Functional Fitness 101

If you’ve heard of functional fitness, you may already have your own perceptions and presumptions. However, they might be skewed due to incorrect or faulty health information that makes headlines and popular fitness websites. Nowadays, fitness “professionals” often associate functional fitness with whatever program or workout style they specifically promote because the mere term sounds fancy and promising. But, it is important to remember the true intent of functional fitness to determine if it is necessary to regularly incorporate into your routine. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that being able to execute functional fitness measures is vital, especially for everyday activities like walking a dog, carrying groceries up a porch, or itching a scratch on your back. Therefore, this article covers the framework and benefits of functional fitness, populations that will benefit most, and typical exercises/movements and provides a simple sample workout at the end.

What is Functional Fitness?

Basically, functional fitness is based on a framework that suggests being able to perform everyday activities such as cooking, personal care, and household chores require the ability to perform certain functional movements such as walking, stair climbing, and standing up from a sitting position. Furthermore, these functional movements are based on utilizing your physiological reserve, aka strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. In short, functional fitness is defined as having the physiologic capacity to perform normal, everyday activities safely and independently without undue fatigue. However, the definition is sometimes broadened to be exercises that assist you with daily activities such as getting up off the floor, carrying heavy objects, and putting something on a shelf. Why has this term (that really isn’t that revolutionary) gained so much popularity and traction then?

The main reason for its newfound admiration stems from the unfortunate fact that our modern society does not cater towards naturally incorporating movements that improve our functional fitness capacity. So, of course, the billion dollar diet industry capitalized on this rhythmic term quickly. Escalators, valet parking, and sitting for extended periods of time have diminished our chances to easily and conveniently participate in functional activities. Thus, some non-evidence-based, fancy, and frilly exercise trend setters have convinced the masses that any type of exercise is functional in nature. When, in fact, some styles of exercising can actually be more harmful than helpful, and they certainly aren’t functional in any sense of the word. Doing a reverse lunge with a bicep curl into a pistol squat with an overhead press and transitioning right into a single leg deadlift to warrior pose sounds really cool and probably requires exceptionally finetuned skill, but that doesn’t make it functional. Find me a similar everyday activity to the exercise just mentioned, and I’ll let you push me through the hardest workout you can concoct.

Benefits of Functional Fitness

Now, like I mentioned before, being able to perform functional exercise movements is important for optimal functionality in everyday life, and can majorly benefit certain groups of people, which will be discussed below. The National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association indicates six major benefits of functional fitness including: increasing the ease of activities of daily life, low impact in nature, increases flexibility, balance, posture, and coordination, subdues joint pain, reduces risk of energy, and can increase strength, especially in people who are new to exercising. Further benefits are similar to the results of “other” exercise such as walking, jogging, and strength training. It is important to note that many exercises can be modified to be functional and that increasing strength in general will inevitably help you perform normal tasks with more ease.

Who might benefit?

Everybody- Although certain specific populations will benefit more than others, every single person can benefit from improving their execution of functional fitness exercises. Because they are intended to replicate similar movements humans perform every day, everyone can stand to practice them more to help prevent injury and increase flexibility, balance, and coordination. However, for non-injured persons who already and regularly perform advanced exercises, you may only need to practice functional movements once a week or bimonthly, because your exercise routine targets the same muscles and movements.

Elderly- This population often has injuries, ailments, aches, and pains that need rehabilitation to gain mobility, strength so they can engage in regular daily activities. Because functional exercises are low impact and designed to promote the movement of daily life, they are a wonderful exercise option and should be encouraged in this population regularly.

Injured Persons- Similar to above, injured persons often need to reduce the intensity of their workouts (if applicable). While it’s important to rest the injured body part, it’s prudent to train and strengthen the rest of the body to prevent the same injury from recurring. Training functionally is a great framework to continue training and staying active through rehabilitation.

Typical Exercises/Movements

If you’re questioning whether a specific style of workout or exercise is functional in nature, you can ask yourself this, “Can I think of an everyday activity that closely mimics and/or uses the same required muscles as this exercise?” For example, performing a box squat, where you legitimately squat backwards into a literal chair and stand up repeatedly, mimics standing up from a chair! This seems obvious and not all movements are quite this straightforward, but that is the point of them, after all. Functional fitness was literally coined as a paradigm to assist people in improving activities of daily life, and operates on a continuum, meaning, you can usually modify the exercises to make them easier or more difficult.

Squat – mimics sitting in a chair and then standing back up. To make this exercise easier, literally squat into a chair that is higher than parallel to your 90 degree sitting position. Increase difficulty by adding a weighted barbell amongst many other specific techniques.

