Functional Fitness: What does it mean? Who is it for?
Casey Spangler is an Athletic Trainer at Upland Hills Health, and works with a variety of patients, from student athletes to joint replacement patients, helping them achieve their activity goals.
Each individual has varying fitness goals. Some train for races, sporting events, or simply for the well-known health benefits of exercise.
What about training for life?
Functional fitness is the concept of gearing an exercise routine to prepare the body for everyday movements. Examples of some everyday movements include using stairs, standing up from a seat, or lifting a bag of groceries.
Incorporating functional training into an exercise regimen can help prevent injuries. You can become injured performing a simple task if your muscles do not know how to work together, even if those muscles are strong. Functional exercise strengthens multiple joints at one time and will train the muscles to work together to complete a movement. Performing multi-joint exercises can improve balance, coordination, and brain function.
Here’s a great example.
The chest machine in a gym is used to increase strength of the chest muscles. However, it does not prepare a person to push open a heavy door. When using the chest machine, the chest muscles are strengthened in isolation. To strengthen in isolation means the surrounding muscles are not active and the spine is being stabilized by the machine’s seat. Additionally, the chest machine guides the movement, which minimizes the connection between the brain and muscles that would otherwise improve balance and coordination.
To push against the resistance of a heavy door, the lower body, trunk, and upper back muscles must become engaged to stabilize the spine and maintain an upright position. A more functional exercise than the chest machine is a push-up. A correctly performed push up requires activation of the chest muscles, as well as stabilizing muscles of the spine and lower body. These muscles must all work together to achieve a push up—and to push open a heavy door.
Tips to Incorporate Functional Exercise into a Routine
To incorporate functional exercises into your routine, consider working the body in various planes (front/back, side/side, rotational) and different types of movements (pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging).
A few examples:
- Replace leg press with body weight squats and gradually add weight
- Instead of sitting during bicep curls, do them standing or on a single leg to work on balance.
- Deadlifts- (my favorite!) add them, many people do not know how to make their body hinge at the hips. It’s a pulling motion that translates into picking up a laundry basket or taking a baby out of a crib.
- Overhead press with rotation similar to single-handedly reaching for item on shelf.
Combine different planes and body parts, which can be especially effective if you’re pressed for time.
- Squat to overhead press to work lower and upper body
- Alternating lunge with rotation
- Dumbbell chest press in a bridge position
- Side lunge with lateral shoulder raise
If you’re looking for a more cardio intensive workout, replace 20 minutes on the elliptical or stationary bicycle with :30-:60 bouts of skates, jumping jacks, or jump squats with :30 breaks for 10:00-15:00.
Anyone can benefit from functional training. Improved balance and coordination can decrease risk of falls—or increase the ability to get up off the floor if you do fall. Functional training can also fit into a busy schedule because multi joint exercises can make your workouts more time efficient, requiring less time spent exercising without compromising quality.