Functional Fitness

Everyday fitness

Functional fitness can be described as fitness that enables you to carry out everyday activities, in real situations and coping with real positions.

Working together

Functional fitness involves training muscles to work together in a functional way, rather than training muscles or parts of the body in an isolated fashion. Isolating a muscle with strength and bodybuilding techniques may well build strength and size but that training won’t necessarily transfer into strength that is useful in real life situations.

What is: Functional Fitness

Functional fitness involves training muscles to work together in a functional way, rather than training muscles or parts of the body in an isolated fashion. Isolating a muscle and training it may well build strength in that particular area, but it won’t necessarily transfer into strength that can be utilised in real life situations, and many compound exercises that use the whole body in the gym.

Working together

Functional training trains the muscles to work together as a whole to develop an overall strength that can be utilised in everyday activities. It develops strength which will help with movements that involve different positions, like bending and twisting, positions that are found in our everyday activities.

Functional fitness exercises would typically involve full range movements (that include twisting, bending) and exercises that require strength through a range of positions. For example: moving continuously from a squat holding a bar at your waist, standing up going immediately into to a bicep curl at the top of the standing up movement. None functional exercises such as those used a lot in strict bodybuilding, use movement with the objective of working a single muscle in isolation, they use isolation techniques or machines in the gym, such as concentration bicep curls that only work one muscle group and don't help train the ability of multiple muscle groups to work together at the same time.

Roskopf says: 

"The key to functional exercise is integration. It's about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently."

Another example would be using a machine that has a front chest rest, used to work your back in isolation, may develop your traps muscles, but using a barbell to do bent over barbell rows will engage both your back muscles and your core muscles, the exercise is more akin to an activity in real life so therefore will develop ‘Functional’ fitness.

Any exercise that carry’s over the benefits into a real life situation could be described as developing your Functional fitness.

Compound exercises

As developing functional fitness involves the integrated training of muscles to help them all work together, by its nature it guides us to towards training with your bodyweight and free weights using compound exercises that engage the core and whole sets of muscles rather than isolated smaller parts. More of a holistic full body training concept.

That’s not to say that training muscles in an isolated fashion is bad, it’s great for your strength of course, but the key is to train your muscles to work together, this way you have good form and strong muscles working together in a functional way that will also help develop a strong stable core which will benefit your training progress and help protect against injuries, and will also progress your training gains.

Functional fitness and strength training vs bodybuilding

In terms of weight training and lifting, functional fitness development would be part of a strength training program, strength training commonly involves big compound exercises such as deadlift’s, which train multiple muscle groups simultaneously including your core. Olympic lifters have great functional strength and fitness, Olympic lifting involves a huge amount of muscles from the legs to the neck that all have to work together to enable the lifter to lift huge weights.

Bodybuilding on the other hand can be centred around the development of muscles individually, the fact that a huge bodybuilder can sometimes look like the strongest man on earth does not always mean he/she has the strength and power that a power lifter has, this shows a relative lack of functional strength development through more concentration on individual muscles rather than a whole body strength approach that a power lifter would take. This is not to say that bodybuilders haven't developed great strength. (link to Hypertrophy and Myofibrill hypertrophy).

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say

“Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasise core stability. For example, a squat to bicep curl is a functional exercise because it trains the muscles used when you pick up an object from the floor or a table. By training your muscles to work the way they do in everyday tasks, you prepare your body to perform well in a variety of common situations.”

“Functional exercises tend to be multijoint, multimuscle exercises. Instead of only moving the elbows, for example, a functional exercise might involve the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles. This type of training, properly applied, can make everyday activities easier, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life.”

“As you add more functional exercises to your workout, you should see improvements in your ability to perform your everyday activities and, thus, in your quality of life. That's quite a return on your exercise investment.”

Examples of Functional fitness exercises:

Kettlebell swings
Barbell Squats
Lunges
Turkish Get-Up's
Compound exercises such as bench presses
Exercises that engage a group of muscles at the same time including the core
Balance exercises and exercises such as exercises using weights and gym ball

Training for functional fitness can lead to:

Greater ability to perform everyday tasks more easily
Stronger Core Musculature
Increased Flexibility
Increased Strength
Increased combined strength
Better Dynamic and Stationary Balance
Improved Agility
Better Posture
Stronger Joints
At Fitness Source we think its a good idea to build in functional strength and fitness training into your workouts, this helps you develop your coordinated overall strength which will ultimately help your fitness routine and progress.

Paul Chek says:

“Conventional weight training isolates muscle groups, but it doesn’t teach the muscle groups you’re isolating to work with others,” says Greg Roskopf, MS, a biomechanics consultant with a company called Muscle Activation Techniques who has worked with athletes from the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz. ”The key to functional exercise is integration. It’s about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently.”

"If there are isolated weaknesses, they'll cause a detriment in functional movement," says Roskopf. "If you don't address integration, strong muscles get stronger and the weak ones stay weak, and you create a pattern of compensation. If you blend the two together, functional exercises teach isolated muscles how to work together."

Its tough

Jumping into functional exercise routines may startle some people used to working on machines alone: It's a lot harder! "Functional exercise is much more neurologically demanding than machine exercises" 

Ease your way into functional training, starting with light weights, concentrating on correct form and posture at all times. Functional training often uses a lot of compound exercises such as squats or deadlifts which can involve heavy weights with a high potential for sprains and strains, it is essential that your form and posture is correct to avoid injury.

References:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/functional-fitness/MY0137

Chek, Paul : What is Functional Exercise? (Article), C.H.E.K Institute

American Council of Exercise: What is Functional Strength Training?

The Mayo Clinic

Greg Roskopf, MS, biomechanics consultant, Muscle Activation Techniques, Denver, Colorado. 

Paul Chek, MSS, exercise kinesiologist and founder, CHEK Institute, Encinitas, California.