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I hate the phrase ‘functional fitness’.
Apart from the fact that it’s one of the most dull-sounding terms around, it also consistently seems to confuse people.
You can find so many different definitions of ‘functional fitness’ that I almost called this post ‘what the hell is functional fitness?’
Did you know?:
The military don’t use the gym as a part of their formal training.
Instead, they use functional fitness training to build and maintain astonishing levels of fitness, often with no equipment.
Sure, hitting the weights room might be a hobby for some in the armed forces, but the official training program is centered around functional fitness.
Often referred to as bodyweight training, tactical fitness, or high-intensity functional training, functional fitness is a training style that the military has developed over centuries.
And of course, it’s been updated with the latest science-based fitness theory… which is why it is so effective.
But hang-on, didn’t I say that I hated the phrase ‘functional fitness’ because it meant so many different things to different people?
So what does it mean to the military?
How do we know we’re talking about the same thing here?
All good questions.
I’ll start by pinning down exactly what we’re talking about when we say ‘functional fitness’.
Then I want to make sure you understand the military’s approach to effective exercises, workouts and fitness development, or: the military’s functional fitness formula.
What exactly is Functional Fitness Training?
Functional fitness originally became a recognised training method several decades ago.
But back then, functional fitness or functional training exclusively referred to rehabilitation exercise plans for those recovering from injury.
The term ‘functional’ was used because the training programs it referred to were developing the body’s ability to conduct everyday movements or everyday functions.
That’s quite a big change in meaning: injury rehabilitation compared to modern-day functional training, which many people use to describe activities like CrossFit, or military fitness training.
The term has now got many different interpretations.
The way I understand functional fitness is in the same way the military has adopted the phrase.
For me, the term refers to training which uses movements, or exercises, similar to those we might need our bodies to do as part of our everyday lives, plus a little bit more (hence the phrase ‘train hard, fight easy’) – because you never know just how hard your body might need to work one day.
To get technical: functional training is about taking a well-rounded approach to workout design and balancing our training across all the key components of fitness.
What are the components of fitness?
The following are the components of fitness. Each of these go to make up our overall ‘fitness’:
- Local Muscle Endurance
- Cardiovascular Endurance
- Strength Endurance
I’m not going to go into detail as to how each of these components is defined (this will end up as a chapter rather than a post otherwise).
Let’s just say that functional fitness training prepares the body for a wide variety of activities, developing the components of fitness through exercises that simulate natural body movement.
Or, to clarify what it is not; it isn’t doing just one activity, or focusing on one training element, or one muscle.
Someone who just lifts huge weights in the gym is neglecting most of the components of fitness. Just like someone who just runs marathons and does no other forms of exercise.
My Experience with Functional Fitness Training
While in the military, I spent a huge amount of my time working in pretty uncomfortable environments overseas, often without access to gyms or equipment.
I still had to stay in shape for my job, which is why the military had spent a lot of time teaching me, and those I worked with, about functional fitness techniques you can use pretty much anywhere, with no kit.
Most of these exercises and workouts were bodyweight-based. But we sometimes found ways to spice them up. Wearing a weighted backpack during squats for example, was a good way to simulate moving over hills in full kit.
We put a lot of thought into the structure of these workouts too, focusing on the workout program and not the workout on its own. Always thinking of the bigger picture, what we want to get out of our training, and how best to achieve it.
[I have demystified this whole process in my new Bodyweight Workout Training Program, which you can check out here.]
"functional fitness techniques can be used anywhere: no kit required"
Functional fitness training has got me into great shape over the years and if you commit to it, designing a workout program correctly, bodyweight workouts can have an incredible effect on your overall fitness and physique.
Since leaving the military I’ve continued to use functional fitness training to stay in shape when traveling as part of my security work. But I also use this highly-effective approach when I’m at home too.
Because honestly, you don’t need a gym to get in shape. You just need a little knowledge and motivation. Once you’ve got those two things in order, you’re all set to get training functionally at home, with zero kit.
The Military’s Functional Fitness Formula
So what am I talking about when I refer to the Military’s Functional Fitness Formula?
Through careful design of workout programs, the military manages to get its personnel in outstanding shape, with almost no equipment.
The fundamentals of this lie in careful consideration of the key components of fitness, making sure each one is trained for as part of a week’s workout program.
