A woman wants to join her family on backpacking hikes. A golfer would like to strike the ball better and avoid back soreness. A grandfather longs to lift small grandchildren with confidence. An elite athlete is interested in pitching a baseball better. A virtual employee has become deconditioned and is suffering shoulder pain. An older adult needs to reduce their risk of falls and stay independent.
People in these scenarios have something in common: They all stand to benefit from functional fitness training. By learning proper movement patterns and strengthening key muscle groups, they can build power, coordination, balance and agility to reach their goals.
Definitions of functional training vary, to put it mildly. While group classes may promote boot-camp style functional training to build your strength or improve your body shape, exercise and fitness experts emphasize the individualized, targeted nature of functional training programs and goals that center on performing a specific activity.
Functional fitness consistently lands among the top 20 worldwide fitness trends in the yearly survey of health professionals conducted by ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. (It hit the No. 14 spot in 2021.)
So, functional fitness is popular — but what does it entail? These are just some elements of a functional training program:
— It starts with a goal, purpose or desired outcome regarding a specific function.
— Functions can range from activities of daily living to a sport-related skill.
— The trainer assesses an individual’s baseline — measuring muscular strength, range of motion, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and areas of pain or discomfort — to design an effective program.
— Programs incorporate core functional movements such as squatting, bending, lifting, pulling and twisting.
— Exercises combine several muscle groups and multiple joints rather than isolated movements like bicep curls. Movement patterns rather than individual muscles are the focus.
— Programs are progressive to meet the individual’s needs.
— Muscles are gradually strengthened and lengthened, and range of motion increased.
— Equipment tends to be simple — resistance bands, tubing, kettlebells, household items (like a dish), light weights and body weight in itself.
“Functional training is all about movement quality,” says Brad Roy, executive director of the Summit Medical Fitness Center at Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Montana. “Functional training is really neuromuscular training. It’s training the mind, body and muscular system to work together to produce some kind of an outcome.”
While jogging on a treadmill, lifting weights or riding a bike can boost your overall fitness, they don’t in themselves constitute functional training (although they could be part on an overall functional program), notes Roy, who is also editor-in-chief of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Functional training can be beneficial at any age. “For a long time in the fitness world, we’ve been focused on cardiovascular fitness,” Roy says. “Resistance training and movement quality are really important and need to be emphasized at an equal level with cardiovascular fitness — and in some cases, maybe even emphasized more.”
Activities of Daily Life
“In physical therapy, we very much focus on function,” says Clare Safran-Norton, an orthopedic specialist in physical therapy and the clinical supervisor of the physical and occupational therapy ambulatory service on the main campus at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “What are the activities you need to do in your life? It can be a simple as putting a shirt on or off, fastening a bra strap, or reaching for a cup or putting plates away in a cupboard. It can be getting on or off a chair, in and out of a car, or up and down stairs.”
Training begins with a comprehensive assessment. “We really look at the function for the individual person,” Safran-Norton says. “Then we test all the strength for all the muscles, the length of the muscles — whether they’re tight or not — as well as range of motion.”
That information goes into a tailored plan with the goal always in mind. “We balance the muscles that are tight, the muscles that are weak,” Safran-Norton says. “Then, as we restore those individual muscles, we start to couple them with other muscles to restore back the function. So in the end, we’re using a band with resistance to simulate the tennis swing, or we’re using a golf club to simulate the golf swing. Or we’re practicing putting the dish back into the cupboard.”
For functional training by a physical therapist, you need a medical diagnosis and physician referral. Sessions typically take place weekly or every two weeks, Safran-Norton says, and you’re expected to do exercises at home. Programs usually last about six to eight weeks.
Typically, people with health issues don’t start off by requesting functional training. “They’ll come to us because they have shoulder pain and they can’t sleep at night,” Safran-Norton says. “Sleeping is functional.”
Impingement syndrome is a common source of shoulder pain, she says. After a thorough evaluation of all the muscles to confirm the source and extent of the problem, her team forms a personalized treatment plan.
“We would design a program to stretch out their pec muscles, their latissimus dorsi muscles, strengthen their middle (trapezius), their lower trap and their rhomboids,” Safran-Norton explains. “Then we would probably check their range of motion, as well. We would strengthen their rotator cuff at the same time we’re doing the scapula stabilizers with a band. And, then, hopefully, the idea is they could lift overhead again, pain-free.”
Core Functional Movements
Squatting, bending, lifting, pushing, pulling, rocking, turning and twisting are core functional movements that are incorporated in functional fitness training, says Cedric X. Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, or ACE. Enhancing your performance capability of those movements can achieve an intended outcome to improve your daily life.
“When we go to do an activity in life, we are always involving the whole body,” Bryant says. “Whether it’s pushing a grocery cart or carrying groceries, what functional training tries to do is get the body to work in a coordinated fashion. So a lot of movements are going to focus on multi-joint exercises where you’re involving multiple parts of the body to overcome the resistance. You’re typically going to be working your upper and lower body, and combining muscle groups.”
