Functional fitness training is one of the hottest trends in the fitness arena today, earning the number 8 spot in ACSM’s worldwide survey of fitness trends for 2014. Many fitness clubs have implemented classes that incorporate functional movements, whereas programs such as CrossFit, P90X, Core Performance, and others have gained wide popularity. Some people have even designed their own backyard obstacle courses and events that require total body conditioning (e.g., the Spartan Race), and these events have brought flocks of people to the starting line.
Although tremendously popular, the concept of functional fitness is nothing new. In fact, our early ancestors relied on physical endurance, agility, balance, core strength, proprioceptive awareness, neuromuscular coordination, and other functional fitness attributes to eat and live. This requirement has changed significantly as the high-tech revolution eliminated many challenging multidirectional physical work tasks. The result has been an increased incidence of work-related repetitive strain and cumulative trauma injuries and inadequate whole-body conditioning to carry out many real-life activities. Functional exercise, focusing on activities requiring multidirectional movements and the simultaneous coordination of a variety of muscle groups, may prevent some of these injuries and provide a stronger base of conditioning for undertaking various life and recreational activities.
Typical resistance training workouts using weight machines and cardio sessions on treadmills, bikes, or elliptical trainers tend to isolate muscle groups and challenge them with single plane or linear movements. Thus, although excellent for promoting health benefits and developing a base of conditioning, such workouts fall short of training the body for the multidirectional movements required for many common life activities. Thus, it is not unusual for someone to chug along on the treadmill consistently only to experience significant soreness and stiffness after a weekend of yard work, participating in a softball game, or simply demonstrating to a youth soccer team how to change directions while moving the ball downfield.
Participation in functional exercise activities also will help minimize declines in strength, coordination, balance, and many other functional attributes associated with aging. Annually, numerous people incur severe injuries because of trips and falls. Many of these events could be prevented by including patterns of movement in an exercise program that develop kinesthetic awareness, body control, and balance. On the other end of the spectrum, competitive athletes, while needing to do sport-specific training, also will benefit by incorporating a variety of functional exercise activities into their overall training program.
Most fitness facilities offer functional exercise programming, and there are a number of facilities/programs that specialize in this type of conditioning. In addition, many personal trainers also are well versed at coaching a variety of functional exercises. However, functional exercise training does not require fancy equipment and specialty programming to get started. Begin by incorporating exercises that require you to control and balance your own body weight. Exercise examples are single leg squat, step-ups, multidirectional lunges, and other activities that challenge balance and coordination and require you to move in multiple directions.
As conditioning improves, exercise activities can be made more challenging by adding balance beams, BOSU balls, dumbbells, kettleballs, rocker and wobble boards, and other equipment to the routine. In addition, many fitness facilities offer cable machines, suspension systems, whole-body vibration equipment, and other types of equipment that require multiple body parts to work together. Because the foundation of functional training is core conditioning, activities should be included that require integrated movements and utilization of the muscle groups around the trunk and pelvis.
For some people, undertaking the same cardio and resistance training activities each week has become boring and dull. Incorporating functional fitness activities into the weekly routine will add an element of fun and social interaction that can keep us going. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “We do not quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing!” Consider livening up your exercise program with a bit of FUNctional training.