Functional Fitness: Physical Training for Optimizing Your Everyday Life
While some individuals truly look forward to working out, many others make time for exercise because of the benefits it brings them. The goal, in this case, is to use exercise to maintain or enhance the overall quality of life. If that resonates with you, and you've yet to try functional fitness exercises, it's time to remedy that.
Functional fitness is an approach to physical activity that's focused on developing the muscles involved in everyday activities. Functional fitness has become a trending catchphrase in the performance training and fitness arenas—and for good reason! This training approach can help you progress toward key health and fitness goals while keeping you strong, flexible, and injury-resistant as you move through your daily activities.
What Is Functional Fitness?
Functional fitness is designed to train your muscles to work together for daily tasks, such as carrying groceries, climbing stairs, bending over to pick up your child, or catching your balance when you accidentally trip. The squat is a classic example of a functional movement since it engages the muscles required to stand up from a chair. By focusing on common movements that work your muscles in the same way everyday activities do, you optimize your body's ability to perform in real-life scenarios.
Functional fitness exercises require you to use numerous muscles in both the upper body and lower body at the same time, which not only builds overall strength but core strength as well. Typical resistance workouts workouts like weight training or even other types of strength training tend to isolate muscle groups and train them with single linear movements. Bicep curls, for example, strengthen your arms. Likewise, workouts performed on gym machines, like leg presses, can increase your muscular strength but don't challenge your balance. A functional exercise such as a push-up, on the other hand, uses several muscle groups at once while strengthening your core. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, functional fitness training helps minimize declines in strength, coordination, and balance.
Functional fitness workouts also develop awareness, body control, and balance. Anybody can benefit from this type of training. Functional fitness keeps non-athletes flexible, strong, and ready for the movements life throws at them. Competitive athletes need to do sport-specific training, but they can also benefit by incorporating a variety of functional fitness exercises into their training program.
Why Choose Functional Fitness?
Functional fitness differs from other training programs in that its primary function is as a full-body workout.
Many functional fitness exercises use only your own body weight for resistance. "Comprehensive physical movements found in activities such as tai chi and yoga involve varying combinations of resistance and flexibility training that can help build functional fitness," states a resource provided by the Mayo Clinic.
Some functional training exercises that use your body weight include:
Many functional fitness exercises can be done at home. Even if you choose to incorporate equipment to increase the challenge, many individuals have the space to try, say, a medicine ball workout without having to pay for a gym membership. That said, depending on your current fitness level, it may be beneficial to enroll in a functional fitness class or boot camp so an instructor can teach you the proper form for each type of exercise.
Elements of a Typical Functional Fitness Workout
Within the general premise of functional fitness, there's a wealth of variety and adaptability. For some, the top priority might be building muscle strength. For others, particularly older adults or individuals with pre-existing conditions, the main goal might be the decreased risk of injury.
That said, regardless of your specific goals, a well-composed functional fitness workout should work your muscle groups from head to toe. We've included detailed progressions for some classic and highly effective functional fitness bodyweight exercises that are suitable for beginners yet challenging for individuals of all fitness levels. Running through the following exercises will provide an effective and, hopefully, enjoyable functional fitness workout.
An exercise that Jay Cardiello, a strength coach who trains professional athletes and entertainers, relies on goes by the moniker caterpillar walkout. To perform this movement, use the following progression:
- Stand upright with a straight spine.
- Bend from the hips, keeping your spine straight.
- Place your hands on the floor in front of your feet (depending on your range of motion, you may need to bend your knees).
- Walk your hands out until you're in a plank position with your body in a straight line from the top of your head to your heels.
- Walk your hands back to your feet and stand up.
- Repeat for the targeted number of repetitions.
The get-up, a variation of a classic weight-lifting exercise called the Turkish get-up, is another great functional fitness movement that works multiple muscle groups. To try a get-up, use the following progression:
- Sit on the floor with your legs fully extended in front of you.
- Place your hands on the ground behind you, about a foot behind each hip, with your fingers pointed out to the side.
- Draw your left leg in so that your heel is near your glute.
- Simultaneously punch your left arm into the air while pressing through your bent leg to bring your hips up off the floor.
- Lower yourself to the ground and return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Continue alternating sides for the desired number of repetitions.
Don't let the aggressive-sounding chop-squat intimidate you. This functional fitness exercise allows you to work your upper and lower body in tandem while also engaging your core. To perform this movement, use the following progression:
- Stand upright with a straight spine and your feet together.
- Extend your arms overhead and interlock your fingers.
- Brace your core and jump your feet out wide—definitely past shoulder-width but not so far that you lose stability—landing in a high squat position.
- Simultaneously swing your arms toward your left hip in a chopping motion, pausing with your interlaced hands just outside your left knee.
- Jump your feet back together and return your arms to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Continue alternating sides until you complete your set of repetitions.
This variation of a plank, the uni-plank lift, can be quite challenging, but celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson recommends it as an effective way to target your upper back, chest, sides, glutes, and core—phew! To perform this movement, use the following progression:
- Begin on your hands and knees.
- Move into a push-up position, but with your feet slightly separated.
- Raise your left leg and right arm out to the side on a diagonal.
- Pause at the top of the movement, then return to the plank position slowly and with control.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Continue to alternate sides until you finish your set.
Last but certainly not least, it's time to tackle the humble yet oh-so-mighty step-up, which will improve your balance while exerting your legs, glutes, and core. This move does require some equipment, specifically, an elevated surface such as a stable box, step, or bench. If you're new to step-ups, be sure to choose a box, step, or bench that's lower than you think you can manage. To perform this movement, use the following progression:
- Place your left foot on the elevated surface in front of you.
- Drive through your left heel, lift your right foot, and place it next to your left.
- Keep your core tight and do not allow your left hip or knee to skew out to the side.
- Return your right foot to the floor.
- Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
- Switch to the opposite leg.
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