What is Functional Fitness?
A common myth about working out and lifting weights that I want to debunk is that it is all about bulking up and achieving that chiseled bodybuilder physique.
You will see a lot of media and advertising that promotes fitness as a competition where only the toughest, strongest men triumph.
However, this is simply not the case. Especially in today’s world, our concept of ideal fitness has revolutionized towards the topic I want to explain today: functional fitness.
Let me explain: functional fitness gives people of all ages and fitness levels something called functional strength.
This means that not only can you crush workouts at the gym, but the strength and conditioning you have gained from your functional workout routine now translate into real life application.
By focusing on goals within functional fitness, you are equipping your body to be prepared for the demands of everyday life.
From the functional fitness mindset, an incredible physique is now seen as an awesome bonus of working out, but not the be all end all goal.
What is functional fitness?
Break down the word functional fitness and think about the word “functional” to mean the exercises are working for you.
If something is functional, it is practical and useful. Functional fitness includes practical and useful workouts that condition our bodies to perform everyday movements with strength, mobility, and stability.
These workouts aim to replicate the body’s natural movements, so they often have a focus on full body exercises like squats, lunges, presses, and pull-ups.
Let me paint a picture for you: think about all the strength building machines offered around your local gym.
We have machines that put you in seated positions to target your chest or quads, and then contraptions that lay you down to target your hamstrings or back, and we even find ourselves crouched into machines like the leg press or lat pulldown.
While these workout machines are for targeting specific muscle groups, they do not at all replicate everyday movements.
The biggest kicker with all of these machines is that you are performing these exercises while seated or lying down, and therefore they are hardly engaging important parts of your body like your core strength or your balance, which is integral to having functional strength in your day to day life. Not so practical, right?
Now imagine this: you are bending down to pick up a heavy box of groceries, you are lifting above your head to drill a shelf into a wall, you are holding back your dog while they try to chase the neighbourhood cat, or you have to get down on your hands and knees to change a tire...these are all real life examples that require you to be agile, stable, mobile, and strong.
And if you are not, you are putting yourself at risk of injury, or coming to a point in your life where you have to begin cutting out activities that you once enjoyed because your body can no longer do them safely. So, what is the solution? Functional fitness.
Let us take, for comparison, the leg extension machine at the gym and consider how it differs from someone performing a full body squat, with or without weight. On the leg extension machine you are seated.
You are only working out your quad muscles. You can also easily get in good form by creating momentum with the swing of your legs to allow the weight to move easier, and on tougher reps you might find yourself leaning backward or forward to engage other muscles to help push the weight up.
Now, with a full body squat, you are engaging far more muscle groups. Your quads, of course, are working, but now they are being joined by your core, glutes, hamstrings, and even feet and arches that are working to keep your whole body stable.
This movement is a lot harder to cheat on with poor form. It is also replicated real life movements like bending or coughing down to lift something up.
The key difference to note here is that the full body squat is achieving what the fitness world refers to as a compound movement, an exercise that makes muscle groups work together to replicate real life activities.
In contrast, the leg extension machine would be an example of an isolation exercise that really limits what you can achieve.
As you might imagine, this means that functional fitness is not only incredibly useful for your longer-term health, but it is also incredibly time efficient.
For the same amounts of sets and reps, you are strengthening and conditioning way more muscle groups and burning more calories using compound exercise rather than isolation exercise.
How can I begin doing functional workouts to achieve functional strength?
If you are looking for more low impact functional fitness routines, consider taking up tai chi, yoga, or pilates. All of these popular fitness programs focus on movements that emphasize functional strength, flexibility, and balance.
I would recommend activities such as these to people who are beginning their fitness journey or older adults who want to stay active.
As well, programs like tai chi, yoga, and pilates are popular group fitness classes that you can join through online programs, community centres, or even discover using free YouTube classes.
If you are part of a gym that offers classes, or enjoy taking workout classes, check out what sort of classes they offer. Gyms might have classes specifically for functional fitness.
If not, check to see if they offer any Boot Camp, Tabata, or high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes as these types of fitness routines often include functional strength and full-body movements that challenge your endurance and stability.
What I also like about this option is that joining a class can be really motivational for people who struggle to keep to a fitness routine.
Having a training and a community of like-minded individuals to workout alongside can hold you more accountable to your routine.
If you are not sure whether or not a gym offers classes that focus on functional strength, as a trainer or the front desk what class they would recommend to achieve more functional fitness.
