cause of back problems. Possessing a strong core through functional fitness improves our seated posture and can prevent lower back pain from occurring.

Enhances Sporting Performance

Whether you’re a competitive athlete or simply enjoy a leisurely game of tennis or golf, functional fitness training can improve your all-around performance—either in specific areas or as a whole.

For example, if golf is your thing, you could spend more time on training that improves your swing. That is, compound exercises which concentrate on balance, a firm stance, core strength, and rotational arm movements.

Additionally, just completing standard exercises can enhance your sporting efficiency, ensuring that the entire body is working in combination. As opposed to single muscle training, which bodybuilding provides.

Assists with Weight Loss

Obviously, the more active you are, the more weight you will lose. Or at least you’re less likely to put on weight.

It’s quite simple. Expend more calories than you consume, and you lose weight. The body requires energy units (calories) to function. If insufficient levels are available from food consumption, it looks elsewhere. That is usually your fat stores.

As mentioned earlier, functional fitness is not about pushing you to the point where you collapse from exhaustion. It’s a steady regimen that concentrates on pushing your muscles hard and working the heart but not to extremes. But both exercise and building muscle require calories, hence, you are improving your calorie balance.

Furthermore, functional training can further boost weight loss by:

  • Making you “home-fit”: The more capable you are of completing daily tasks, the more likely you are to do them yourself and not ask a friend or neighbor. This increases your energy expenditure.
  • Elevating energy levels: Functional fitness, or most exercise for that matter, gives you more vitality, keeping you more active throughout the day and burning more calories.
  • Elevating mood: Functional fitness training boosts the production of dopamine and serotonin, making you feel happy. The greater sense of well-being you have, the less likely you are to comfort eat.
  • Improving sporting performance: As mentioned, functional fitness training enhances performance in other sporting pursuits. The more active and energized you are during these, the more energy you will expend.
  • Boosting BMR (basal metabolic rate): Functional fitness training can not only elevate your metabolism during exercise but also afterward too. The higher your BMR, the more calories burned and greater volume of fat lost.

Relieves Joint Pain

Through injury, illness, or age, all of us at some point will suffer from joint pain. Not only is it uncomfortable and annoying, but it can also prevent us from participating in activities we wish to do. This may be ironing, gardening, or competing in our favorite sport.

There’s a belief in some circles that, if a joint is aching, it should be left to rest. And exercise is out of the question. However, in most cases, that is a fallacy. Functional fitness can actually help relieve joint pain.

Just a quick word of warning.

This doesn’t mean if you’re suffering you should knuckle down straight away to an intense workout. If you have severely damaged your joints, rest may be the best option. However, if it’s due to weak tendons or impaired synovial fluid, functional fitness can help. Always check with your health practitioner first.

Studies have indicated that not only can the low-impact feature of functional fitness reduce joint pain from sporting or stretching stresses, but it can also alleviate the pain associated with osteoarthritis.

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Enhances Quality of Life

For me, this is the main benefit of functional fitness training and, to be fair, its raison d’être.

When you combine all the previous advantages—no injuries, impressive appearance, increased sporting ability, weight loss, and relief of joint pain—your overall feeling of well-being will be vastly enhanced.

This is in addition to enabling you to carry out your work and home tasks with ease.

The Best Functional Fitness Training Workout

I have put together what I consider to be the best functional fitness training workout for all-around muscle toning and flexibility results.

Let me take you through how to complete this powerful program.

  1. Try, where possible, to do the workout in its entirety for the best fitness results. This will ensure every muscle is worked as much as another.
  2. If completing all sets of all the exercises together is too intense, then drop a set not an exercise.
  3. Some exercises can be completed with additional weights or otherwise have their difficulty increased. Where this is applicable, I have indicated how you can take your training to higher (or lower) levels.
  4. If you find the exercises too simple, and you don’t feeling you’re being pushed enough, increase the repetitions (rep count).
  5. Always follow the breaks indicated between sets.
  6. Allow a three-minute rest period before moving on to the next exercise.
  7. Complete the physical activity readiness questionnaire before starting functional fitness training (or any exercise regimen for that matter).
  8. Always start and finish your workout with a quick warm-up and cooldown to prevent injury and assist with recovery. I recommend some light stationary running or a few bursts on an exercise bike, if you have one.

Ready? Let’s get you functionally fit!

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Side Lunges

An excellent exercise that improves balance and works the butt, hips, thighs, core, and erector muscles of the spine. Try to finish at least 15 reps. Rest for two minutes, then complete one further set of 15 reps.

  1. This is your starting position:
    1. Position yourself in a “normal” upright stance: feet around shoulder-width apart, toes pointing away from you.
    2. Look forward. You should keep this visual position throughout the exercise.
    3. Clasp your fingers together in front of your chest with your elbows bent. While they should remain in this position for the exercise, be relaxed, don’t tense them.
  2. With your right foot pressed firmly into the floor, take a large step sideways to your left.
  3. Crouch by bending your right knee. The left leg should be in a perfectly straight line and your right foot still flat on the ground. Don’t twist.
  4. Hold this position for one second, as you feel your glutes and quads (thighs) working.
  5. Return back to your starting position, pushing through your right leg.
  6. Repeat this exercise on your right side, returning to your starting position.

Top tip: When you’re in the crouch position, the knee should be directly above the foot. If it passes over, there’s an increased risk of injury. Here’s an excellent video demonstrating the correct technique:

Reverse Lunges with Dumbbell Press

This powerful functional fitness training exercise burns calories and joins together the two movements of standard techniques: the dumbbell press and reverse lunge.