Functional vs. Traditional Fitness
The differences between what’s traditionally considered fitness and functional fitness are “subtle and nuanced,” Bryant says. “Fitness tends to focus on eliciting improvements in the different components, whether you improve your cardio performance or your abilities to either lift more weight or do more repetitions. It’s generally measured in ‘how much’ as it relates to different parameters of fitness, whether it’s muscular fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardio or aerobic fitness and performance, flexibility or body composition.”
By contrast, he says, “Functional fitness is really more focused on fitness with an intended outcome of being able to enhance your performance capabilities.” For instance, training might address your ability to perform activities of daily living or occupational tasks. “It’s really a more purposeful, desired outcome and that is to allow you to do whatever it is in life that you need and want to do with greater ease, less discomfort and less risk for injury.”
Program With a Purpose
A 2018 article in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal takes a deep dive into the admittedly “broad and confusing concept” of functional training, noting its multitude of definitions and applications.
“If I had to pull it into one short summary, functional training is dependent on really two things,” says article author Leslie Stenger, an exercise physiologist and an assistant professor of kinesiology, health and sport science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Purpose is the first factor. “Whoever it’s for and the outcome they’re looking for is going to drive what the program’s all about,” Stenger says. “The other factor is going to be the experience level of the person who’s developing the program. You want somebody who either has a degree in the field of exercise science and/or certifications from accredited agencies.”
Functional fitness instructors can come from a variety of medical and sports backgrounds. Clinical exercise physiologists, athletic trainers and physical therapists are skilled in aspects of functional training, Roy notes. “Personal trainers do this very well,” he adds. Organizations such as ACSM and ACE offer certification for these professionals.
Walking, Work and Play
In her own life, Stenger has a functional training ‘client’ she works with continually: her 87-year-old mother. Locomotion — moving from one point to another — is a problem. “She doesn’t propel herself forward — she shuffles side to side,” Stenger says. “And that put all the weight on one hip.” So, together, they focus on the concept of forward propulsion, with proper weight-shifting from heel to toes throughout the foot.
Arthritis makes people change their gait, Stenger says. They tend to look down at their feet and stoop over. Resistance band exercises help them focus on pulling back their shoulders and squeezing their shoulder blades together, along with reminders to hold their head up. Practice leads to improvement. “Those neuromuscular pathways are established,” she says. “With more repetition, it’s going to happen.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, functional fitness can help people thrive in physically demanding occupations such as firefighting and the military. High-intensity functional training, or HIFT, is done in a group setting, Stenger says. “Here, the purpose is to physically prepare military personnel for the unknown in terms of the types of movement patterns they will need when called to a job or emergency.” This type of class would not be appropriate for everyone, she notes.
You can take advantage of functional training for recreational sports, from running your first 5K to improving your tennis game. For instance, you could have your tennis serve dissected and corrected.
“They would look at that tennis serve from a biomechanical standpoint,” Stenger says. “Eye-hand coordination, timing, reaction time — making sure you can get the ball up and hit it at the same time.” Core development and rotation exercises would help your rotational movement, while working on acceleration and power would help you translate all your force up from the ground to the tennis racket, get more speed behind your ball and put it into the service box.
“There’s a whole area of youth development,” in the functional training realm, Roy says. That could potentially help cut down on the plethora of overuse injuries in young athletes.
“There are kids out there playing sports and specializing too young,” Roy says. “The often drop out, they don’t exercise later in life and we have schools that don’t have a lot of (physical education). So kids are not, at early ages, getting the right movement patterns and learning how to do these different kinds of movements correctly.”
Kids need to learn basics — like how to run correctly. “Teaching running techniques, how to change directions, is really important,” Roy says. “How not just to jump, but also how to land.” Activities and games that build these skills can lead to success later on in whichever sports young people want to do, he says.
With functional training, Bryant says, “It’s been my experience that the results — because they really connect to the individual’s ‘why’ — are more meaningful. And they really have much greater impact on motivating the individual to continue down that path still more. Because rather than just looking at numbers and saying, ‘OK, I can lift more weight — so what?’ if you can say, ‘Boy, I can experience the joy of more life,’ that’s a big deal.”
To Bryant, some of his most rewarding work is with more mature clients who’ve had limitations in mobility. “It kind of causes them to be prisoners in their own body, because they don’t have the ability to get around like they used to,” he says.
Functional training with basic activities can do a lot of good for someone who’s been quite sedentary and lost a lot of muscular function, he says. “You might have that person just practice getting up and out of a chair — maybe try to do it 10 times during commercials if they’re watching television.” Next, the person could work on getting out of the chair and reaching overhead.
“It can start that simply,” Bryant says. “And then build on that as they become stronger. Then you can introduce some resistance in terms of doing it with a light weight (or) introduce some type balance challenge. Those declines didn’t occur overnight — and so to fix them is going to take some time, too.”
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