Here are the 5 cornerstones of the military’s approach to functional fitness and how they can apply to your workout routines:
Functional Fitness Formula Step 1:
Train as you would fight
This comes back to my point about the fundamentals of functional training. The military is big on training in the same way as you would fight. It sounds pretty obvious, but here’s an example of what I mean:
You would never expect to have to perform a barbell bench press when fighting a war, right? So, the military doesn’t train their people to do bench presses. Makes sense.
But, you can definitely expect to have to go from lying down position, wearing some heavy kit, to standing and back down again.
So these movements would definitely feature as part of a physical training routine for the military.
The burpee is a great example of an exercise that targets the muscles needed for this movement.
Did we do a shed load of burpees in the military? Heck yeah!
You engage a lot more muscles in your body when performing unsupported bodyweight movements. That means movements that don’t use machines and or involve lying on a bench carefully placed under a barbell.
These bodyweight movements aren’t going to be any good for bodybuilding – but you know what? Bodybuilding is useful for only one thing – winning bodybuilding competitions.
Apply this to your training:
Design workouts that use movements similar to your other activities, outside of your fitness training.
By replicating these sports or other activity movements in your workouts, you’ll be effectively training your body to perform when you need it to.
But what if you’re not active outside of your workouts?:
If you’re not training for a certain sport or work activity and you just want to get in shape, there some other reasons to focus on using unsupported bodyweight movements:
Reasons to use functional bodyweight workouts:
- Can be done anywhere
- Do not need a gym, weights or equipment
- Build a strong core and stabilizer muscles, reducing the chance of injury
- With the right workout design, will train all of the 9 components of fitness
- Can be done anywhere
Apply this to your training [continued]:
Pro tip: when you’re designing a workout, mix up the exercises by muscle group to hit more of the components of fitness simultaneously
…Example: by going from an upper-body exercise straight into a lower body exercise, your heart and lungs have to work extra hard to get oxygenated blood from your upper body to lower body.
This is a body-conditioning hack the military love: it gets a huge ‘bang-for-your-buck’ from each workout.
Functional Fitness Formula Step 2:
Find the edge of your comfort zone, and step outside
We all operate very happily in our comfort zone and when we workout, much of our workout will be within our zone of comfort – we can’t always be working out at maximum effort.
But, the military know how to get quick results:
The real improvements, gains, and development in terms of physical fitness but also mental resilience happens when we are just outside of our comfort zone.
And how do you know if you’re outside your comfort zone when training?
Well, can you think back to a time in your training when you feel you can’t do any more of the workout because you’re legs are like jelly?
That’s the edge and that’s when the military push their people to keep going just that little longer. Because they know it will pay off.
Apply this to your training:
Always build on what you’ve done in your last workout. Otherwise, you won’t make progress.
But be careful – pushing yourself too hard can be dangerous, and the benefits will drop off.
Don’t work so hard that you collapse, but when your training starts to gets really uncomfortable, keep at it a little longer. This is part of your workout that really counts.
This ability to push outside your comfort zone separates those who make significant improvements in their fitness from those who don’t.
As a bonus, this technique also teaches your mind to be able to deal with uncomfortable situations. Something that can be useful for regular things like public speaking, or asking someone on a date.
Functional Fitness Formula Step 3:
Have a plan
There are so many quotes, phrases, and anecdotes about how planning is so important to the success of any task.
Basically, the military doesn’t draw a breath without a plan, and its approach to functional training is no different.
Setting goals, creating bespoke workouts to target different components of fitness, and drawing up a timetable are all fundamental parts of a military fitness program.
Apply this to your training:
If you want to see improvement, a plan will help you achieve this way faster than if you were to just ‘wing-it’.
I would go as far as to say that having a plan is essential if you want to achieve a specific fitness goal.
If you’re new to fitness, this can be daunting. Planning a training program needs to take into account the different components of fitness, which can get a little complicated.
A good starting point is to figure out what your goal is, then identify how you’ll get there. Set a time frame, and plan your workouts.
Functional Fitness Formula Step 4:
Adapt and overcome
As I’ve said before, I’ve had to stay in shape in some pretty tough conditions, when gyms were a distant memory. It was these times away on deployment that I truly realized that you do not need a gym to get into great shape.
This is the reality that gym owners and the rest of the fitness industry hate me saying, but it’s true. You do not need to have a gym membership to get ripped.
The military knows this, and they teach their people to just get on with workouts, wherever they are and whatever the limitations are.
Nowhere to do a pullup? That’s not a reason to skip a workout. Find a rock and do bent-over rows with that instead.
Can’t get out for a run because you’re stuck in your hotel room for a few days? Incorporate some high-knees/sprint-on-the-spot into a High-Intensity Interval Training session – a perfect example of a functional fitness style workout.
