What is fitness without movement? Does how much you can squat matter if you can’t bend over to tie your laces? Can you move your own bodyweight? Could you escape a burning building?
What is functional fitness?
Function is defined as “an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing”. Functional fitness therefore is being good at what we are naturally meant to do.
Why is functional fitness important?
A good level of fitness is important. We know this. Having a good level of fitness promotes better health and a longer lifespan, but why is functional fitness important?
Because functional fitness trains us for everyday life. Functional fitness trains the body for the stuff we do every day. The stuff we do without even thinking about it. The exercises mimic real life activities and are designed to allow you to perform your day to day activities more easily and without injury. Each exercise focuses on more than one body part – instead of just one muscle – so all of your muscles work together. This is important because all of our muscles depend on each other and are supposed to work together. By using our muscles together, we become more efficient.
The four pillars of functional training
Come on baby do the locomotion! Whatever you're doing, it will involve moving from point a to point b. Whether it’s skipping, jumping, jogging on running. In most movements where locomotion is required, single leg movements dominate. Functional training therefore includes lots of single leg movements designed to enhance functional movement patterns.
In everyday life we are often challenged to move from low to high. From seated to standing, bending over to pick things up and lift things from a to b. A great way to train for this is to vary the angles of your exercises and incorporate movements with level changes such as a single leg deadlift to shoulder press, or crossbody woodchopper, pulling the cable from low to high across the body.
Push and Pull
Push and pull movement make up almost every exercise, whether it's pushing and pulling weights, cables, objects or your bodyweight. These two movement patterns are fundamental to functional training. Most functional push and pull movements require you to push and pull whilst standing. So whilst a bench press wouldn’t be functional, a standing chest press using a cable machine would. With pulling motions, you’re typically pulling something towards you, often off the ground, and that’s where bent-over rows come in. Pull-ups are also great for training various grips required for sports, however rows are probably the best functional pulling move.
Rotation is required in most movements, we bend and twist to pick things up, to get dressed of a morning or to shoot in tennis or rugby. Rotation accelerates and decelerates movement, cables are great for training with rotation as they add resistance to regular movement patterns.
What makes an exercise functional?
An exercise becomes functional when it improves everyday function. If an exercise has a real life equivalent, it becomes functional. Yes, in real life you may not do a lunge with a medicine ball cross body rotation as such, but you may stagger your stance as you catch and twist to throw to another player in a netball match.
A pistol squat is often declared as a functional exercise, but how often do we squat down on one leg, extending the other in front of us? Not often. However this doesn’t mean the move isn’t functional as what the pistol squat does is takes a natural movement and accentuates it, making it more difficult and therefore forcing the body to improve when it has to recreate a similar movement pattern in real life.
Let your kids teach you..
When it comes to functional movements, your kids probably move far better than you. Children typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how and it is as we grow older and become ever more sedentary that these movements become unnatural. The bottom line? … Move like a child and you will move more functionally.
Functional muscle slings
When we talk about training functionally, we look at how muscles work together to support entire body movements. This means we look at how muscles connect to form a chain of reactions which create movement, identifying any weak links in that chain can improve performance. When we focus on muscles working together for function, we call these “muscle slings”. You can read about the movement patterns of each muscle sling.
Adding functional movement to any routine, will help improve your day to day function and keep your training varied.