Functional fitness is another entry in the world of fitness buzzwords, one that is becoming increasingly popular. But what is functional fitness, who does benefit from it and how can it work for you?
What Is Functional Fitness?
At its core, functional fitness is a form of fitness training that mimics “real life” situations, with exercises and movements close to what you do outside of a gym. A squat, for example, is close to lifting a bag from the floor, climbing stairs has a relative in step-ups, and putting something heavy on a top shelf above your head resembles dumbbell presses.
On the other end of the spectrum there are exercises that do not mirror those natural movements and therefore aren’t considered “functional.” These are especially those done with machines, that often only put stress on one target muscle, which in normal life hardly ever happens.
Perhaps not quite surprisingly, the origin of the functional fitness approach lies in rehabilitation treatment, where therapists assign specific exercises to patients depending on their personal needs. If they want to get someone back on track who has to lift heavy in his job they give that person a very different program than, say, a mother who has to carry her baby around for longer stretches of time.
Given this background, it also was only a short step to have seniors try this form of exercise, who due to aging often lose physical strength and increasingly find everyday tasks difficult.
It Gets Blurred
Unfortunately, the more the popularity of the concept rose, the more blurred the definition became. Today you have gyms, websites and magazines attach the name to almost anything that is not machine training, at times ending in some rather weird ideas.
Men’s Fitness, that hallmark of sensible workout advice, believes it means combining two exercises into one, others see it as a chance to sell you workout equipment, while a third group thinks it means you have to turn into Grizzly Adams, no matter if that has as much connection to your real life as preparing for a Mars mission:
Functional fitness is the practise of all-round training using basic equipment in an unfussy environment, preferably outdoors. If you are lucky enough to have some real wood to chop or a genuine reason for pulling a sled, lucky you. If not, you may have to make one up.
Which is pretty much the opposite of what the whole concept started out as, isn’t it?
“Functional” Depends On You
As we said in the beginning, functional fitness in its original incarnation meant that physical therapists assigned tailored programs to people with specific needs.
If you are recuperating from an injury or if a lack of strength, balance or endurance keeps you from accomplishing your daily tasks, then functional fitness is the way to go. But that means real functional fitness training, where a professional assesses your strengths and weaknesses and compiles a program for your specific needs.
It is certainly not that jumble of arbitrarily put together body weight exercises found on some websites or that many gyms these days slap the label on and offer as group courses. Real, structured body weight training you can have for free.
Picture courtesy of the University of the Fraser Valley.