What is Functional Fitness?

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Functional training has a huge following. But what exactly is it and why is it so popular?

Getting to the bottom of what the term ‘functional fitness’ actually means is not as easy you might expect. Different personal trainers will give you different definitions. Usually, they are similar and are borne out of the same concept, but that’s not always the case.

Why it’s not CrossFit

Well, it’s not just CrossFit. There’s more to functional training than just doing CrossFit workouts.

For some people, when you say ‘functional training’ they immediately think means ‘CrossFit’.

It’s not hard to see why.

CrossFit as a franchise has done an amazing job of becoming an internationally recognised brand which a lot of people associate with whole-body training. For sure, CrossFit qualifies as a type of functional training, but it’s definitely not the whole story.

The issue with getting bogged down with the ideas in CrossFit is that as a training concept it relies on you having access to a whole heap of kit and training apparatus. Also, (controversial point) the movements aren’t really that close to real-life actions.

Those CrossFit pull-ups for example – try doing that wriggle-swing-type-thing like a landed fish when you’re pulling yourself up against a solid wall as opposed to a pristine pullup bar. It ain’t going be pretty.

Functional Fitness vs Crossfit
Sorry CrossFit, but this is not a pull-up
 

So what does a functional fitness programme look like?

Training your mind and body to function does not mean focussing on one workout. 

Variation is key.

Effective functional training is all about recognising the benefits that a varied training regime can offer.

But, here’s the crucial point: an effective functional training programme needs to continually push your body through movements that are similar to those you might carry out as part of your everyday life. 

An effective programme will usually involve movements and exercises which incorporate multiple joints and muscles. Many of these will also activate the core.

Functional fitness workouts can just use bodyweight to target muscle groups (check out this post on the benefits of bodyweight training).  But functional fitness can also involve the use of equipment.

I’ve used a lot of equipment in the past to develop a truly functional body, such as free weights, medicine balls, TRX trainers and resistance bands.

Functional training can incorporate a whole variety of equipment or none-at-all.

Ultimately, functional training is about developing a body which can respond to the physical challenges we put our bodies under.

For some, these challenges might be less extreme than others, but training for function rather than aesthetic should be the aim of anyone serious about succeeding in their physical pursuits and remaining injury-free. 

How successful training looks for one person might be different to another: catching a football, paddling for a wave, skiing a mogul field, changing that car tyre or evading a developing situation are things which can be trained for through some well-applied functional training.

What do I need to get started with an awesome functional training programme?

Functional training does not need to be done in a gym. It doesn’t need a whole load of expensive equipment. It just needs a little bit of resourcefulness and the willingness to make use of what’s at hand.

Functional fitness training can be done in a hotel room, a parking lot, a garden, on a boat, on a beach.

The best thing about this approach to training is that it can be done just about anywhere. In fact, by varying where you work out, you actually are going to be giving your body more rounded training sessions which will prepare your muscles, joints and mind for a variety of different eventualities and challenges.

Should you ditch the weights?

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use weight training as part of a well-rounded workout programme. Exercises like squats deadlifts are superb at building all-over body functionality, but they should certainly not be relied upon as the only method of working out, at least, not if you’re training for all-round functionality.

A well-rounded approach to fitness, with emphasis on functionality, will leave you prepared for a whole multitude of activities and challenges.

Being able to cope with arduous travel is one area which I have found to directly benefit from a functionality-focussed training approach. Joints get less stiff on long flights, your body doesn’t suffer as much from carrying heavy loads for long periods through hot and humid streets.

A functional training regime will also mean your resting heart rate will be lower, leaving you less stressed on longer journeys.

Using well-timed workouts can help you recover quicker after long-haul travel as well with research suggesting you’ll be less susceptible to jet lag.

These are all reasons why I have always made sure I am on top of my game with functional training: from my days in the military (when I would travel long hours, get minimal sleep and stay in tough conditions), to my time travelling the world for fun.

The more you put into working out before and during your travels, the better you’ll feel. Plus, you’ll be ready for the unexpected.

Side-note: Here is a great research article here on functional fitness training in the military. This research suggests that the benefits of functional fitness training for military personnel are huge. (Something those of us who have served probably already knew, but sometimes it’s great to see the supporting research!)

Conclusion

Functional training can mean a lot of different things to different people, but ultimately it’s about preparing the body through multi-joint exercises to be able to tackle everyday movements without resulting in injury.

It also should give you a body which is prepared for those physical challenges which are less predictable. Functional training is a great way to prepare for the uncertainty of the modern world!

Varied workouts, which incorporate bodyweight training, free-weights and any other kit that your resourceful mind can use in a workout will help you achieve this.

What does functional fitness mean to you?

References

Medical News Today, How exercise can counter the effects of jet lag

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