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What Is Functional Fitness

Functional fitness is a term that has become a buzzword in an enormous amount of gyms, online fitness forums and personal training circles. This method of exercise seems to be the flavor of the day in the ever-changing fad of fitness culture. 

Unfortunately, like so many other truly beneficial techniques and routines, the term functional fitness has become so ubiquitous that the inexperienced person looking to change up their exercise program can easily become confused by the plethora of definitions. 

For the sake of simplicity, we will define functional fitness as the practice of utilizing real-life movement patterns and activities to perform at a higher level throughout daily life. 

A common issue found in many training methods today is that the primary focus of the methodology does not actually carry over into life outside of the gym. Take the classic bodybuilder approach found in countless magazines and online workout strategies. 

We have all seen the poster boy (or girl) of this form of exercise, the absolutely massive individual with incredibly defined musculature lacking an ounce of excess body fat. While this archetype commonly appeals to a large number of people looking to pack on muscle mass, the overall benefits pretty much end after looking away from the mirror. 

On the other end of the spectrum lie the extreme distance-running junkies. The shining example of this form of training is usually a gaunt-faced, rail-thin individual capable of being taken away by a moderately strong wind. 

When pledging allegiance to any particular exercise program like the ones listed above, it is often easy to ignore the question of whether or not achieving this status will actually help one become more effective throughout normal life. 

Consider this scenario: if you are able to bench press 400 pounds, but struggle to tie your shoelaces without becoming winded and/or pulling several muscles in the process, are you actually in-shape? The ability to deadlift the entire gym is certainly impressive but lacking the flexibility to fasten your child’s car seat really negates the entire feat. 

Shifting the focus to the other end of the spectrum, breezing your way through a marathon in record time is undoubtedly commendable, sacrificing overall strength in the process to the point that unloading a car full of groceries requires 10 trips to the car and back is not. 

The point is, fitness should not be crammed into any specific “box,” so to speak. If you are currently involved in any sort of exercise program, kudos to you. While we have thrown at differing training methodologies and their shortsightedness, ANY form of exercise is better than none at all. 

The fact that you have dedicated your time to exercise, no matter how potentially over specific it may be, still places you in a better position than an alarming number of individuals that neglect excess physical activity entirely! 

In this discussion, we will attempt to break down how implementing functional fitness into your training program will better equip you for daily life. Furthermore, we will dive into some specific approaches that provide a tangible way of improving your own functional fitness level. 

Unique Benefits Of Functional Fitness

Shifting your training method to include more functional fitness provides a variety of benefits that other forms of exercise neglect. The first and most obvious of these benefits is practicality. 

When your workout routine consists of exercises and movement patterns that mimic things you do every day outside of the gym, the carryover is easy to notice. 

You don’t find yourself wondering why you are actually performing the exercise in the first place. Apart from any physical aspect of the workout, it is much easier to remain mentally engaged in the process when there is a direct real-life carryover in mind. 

Functional fitness also boasts a fantastic amount of adaptability. Since the goal of this training method is to improve your ability to perform daily tasks, the actual structure of each workout can always be altered to suit these requirements. 

It goes without saying that the demands and responsibilities life places on us are far from static. What was relevant and necessary one day might look completely different next week. 

When your training program allows you the freedom to adjust the exercises to better fit what you need right now, you avoid pigeon holing yourself into a routine that fails to change alongside you. 

Convenience is another aspect of functional fitness that certainly appeals to the majority of people today. Life for most of us is a tedious balancing act of trying to accomplish mandatory responsibilities while still finding the time to actually enjoy ourselves, all in a seemingly miniscule 24-hour window. 

Consistency is the foundation of accomplishment in anything worthwhile in life and fitness is no exception. 

If your exercise program requires that you show up at a specific time for a training session or have a slew of specific pieces of equipment available to complete each workout, how reasonable are these mandates the first time your schedule changes abruptly? 

A functional fitness routine is one that can be performed in a variety of settings, utilizing whatever equipment is available at the time. 

  • Woke up an hour late and can’t make the drive to the gym before work? No problem! Simply modify your workout that day with things you can do in the comfort of your own home.
  • Don’t feeling like fighting the 5 o’clock rush at the local fitness facility? Take your workout to a nearby park, which normally includes plenty of tools to crush a training session (think jungle-gyms and park benches).

If you are going to maintain the consistency required to reap any benefits from working out, your training program must be flexible enough to accommodate the unavoidable changes in plans comprising a normal lifestyle. 

When it comes to physical fitness, playing the long game is key. You can be as strong as you want or harness the ability to run incredible distances, but if you accumulate so much wear and tear on your body in the process that old age finds you in a state of complete immobility, what’s the point? 