Push up- mirrors pushing yourself up from another surface. To make it easier, put your knees on the ground and cross your ankles, lifting them off the ground. As you become stronger, you can shift into push ups with only your feet on the ground, and eventually, graduate to high difficulty by executing incline and decline push ups.

Step up/downs- similar to getting down from a high seat or descending set of stairs. They are easier the lower the step surface (such as step block, home step stool, stair). Meaning, you can make this movement easier by using a surface less than one foot off the ground and progress to more difficult by increasing the surface height, up to four feet and even higher in some cases!

Back Row- mimics pulling objects out of your trunk or moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. The easiest version of this movement simply involves you sitting in a chair at about 90 degrees if possible, reaching your arms out as far as possible in front of you, then pulling them back in a controlled fashion, squeezing your back for simultaneously increased mind-muscle-connection. A difficult version can be performed on a specific resistance machine or with a barbell or dumb bells, the latter being most difficult.

Stationary Lunges- mirrors another method of getting up from the ground, and heavily promotes mobility in the knee joint, which is crucial for optimal functionality. Make this easier by decreasing squat depth and increase difficulty by squatting completely and adding weight through a barbell or dumbbells, respectively.

Deadlift- similar to bending over to reach something off the ground, pick it up, and stand back up straight.  This recruits many muscles within the body and is debatably the most effective and functional exercise of all- not necessarily because it mimics the most daily activities, but because it requires many different muscles and has the potential to greatly strengthen your musculature. Make it easier by slowly performing the exercise using only body weight; make it moderately difficult by using a trapeze bar if available to you; make it even harder by adding weight to a barbell or utilizing dumbbells when executing.

Posterior Cross-Body Triceps- mimics scratching an itch in the middle of your back. If you’ve ever experienced this and NOT been able to ameliorate the nag, I sincerely apologize and encourage you to start practicing this movement ASAP. The easiest version looks like literally pretending to reach that itch on your back by reaching an arm above your hand and bending it at the elbow, reaching as far down your back as you can, and then bending it back straight, once again, at the elbow.

Planks- mirrors engaging the core muscles required for many activities of daily living. You can do regular, side, or reversed planks for a wider variety of functional exercise choices. This exercise is made simpler by placing one or both knees on the ground and progresses to hard once you begin lifting a limb or an arm and a leg, as it recruits additional muscles to help hold increased weight.

While this is not an exhaustive list of functional fitness exercises by any means, it provides you a solid start. You can incorporate one to two of these movements into every training session depending on factors such as weight utilized, sets, and repetitions, or you can focus an entire training session towards functional movements. Other factors to consider when making your choice include: your training goals, current training cycle, upcoming performances/competitions/races, and many others. It is best to consult with a professional trainer or coach to ensure you create an effective and safe plan.  

Sample Workout Featuring Functional Fitness Exercises

*Perform 3-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions; go through each exercise consecutively to form a set

~Set: Round or the number of total times you perform the 10-15 repetitions (the 3-4 range)

~Repetition: Number of times you perform the exercise within a single set

  1. Deadlifts
  2. Squat
  3. Plank
  4. Back Row
  5. Stationary lunges (each leg)
  6. Tricep movement (each arm)
  7. Step Up/Downs
  8. Pushups

To make this workout most effective, focus on your form, perform the movements at a slow to moderate pace, optimize mind-muscle-connection, and think about a daily activity that mirrors the exercise and/or uses the same muscles and form. This will help you translate proper form from executing the exercises to your daily activities of living.

*Please see the video located here for a visual example of each of the aforementioned exercises above.

The Main Takeaway

Despite functional fitness becoming a trendy buzzword recently, it holds solid merit. Functional fitness aims to strengthen the muscles required for activities of daily living such as carrying groceries up porch steps, picking a baby up from a crib, or putting something on a shelf above your head by utilizing exercises that mimic the form, hinge, fluid movement, and more of the activities just mentioned, plus many more. It can be especially beneficial for the elderly, injured persons, but prudent for everyone to engage in at least once a week. Moreover, there are a variety of movements to choose, and the deadlift may be the most effective exercise of all. Finally, it is wise to consult personal trainers or certified coaches when developing a training plan to ensure validity, effectiveness, and safeness.

Shameless plug- Support a small business in this trying time and use your (hopefully!) extra time to pursue true health and gain a rewarding, fulfilling life in the process. Top Nutrition and Performance features qualified and eager Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and Endurance Sport Coaches with the intent of helping you optimize your health to perform your best.

Michelle is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer, and Freelance Health Writer with a Masters Degree in Sports Nutrition from Saint Louis University. She specializes in writing about holistic and unconventional health and is an expert in sports nutrition, eating disorders, and gastrointestinal nutrition as a practitioner.

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