If you find the combination with dumbbells too intense, this can be completed with something lighter, like a small bottle of water. Or simply do the press movement with no weights at all.

This exercise works the glutes, biceps, triceps, lats, quads, and abdominal muscles. Do two sets of 12 repetitions with a two to three minute break in between.

  1. This is your starting position:
    1. Start from a standing position, looking forward.
    2. Raise a dumbbell in each hand until it is level with, and almost touching, your shoulders. Palms should be facing inwards.
  2. Keeping the left foot firmly planted into the floor, take a large step backward with your right leg, all the time keeping the dumbbells at shoulder height.
  3. As you do so, go into a crouch position. Your left knee should be directly above your left ankle. Your right knee should be bent and almost (but not quite) touching the floor behind you.
  4. In this position, and while keeping your back straight, extend your arms upward, pressing the dumbbells. Stop when your arms are fully locked.
  5. Hold for one second.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders.
  7. Push into the floor with your left foot, powering through your thighs, to return to the starting position again.
  8. Do the same procedure on the opposite side of your body.

Top tip: As your strength increases, raise the weight on the dumbbells. This is a nice example of a lunge press:

Kettlebell Swingers

If ever an exercise was an example of functional fitness, it’s the kettlebell swing. Working both the upper and lower body in unison, it’s a fantastic all-arounder. It not only strengthens all the major muscle groups but additionally improves balance and coordination. Do 10 reps, rest for two minutes, then complete one more time.

  1. This is your starting position:
    1. Start from an upright standing position, legs slightly further than shoulder-width apart, with a kettlebell on the floor about 3 feet in front of you.
    2. Bend your knees slightlyand I mean slightly. Don’t go into a full squat position.
    3. Bend at the hips and reach down. With straight arms, grab the kettlebell with both hands. Your back should be straight, not curved, and perpendicular to the floor.
    4. Keeping the arms straight, elevate your back slightly to lift the kettlebell from the ground.
  2. From here, swing the kettlebell between your legs so that it passes through and upwards towards your buttocks.
  3. From this point, swing it back again through your legs toward the front.
  4. Use this momentum and by powering through your glutes to push yourself into an upright standing position.
  5. The upward motion of the kettlebell should be continued until it’s level with your shoulders, arms straight.
  6. Then begin again to bend at the knees and hip, allowing the kettlebell to swing back again through the legs toward your butt.

Top tip: If you have back issues or find this functional fitness too intense with a kettlebell, flexibility, strength, and coordination can still be achieved by mimicking this movement with no weight at all. If this is the case, simply interlock your fingers to create a focus for the momentum.

As this exercise can sound a little complicated, here’s a video demonstration:

Exercise Ball Push-Ups

The exercise ball is sometimes known as a Swiss ball or stability ball. Exercise ball push-ups are what functional fitness is all about. It removes the stabilizing feature of the floor. That makes your muscle groups do all the work, especially the hip flexors and spinal erectors.

If you find balancing a little too difficult to begin with, ask a friend to hold the ball steady until your balance and confidence improves. Do two sets of 10 reps, with a two to three minute break in between.

  1. This is your starting position:
    1. Start by kneeling on the floor with the exercise ball in front of you.
    2. Place your palms on the top of the ball, about 8 inches either side of center. Your arms should be locked.
    3. Extend your legs behind you, feet wider than shoulder-width apart.
    4. Lock out the legs, making a perfectly straight line of back, buttocks, and legs,
    5. Your points of contact should only be bent toes on the ground and palms on the exercise ball.
  2. Lower your torso down toward the ball by bending your arms at the elbows. Stop when they’re at 90 degrees.
  3. Hold for one second.
  4. Push back into the starting position again by powering through the biceps and pectoral muscles until your arms are locked again.

Top tip: Difficulty and intensity can be increased for this functional fitness exercise through two means.

First, a weighted backpack can be worn, which raises the effort required in the lift movement. Second, the closer the feet are together, the harder it is to balance, which makes extra work for the hip and lower back muscles.

Here’s a guy showing you how it should be done:

Dumbbell Row with Single Leg

This is an amazing functional fitness exercise which enhances hip rotation, strengthens the arms, mimics a lifting movement, and improves the gait. What’s more, it pushes the often neglected back muscles.

Do 12 reps then complete on the opposite leg, again for 12 reps. Rest for two minutes then complete this set one more time.

  1. This is your starting position:
    1. Start by standing on your right leg with a dumbbell in each hand.
    2. Bend forward from the hips, aiming to get your back as perpendicular to the floor as possible.
    3. As you do so, extend your left leg behind you for stability while keeping it slightly bent at the knee.
    4. Allow the dumbbells to hang freely downward in your outstretched arms.
    5. Look at the floor about two feet in front of you.
  2. Lift the dumbbells up toward your sides by bending at the elbows.
  3. When they’re level with your hips, hold for one second.
  4. Then slowly lower again.

Top tip: Throughout this exercise, try as much as possible to keep the majority of the body stable. Ideally, only the arms should move. Resist the temptation to create a swinging motion with the back and legs, which heightens injury risk and lowers the efficacy.

Intensity can be increased by raising the weight of the dumbbell. Take a look at this video to see how the exercise should be completed:

Functional Fitness Summary

Being fit isn’t all about gaining massive biceps, being able to run a marathon, or the ability to do speed-sprints on a bicycle. Some of the best exercises ensure that our ability to function at work, home, and in our sporting pursuits is taken to the highest limit possible.

Functional fitness can provide these results.

These life-enhancing exercises can either be used as your sole exercise program or as a tool alongside other workout regimens such as weightlifting or responsible cardio.

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