The problem with a lot of workout ideologies is that they fail to address long-term implications. Too many people focus solely on achieving short-term fitness goals that they lose sight of overall health beyond that goal. 

Constantly subjecting yourself to any form of hardcore exercise all but guarantees that you will experience a considerable number of unnecessary injuries along the way. The mental fatigue also synonymous with this approach threatens to stifle your motivation to continue working out long-term. 

The point of exercise is to optimize the person you are right now while simultaneously benefiting the person you’re to become years down the road. 

Any worthwhile method of training needs to be sustainable. Functional fitness not only avoids pursuing unimportant short-term goals, but it also provides the liberty of listening to your body. 

Simply put, there are going to be some days that your scheduled workout is going to do more harm than good. Maybe you failed to get enough sleep last night to recover from yesterday’s session or felt a slight tweak when performing a specific exercise. Whatever the case may be, if your workout program leaves you so intent on knocking out a daily gym session that you ignore any physical warning signs, you are actually being counterintuitive in your approach. 

Remember, we are better off thinking about fitness from a long-term perspective. There is not a workout in existence that is worth the risk of a nagging injury that plagues you for years to come. 

Examples Of Functional Fitness Exercises

Hopefully by now we have established a working definition regarding functional fitness as well as the merits of this form of training. However, you still may find yourself wondering how to actually implement functional training into your daily exercise regimen. 

Provided below are some examples of training methods that really encompass what it means to train “functionally.” While this is far from an exhaustive list of ways to improve your readiness for life, it can serve as a solid starting point to guide you in the right direction. 

Compound Exercises

Compound exercises unequivocally provide the most bang for your buck when it comes to working out. The term describes any particular exercise that includes activating multiple muscle groups and joints to move a load (which can be a weight or just your body) through a range of motion. 

These types of exercises recruit the highest amount of muscle tissue of any other movement. Furthermore, compound exercises provide an effective means of exhausting the muscular system to the extent necessary for growth in the shortest amount of time. 

Compound Vs. Isolation Exercises

Compound exercises involve the use of more than one muscle group, which isolation exercises make use of one single muscle group.

Isolation exercises have their place in a fitness plan, they are ideal for target toning, recovery and also for the correction of muscle imbalances. 

Compound exercises are more efficient since you would have to do at least twice the amount of isolation exercises as compound to work the entire body. So you save time and enjoy a more efficient workout. 

Unless you are lucky enough to allocate hours of your day to working out, compound exercises should comprise the majority of your training session. We have all seen the poor soul at the gym that comes in day after day, hops on every piece of equipment in the gym for a set or two and exits the building. One thing you will probably notice about our friend here is that they look exactly the same today as they did last year and probably the year before that. 

Far too many people waste time devoting significant portions of their workout to training one muscle at a time. The reasoning behind the phenomenon is multi-faceted. On one hand, this approach to training is relatively easy. Nestling yourself on a plush, padded piece of equipment and performing bicep curls is far less strenuous than loading up a barbell and moving it around. 

Furthermore, using the shiny equipment with stickers and diagrams describing exactly how to use them is incredibly simple. While this is not meant to be interpreted in a condescending tone, as everyone starts somewhere on their fitness journey, this cookie cutter approach to working out is both inefficient and relatively ineffective. 

Compound exercises are the gold standard as it pertains to training the body to become stronger and more capable. 

These include exercises such as the back squat, bench press, deadlift, pull-up and so on. Each of these movements requires the use of multiple muscle groups simultaneously to complete the movement. 

Because of this requirement, one is generally able to perform the exercise using a higher level of resistance. Both of these factors benefit an individual in that moving more weight stimulates increased muscle growth, while exhausting multiple muscles at the same time reduces the time needed to complete an effective workout. 

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “okay, I get it. Compound exercises are the best way to approach resistance training. But how is this considered functional fitness?” 

Well, I’m glad you asked! Think about it this way, how often do you perform a physical task over the course of your day that involves standing perfectly still and using a single muscle to get the job done? The answer is almost never. 

The problem with many exercises popular in the gym is that they do just this, allow you to sit perfectly still and move a handle or cable in such a way that one muscle group is targeted. 

These include exercises like the bicep curl and leg extension machine. While this form of training has the potential to strengthen and grow the intended muscle, the carryover to daily life is minimal. 

In almost everything we do, from bending over to pick up a box, to lifting a child overhead, even getting out of bed in the morning, there are common movement patterns repeated over and over again. 

