In recent years there has been a huge shift away from gym machines towards more functional fitness training. In fact you may have noticed entire areas being of your gym being given over to functional training with all sorts of different equipment. These can seem quite strange if all you’ve done over the course of your training career is bench press and crunches. What I’ve also found interesting is that in my local gym when one of these functional training areas appeared it remained quite empty. In this article I want to cover what functional fitness is, how it can benefit you and what those strange bits of equipment can do for your fitness.
What is Functional Fitness Training?
Many explanations about what functional training is can be quite vague, with its origins in physiotherapy and rehab where a physio would give certain exercises that an injured patient could perform that closely mimic everyday movements the patient had pain or discomfort doing. Functional training takes this principle and applies it directly to your actual workouts. Think about a scenario where you are lying down on a bench press and trying to press the weight for 6 reps. This will benefit your strength but when will you actually be doing that activity in your daily life? I can’t think of a single example. Now let us take a simple movement such as picking up an item of shopping by your feet and placing it in a cupboard above your head. How can this translate to an actual exercise? You could place a weight on the floor and doing a very similar movement pattern, pick the weight up and press it above your head for repeated reps.
Something you will notice with functional training is that most exercises involve being unstable and involve a lot more core strength and stability than a similar exercise performed on a resistance machine. An example could be using a TRX (A type of suspension trainer) to do a press up as opposed to sitting and doing a chest press. Even before starting the actual movement of doing the press on the TRX your body is already working hard to maintain its position and your core is engaged. During the movement itself you will notice your arms shaking to maintain good form and although some of the clients that I train find this frustrating since on a generic chest press they only have to focus on pushing the weight, I explain to them that this unstable feeling is a good thing.
Functional training exercises involves multiple muscle groups with almost every exercise engaging your core. When properly executed they can make every day activities easier, reduce your chance of injury and improve your quality of life.
Benefits of functional strength training
Functional strength training is extremely good for your health and since it involves almost every muscle in your body, including your core stabilizing muscles it has many benefits. I’m going to list some of them to help you grasp the importance of including functional strength training in your routine.
Muscle Tone & Density
Functional strength training can help develop lean muscle mass that isn’t just for show. As almost all functional strength training involves using compound movements it can help improve strength, endurance and raise your metabolism.
Take for example, gymnasts who can lift themselves effortlessly into the air or spring into a somersault seemingly from standstill. This kind of agility and strength is not generated by doing bicep curls at the gym!
Also have you noticed how athletes have lean and toned bodies rather than these weirdly disproportionate bodies of many gym-goers? This is because they work the whole body and not just specific points, ensuring you get that lean, toned look.
I’ve placed this benefit next on the list as burning fat is a very common goal for most people and building and toning muscles affects your body’s ability to burn fat hugely.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy expended while your body is at rest. BMR decreases with age (which is why we tend to put on weight as we get older) and with the loss of lean body mass. Increasing muscle mass increases BMR so you naturally burn fat better and functional fitness training does this brilliantly and there are many workouts involving functional training that are focused around fat burning – you’ll become ripped in no time!
Full Body Movement
As mentioned before, most exercise equipment in the gym tends to focus on individual muscles whereas functional training helps hone the movement patterns of your entire body. This will result in an increased stability and superb balance. Being able to control your balance correctly could mean the difference between slipping and twisting your leg or catching your balance before you fall.
The human body is not meant to be sat in front of a desk all day. This position can take a toll on your body’s natural posture. Functional strength training can help to improve your posture and assist in regulating muscular balance.
Your core muscles are among the most used muscles during a functional training session. Core muscles that are activated will help stabilize the spine while performing different movement patterns and different body positions. Increasing your core strength will make daily tasks easier and help prevent injury during recreational sporting activities such as snow skiing on a holiday.
Functional strength training will prepare your body for your favourite sports. Training yourself only on machines will restrict your movement to a single plane of motion, which is unnatural for your body making you more susceptible to injuries. Functional training on the other hand will improve the relationship between your musculoskeletal and nervous system resulting in quick, reactive and powerful movement patterns regardless of your choice of sports. Your body will also be more flexible for any kind of athletic endeavor.
Functional strength training not only helps to perform daily activities more easily but will assist in preventing injury to your body. Regular functional training will help prepare your body for sudden, unpredictable movements such as slipping down the stairs or maybe trying to catch a plate you just dropped. Obviously this doesn’t mean you will be impervious to hurting yourself if you take a tumble, but it can be the difference between some bruising or a prolapsed disk in your back.