What Is Functional Fitness?
Functional fitness, simply put, is the sort of fitness that helps you, well… function! It’s what enables us to lift endless grocery bags to avoid the “walk of shame” of making a second trip back to the car, carry around a fidgety toddler while making an important phone call, sprint up the stairs when we’re late and we’ve forgotten our keys, etc. Functional fitness encompasses six intertwining elements: speed, agility, strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. The fact is, you can be fit— yet not be functionally fit. Of course, while any form of fitness will help you function better to some degree, the truth remains that not all forms of fitness translate well into better functioning overall. Functional training, however, focuses on fitness that does translate well into better functioning overall by incorporating the six elements of functional fitness— through activities such as running, jumping, lifting, throwing, often using bodyweight, kettlebells, dumbbells, or medicine balls.
The Pitfalls of Highly Specialized Training
Take a typical bodybuilder (again, a ‘typical’ bodybuilder— since more and more bodybuilders nowadays are actively incorporating functional training into their routines) for example: a bodybuilder is a highly specialized athlete whose main focus is to increase muscle size and foster muscle strength. Functional fitness, however, encompasses not only strength but also speed, agility, endurance, balance, and flexibility; bodybuilding alone, unfortunately, doesn’t fully tap into those other areas of fitness. So while a bodybuilder might have immense strength and muscle mass, he or she may nonetheless struggle with activities that require those other elements of fitness. They might squat effortlessly with hundreds of pounds, but a one-legged squat requiring balance may be a struggle with just bodyweight alone.
Likewise, a bodybuilder who utilizes machine-based exercises as a primary way to train may find that these machines rarely mimic the natural movement of muscles during normal activity effectively. When was the last time you were required to do the motions of a leg adductor or hamstring curl machine in your day-to-day life outside of the gym? While these machine-based exercises clearly help increase muscle size and specific strength, they’re also limited since they do not typically reflect how our muscles move during activity. Unfortunately, there’s no machine that accurately mimics the action of tossing a heavy object or carrying something over your shoulder, and although certain machine-based exercises can certainly help you better complete these activities, it cannot be denied that they’re not promoting the full aspect of functional fitness either.
Bodybuilders, of course, are not the only ones who suffer from the pitfalls of highly specialized training. Runners often tap into the areas of speed, endurance, and agility, yet struggle with the remaining aspects of fitness. This, in the long run, is a detriment to any runner because increased balance and flexibility will drastically reduce the occurrence of many common running injuries. Moreover, a lack of strength in a runner often indirectly results in decreased speed due to the lack of power that is required by the leg muscles, such as when sprinting uphill. Runners incorporating balance, flexibility, and strength aspects into their training will find that they can run harder, faster, and safer. Similarly, an advanced yoga practitioner may be adapt with balance, flexibility, and strength (yes, contrary to popular belief, yoga is an effective way to build strength), yet that practitioner may struggle with speed, agility, and endurance. No matter what, highly specialized training has its pitfalls, since this sort of training often focuses too heavily on certain elements of fitness, while overlooking other elements of fitness in the process.
Prioritize Your Training
No matter what your focus is, your training can benefit from the addition of functional training to your regimen. First and foremost, analyze what it is that you want your body to be able to do. Not all of us want to be bodybuilders, runners, dancers, crossfitters, etc. We each have our own personal goals, so it’s important to prioritize what it is that you, personally, want to do most— run short distances? run long distances? be at your strongest? or maybe just be fitter overall?
When you think about what it is that you want your body to do, then you can, in turn, prioritize what aspects of functional fitness (and in what degrees) are most important to you: speed, strength, agility, balance, flexibility, endurance. Keep in mind that all of these aspects work together synergistically, and your body will function best when all of these areas are trained. It’s important, though, to prioritize for time management, so a bodybuilder might lift weights regularly— but adding functional training even twice a week can show immense benefits.
Incorporating Functional Training
If you’re a highly specialized athlete, then it can seem difficult to incorporate functional training into an already-packed training regimen. But, the truth is, just a few simple changes can help you incorporate functional training into your fitness routine. Here’s how:
→ Incorporate compound movements. Bodybuilders, specifically, often fall prey to the allure of isolation movements. Isolation movements work out only one joint and muscle group, whereas compound movements work out two or more joints and muscle groups. Indeed, the intense focus on a certain muscle group can have its benefits— especially for bodybuilders who want to work out a specific muscle group to its max. If you’re looking to become fitter overall though, then compound movements are still essential to your workout regimen. Compound movements more closely mimic real-life activities. On top of it, these movements incorporate elements of coordination, agility, balance, endurance, joint stability, and more. Ensure that you have a good amount of compound movements in your workout regimen.
Examples: push ups, pull ups, chin ups, deadlifts, squats, lunges, and more.
→ Practice explosive movements. Explosive movements allow you to tap into your body’s explosive power and, with repeated practice, allow you to increase your body’s explosive power as well. For those interested in increasing strength, explosive movements help ramp up your progress, since explosive movements increase muscle fiber recruitment in the body. Studies show that, over time, weight lifters who incorporate explosive movements are able to lift more than those who do not incorporate explosive movements. Explosive movements don’t just foster strength— they aid in increasing speed, agility, and balance as well. A word of caution though: form is extremely important when practicing explosive movements, and it’s critical that you don’t allow your technique to become sloppy. Ensure proper form by practicing these movements several times before ultimately progressing to explosive movements, and never sacrifice safe form for the sake of lifting heavier.
Examples: box jumps, kettlebell swings, medicine ball tosses, plyo push ups, jump squats, cleans, jerks, snatches, and more.
→ Utilize free weights whenever possible. It’s really tempting to rotate from machine to machine at the gym, ignoring the free weight rack entirely. This, however, isn’t always the best idea (in my opinion— the free weight rack is where you should spend the majority of your time while lifting weights!). Machines, of course, have their place in your workout routine; the benefits of isolating muscle groups and promoting good form cannot be ignored. The fact, nonetheless, remains that free weights are crucial to functional fitness. Using free weights allows you to train your stabilizing muscles, such as your core, back, and legs. Additionally, lifting free weights more closely resembles the natural movement of your body during everyday activities. Moreover, lifting weights unsupported increases your overall balance due to the increased strength of your stabilizing muscles, tapping into your balance and strength fitness simultaneously. In comparison to using machines, lifting free weights requires more attention to form, so as always make sure your form is on point!
Examples: curls, rows, flys, presses, weighted Russian twists… the list of free weight exercises is almost endless!
→ Add elements of imbalance. Balance is the most commonly overlooked element of fitness— which is a shame because it’s also one of the most crucial in helping to prevent injuries. For example, when it comes to running, you might presume that speed, endurance, and agility are the most important elements of fitness involved. Balance, however, plays a critical role in running. When you think about it logically, running requires a person to be suspended on one leg, even if only for a momentary period of time. In addition, running often involves traversing over unsteady surfaces— rocky pavement, uneven trails, etc. Balance is what allows a runner to navigate these surfaces without experiencing injuries (such as sprained ankles), and regular balance training aids in your body’s proprioception. Working on balance can increase a runner’s safety, as well as aid in improving a runner’s overall performance. This isn’t even mentioning that regular balance training increases the strength of the stabilizing muscles! Similarly, other athletes can benefit from balance training as well. If balance is a particular issue for you, you can begin slowly with simple exercises such as standing on one leg, gradually increasing your time as you practice. When it comes to balance, yoga is one of the best ways to train— not to mention that you’ll be working on your flexibility as well!
Examples: one legged squats, one legged deadlifts, pendulums, leg swings, knee ups, one armed push ups, and numerous yoga positions.