These include movements such as the hip-hinge, bending of the knees, bracing the core and coordination of the upper and lower halves of the body in a synergistic way. These patterns are the same ones found in the performance of compound exercises. In order to improve your functional fitness, you must base your training around movement patterns that are necessary outside of the gym on a daily basis. 

To prevent misguiding you in a way that risks injury and danger, we need to discuss some of the negative aspects attributed to compound exercises. 

While these movements are undoubtedly superior as it pertains to building muscle and increasing strength, they also come with the increased risk for injury. As you will be moving a larger amount of weight through a fairly large range of motion, these exercises should not be performed full speed ahead from the start. 

With any exercise you choose to perform, especially compound movements, it is vital to first perfect the proper technique required for the exercise. You would be wise to start with a very light weight, or even without any added resistance until you are comfortable enough to complete the exercise with proper form. 

Only then should you begin to increase the weight at a pace that never exceeds your ability to maintain proper technique. 

Examples Of Compound Exercises

Examples Of Compound Chest Exercises

  • Barbell bench press
  • Weighted pull-ups
  • Incline and decline barbell bench press
  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Incline dumbbell bench press
  • Weighted dips for chest
  • Compound back exercises
  • Deadlift
  • Bent-over barbell row
  • Wide-grip pull-up
  • Standing t-bar row
  • Wide-grip pulldown

Compound Ab Exercises

  • Bicycle
  • Flag
  • Cable crunch
  • Hanging dumbbell knee raise
  • Plank
  • Weighted decline sit-up

Compound Shoulder Exercises

  • Front dumbbell raise
  • Handstand push-ups
  • Compound leg exercises
  • Bent-over reverse fly
  • Lateral raise
  • Barbell squat
  • Calf press
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Leg press
  • Lunges with dumbbells

Compound Bicep Exercises

  • Weighted Chin-ups
  • Incline-Bench Curl
  • Standing Cable Curl
  • Seated Hammer Curl
  • Standing Barbell Curl
  • Inverted Rows
  • Compound Tricep Exercises
  • Close-Grip Bench Press
  • Weighted Dips
  • Cable Push-Down
  • Dumbbell Kickback

Plyometrics

Plyometric training is another fantastic example of functional fitness. It is also a method of exercise that is rarely utilized outside of athletics. 

Plyometric training is using short, explosive movements that forces a muscle or muscles to go from a relaxed, extended position to an activated, contracted state.

I will admit, even the definition of this form of training sounds like something straight out of an Olympian’s exercise log. You may be wondering to yourself why in the world the average person simply looking to be better at life would need to emphasize this type of training. 

And to that I would say, keep this same question in mind the next time you are in a mad dash to keep your kid from running into the street or trying to avoid embarrassment during your backyard pickup game. 

Even if you are not a competitive athlete needing constant bursts of speed and power, this does not mean you will NEVER be required to perform these movements. 

Plyometric training comes with its own unique benefits besides functionality. Muscle tissue in composed of several different types of fibers. For this discussion, we will discuss two of these types. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are responsible for controlled, low-intensity movements occurring for prolonged time intervals. 

Think about the muscles running down your spine that keep you upright throughout the day. While slow-twitch fibers play an integral role in overall function, to be ready for more dynamic situations we still need an adequate amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers. 

Using context clues, I am confident you can piece together what these fibers are for. Fast-twitch fibers can be found predominantly in muscles that require quick contract/relax cycles to perform more rapid movements. Good examples of these are the muscles responsible for eye movement as well as certain muscle groups found in the legs. While most areas of the body are comprised of a balanced ratio of these fiber types, they are recruited relative to what is needed at any given time. 

Plyometric training is a fantastic way to not only train, but actually increase the preponderance of fast-twitch fibers in the body. 

Remember our discussion about playing the long game when it comes to your overall fitness? Plyometric training has your back as far as sustainability is concerned. 

A considerable amount of injuries during exercise involve damage to the tendons that serve as an attachment site between muscle and bone. These structures are not as flexible and elastic as muscle tissue and are therefore more vulnerable to injury from excessive stretching and range of motion.

Plyometric training is a great way to fortify tendons, as subjecting them to repeated stress in a controlled way actually serves to increase their elasticity. Any injury involving a tendon can be spell disaster when it comes to enjoying consistency and effectiveness in your exercise routine for a long period of time. 

Strengthening your muscles is great, but there needs to be a focus on protecting the anchors responsible for securing these structures as well. 

Examples Of Plyometric Training

Images of athletes jumping over towering objects and weaving through cones at incredible speed may be the first things that come to mind. 

While these feats do constitute what it means to train using plyometrics, they are certainly more advanced examples. 