If you’re looking for ways to stay in shape while traveling, check out my Military Hacks for Travel Fitness post
Apply this to your training:
Ultimately this is about mindset. It’s about approaching tasks with a ‘how can I…’ rather than with ‘why I can’t…’ mentality.
It doesn’t need to just apply to your fitness training, but to be most successful in reaching your fitness goals, it will need to be your central way of thinking.
So start looking for ways to workout, rather than for reasons not to.
Make it work with what you’ve got. That’s the beauty of bodyweight exercises – all you need is your own body. So, the opportunity to make excuses is gone!
Functional Fitness Formula Step 5:
Look after your body: your main resource
If you think the military workout every day, then think again.
Unless things have got really bad, everyone takes some time to have a rest day at some point in a week.
This is because the military knows that if you don’t have enough rest, your body can’t develop its fitness capability.
They also take nutrition seriously, (or as seriously as they can considering the budget they are allowed per person). Eating a balanced diet is part of the fundamental cornerstones of a successful fitness training program.
Apply this to your training:
It is so important to have at least one rest day each week, ideally more than one. You can incorporate methods such as active rest to speed up your recovery from intense workouts.
With regards to nutrition, this is something that is very specific to an individual but also is so very important to support your fitness goals.
There are a lot of considerations to take into account when planning your nutrition. If you’re unsure where to start, it might be time to invest in building your knowledge in this all-important area.
Using Functional Fitness Training in Your Everyday Life
Functional fitness training, without doubt, is part of everyday life in the military. And there is no reason why it shouldn’t be part of your everyday life too.
Here are some tips for training at home and while traveling…
Functional Fitness at Home
Home workouts have become a whole lot more popular this year, and it’s not difficult to see why.
With so many people stuck at home as part of their country’s strategy to contain Covid-19, gyms have had to close. People still need to stay in shape, but often without leaving the house.
3 Motivation Hacks for Using Functional Fitness at Home
- Set a time of day for your workouts, and stick to it – for me, it’s first thing in the morning. But you can choose any time of day. By setting a time you’re more likely to actually do the workout and not pass it by.
- Get your kit on – even though you’re at home, I still think that by putting on my workout clothes, I get into the right frame of mind. Plus squats in jeans are a terrible idea.
- Temperature regulation – Like most people, I get hot when working out. If I can, I workout just outside my house in the shade. If I can’t do that then I workout in a room which doesn’t get much sun. It’s always the coolest room and once I open the windows, the temperature is perfect for a workout.
If you live in a hot country, then working out early in the morning is usually the best idea!
Functional Fitness While Traveling
There is no better training system to use when on-the-road, than functional fitness.
This style of routine can be done anywhere with no equipment, in the smallest of spaces. I used to workout in some truly awkward, cramped compartments onboard a warship for weeks.
With literally no workout kit, I was able to stay in great shape. This is why I always recommend functional fitness workouts to anyone looking to stay fit while they’re away from home.
3 Pro-Tips to Master Functional Fitness When Traveling
- Do your research before you go: you might discover that either your hotel has a gym with a space you can use, or even better there might be a local park with a great running route and exercise bars etc. Seek and you shall (or might) find.
- Mentally prepare to use your hotel room as your workout area – don’t worry, this is not a problem. I’ve worked out in hotel rooms many times. If you’re lucky, you’ll have AC. All you need is a little floor space. Got a desk chair? How about some decline pushups for starters?
- Consider the environment you’re going to – heading somewhere super-hot? If you think you’ll be working out outside, make sure you pack the right kit (sun hat, wicking workout clothes). And please, make sure you stay hydrated!
'If we didn't need a gym, then neither do you"
The Military’s 3 Favorite Functional Fitness Exercises:
There are hundreds of potential functional fitness movements and exercises. Here are just three, but honestly – if I had a dollar for every time I did a rep of any one of these whilst in the military…
#1: The Burpee
#2: The Gecko Push-up
#3: The Pull-up
For an effective bodyweight routine, download my free 10-week Military Bodyweight Workout Program. It’s a PDF guide to a routine we used in the military for developing functional fitness while we were in confined-spaces.
Functional fitness training is nothing new. It’s been used for years by the world’s militaries and will continue to be used because of its effectiveness and practicality.
Everyone can get involved with functional fitness, it’s low-cost (no gym membership needed) and by incorporating the military’s time-tested approach to workout training, the effectiveness of your workouts could potentially explode!