If you want to bring your workout routine to the next level and are ready for more intensity in your exercises, consider popular fitness programs like Crossfit or powerlifting.
You can find specialty gyms that offer equipment and spaces specifically made for these sports, and that educate beginners on how to perform Crossfit and powerlifting movements safely.
To compare the two, both Crossfit and powerlifting are high intensity workouts. Crossfit focuses more on overall fitness, interval training, and performing reps under time whereas powerlifting focuses on an athlete’s overall strength.
Both Crossfit and powerlifting incorporate functional fitness but valuing movements like the squat and deadlift. Crossfit takes functional fitness a step further by including movements like muscle-ups, burpees, and sprints.
Because both of these sports incorporate high intensity full body movements paired with increasingly heavy weights, you must educate yourself on proper form.
I highly suggest working with a trainer for both of these sports, and being realistic about your own abilities and limits so that you always prioritize safety in your movements.
For the outdoorsy type, functional workouts can be found in everyday activities like running, hiking, and swimming. Instead of spending boring hour sessions on a treadmill or elliptical machine, lace up your running shoes and take your workout outdoors.
Challenging your body to respond to nature's natural hills and terrain rather than being locked into a machine movement offers the functional strength building you are looking to achieve.
What are the best movements to gain functional strength?
The ultimate functional fitness movement is one that you either already love or hate, or love to hate: the squat.
Squats can be performed in a variety of different ways to serve people of all different fitness levels.
How is a squat a functional workout? Well, consider all of the times you bend down to pick something up, stand up from the ground, or get up from a chair or from inside your car; these activities are all similar to the movement of the squat.
For beginner squatters, always perfect the movement without weight- we call this a body weight movement- before you begin to add free weights or dumbbells.
A simple squat requires you to sit back, bend your knees, and bring your butt down between your knees before you stand back up again.
The depth of your squat will be limited by how much flexibility you have. A squat with good form can be performed without bending your back or allowing your knees to collapse inward.
If you find a bodyweight squat to be too challenging or you are losing your balance, consider beginning with box squats (where you sit back onto a box or bench at a comfortable height) or assisted bodyweight squats (where you sit back while holding on to a secure object like a pole or power rack).
Another popular functional fitness movement is the deadlift. This is an excellent movement for people who want to strengthen their core, glutes, back, hamstrings, while improving balance and stability.
Incorporating deadlifts in your weekly fitness routine, when done properly, can help people who often find themselves with sore backs after work or playing with their kids, as the muscle areas in the back and lower body become stronger and more stable.
Again, the deadlift is a movement that is often flaunted on social media for valuing raw strength above form. It is crucial to ensure that you are doing a deadlift properly in order to reap the benefits of this functional workout rather than putting yourself at risk of injury.
Here is where we put our egos aside, drop the weight, and only complete as many reps as we can with proper form.
Next, when you get into functional fitness you might want to consider incorporating lesser known movements like the following to really condition your body for all the challenges life throws at us:
Hold heavy dumbbells in either hand as you walk to challenge your stability and grip strength. This translates really well to carrying heavy bags or groceries. As a variation to this exercise, consider holding a heavy dumbbell in only one hand to challenge your core and stability even more.
These challenging movements require you to crawl along the floor on your hands and toes, moving the opposite arm and opposite leg forward at the same time. This movement will strengthen your shoulders, hips, and you will be surprised at the ab strength it requires as well!
This is a simple exercise that allows you to focus on single leg strength and translates over really well to walking up stairs or climbing. Simply use one leg to stand up on a secure box or bench. You can also make this movement more challenging by holding a dumbbell.
Are functional fitness workouts safe?
Yes, functional workouts are safe as long as you prioritize proper form, education, and understanding your own limits and abilities.
I recommend mastering all functional fitness movements as bodyweight exercises before advancing to adding weight. When you take part in functional workouts, remember to warm up at the start of each session and end with a cool down stretch.
If it is within your budget, consider consulting with a trainer or taking part in group exercise classes a way to learn the basics of these movements.
Always consult a doctor if you are starting a new fitness routine and are feeling unsure about what is best for you.
In all honesty, functional fitness is the key to maintaining a healthy active lifestyle no matter what age you are.
Whether you are a young person who wants to avoid injury during work or sports, a middle aged person who wants to keep up with their young kids, or an aging adult who wants to stay healthy and mobile, functional fitness offers benefits to all.