This form of training is great in that it can be scaled up or down to suit varying levels of fitness. 

Plyometric Exercises Include

Lower Body

  • Box Jumps
  • Burpees
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Plank Jacks
  • Squat jumps
  • Jumping rope
  • Jumping Jacks
  • High Knees
  • Skaters
  • Tuck Jumps
  • Star Jumps
  • Jump Squats
  • Squat Jacks
  • Leap Frog
  • Frog Jumps 
  • Jump Lunges
  • Plank Tucks
  • Side-to-Side Plank Hop
  • Donkey Kicks

Upper Body

  • Medicine ball slams
  • Clapping Push Up
  • Insert Wide to Narrow Push Up
  • Wide to Narrow Pull-Ups
  • Switch Grip Pull-Ups
  • Push Offs
  • Push Up Jacks
  • Clapping Pull-Ups
  • Muscle Ups
  • Explosive Tricep Dips

Each of these movements can be adjusted to accommodate whatever amount of explosiveness you possess. 

Simple modifications such as lowering the box height, using a lighter medicine ball, reducing the speed in which you jump rope are but a few of these modifiers. 

Yoga

Yoga is often placed in the category of mindfulness and meditation more so than functional fitness training. However, this is often the case when the individual has never actually performed yoga. 

When it comes to improving your ability to perform real-life movement, this form of training can provide incredible results. 

At its core, yoga involves controlling the breathing and movement patterns in such a way that requires activation of numerous stabilizing muscles to hold a position for an extended period of time. 

The carryover to daily life is profound, as you will encounter the need for this form of physical activity multiple times per day. Any time you find yourself needing to perform a physical task that requires managing a load for any significant amount of time, there are various muscle groups in place that are working together to ensure you get the job done safely. 

The musculature of your abdominal region, lower back and hips are great examples. While improving the ability to perform explosive, dynamic movements is beneficial, training the support system that allows these movements is just as important. 

Yoga is also remarkable at increasing the flexibility of the entire body. Most of us possess one if not more parts of our body that are profoundly lacking in mobility. Working at a desk all day, long car rides and sleeping in the same position each night can all contribute to this issue.

 While there are numerous forms of yoga, they all place an emphasis on elongating and stretching differing muscle groups. Mobility is vital in regard to injury prevention and optimizing your overall function throughout your life. 

If you fall in to the category of people that consider yoga a leisurely activity to be enjoyed by meditation gurus alongside candlelight, I urge you to give it a try and see if your opinion changes the next morning! 

Sport-Specific Training

Many of you following this discussion may actually be involved in a sport. Whether you are a competitive athlete, busy college student intent of dominating the intramural league or a weekend warrior looking forward to the next city league basketball game, you undoubtedly like the idea of improving in your sport. 

As an athlete, the urge to gain an edge over the competition is a universal drive present in every level of sport. Although the purpose of our discussion is about how to improve your functional fitness regarding your daily life, sports IS often a part of this equation. 

If you find yourself in an exercise routine that is completely devoid of any movements or exercises that directly translate to your sport, it is time you consider your reasoning behind this situation. 

While increasing your strength, speed and power certainly hold merit in dominating the playing field, these goals need to be paired with activities that carry over into your specific sport. 

We won’t get to into detail on specifics exercises to include in your own sport-specific training, as there are a countless number of sports to consider. However, the point is that your training program should not only focus on the foundation of athleticism as a whole, but also the specific movement patterns and techniques required of your sport of choice. 

Conclusion

Hopefully upon completing this discussion you have gained a firm understanding of just what it means to be functionally fit. Your time is by far the most valuable resource in your possession. Don’t waste this time buying into exercise programs promising “six-pack abs in thirty days” or “shed 30 pounds in six weeks”. 

Exercise is not a temporary sprint (no pun intended) to a short-term goal, rather a marathon to be enjoyed for the duration of your life. As you choose a fitness routine or particular form of training, make sure that you factor in the skills needed for your unique lifestyle. 

The body is far more than a pair of biceps or a well-defined midsection. There are an incredible number of structures and moving parts all working together to accomplish any intended movement pattern. Your training needs to consider the system as a whole. 

As humans, anything we voluntarily do on a consistent basis need to be enjoyed and exercise is no exception. Avoid subjecting yourself to long, grueling workout routines that feel like medieval torture and leave you banged up and bitter day after day. 

As an individual, you must decide what functional fitness means for you. Once you make this decision, structure your exercise routine around this definition.

By doing this, you set yourself up for a life filled with steady progress unhindered by pain and discomfort. Play the long game! 

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” –Socrates 

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