The benefits of functional fitness

4 November 2020 Ewan Birnie
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Functional fitness is a popular term that has been utilised for some time in the fitness industry.

Within the fitness industry, it is increasingly common for fads and trends to develop in relation to preferred training styles. In many instances, the popularity of these training methods is not sustained, with trainers and clients searching for the newest and most innovative exercises to integrate into their program. While this constant change creates an exciting and varied environment in which to be involved, it can often create situations where the purpose of exercise and the training program is lost in the search for fresh and trendy ideas – this is where the importance of functional fitness comes in.

Firstly, what is functional fitness?

Functional fitness, also known as functional training, is based on a philosophy that has been long established, particularly in the professions of rehabilitation, strength and conditioning where practitioners are aiming to improve athletic performance. It has more recently become a buzzword used by the general population as they aim to optimise the time they spend training.

It is possible to define functional training in many ways. A glance at some health and fitness texts will provide you with a wide range of definitions. Some of these include:

‘… movements based on real-world simulated biomechanics. They usually involve multi-planar, multi-joint movements which place demand on the body’s core musculature and innervation…’ (Mercer, 2001).

‘…functional training can be described as purposeful training…’ (Boyle, 2010)

‘…functional training involves four main processes; intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination, reflexive processes and motor learning…’ (Siff, 2003)

From these definitions, three main key themes can be drawn in relation to exercise.

  1. Exercises should mimic activities of daily living or the movements which the client wishes to improve.
  2. The trainer must always have the goal of the client in mind to determine the purpose and functionality of the exercise.
  3. Functional training involves an interaction between the muscular and nervous systems.

With these definitions and points in mind, it is possible to further examine what makes an exercise functional. It should however be noted that defining exercises as either functional or non-functional is not necessarily beneficial. Siff (2002) outlines that the terms are often misused highlighting that what is considered functional for one person, may not be functional for another depending on their individual goals. Instead, Siff suggests that an exercise should be considered functional based on the outcome it achieves, not necessarily the movement itself. For example, using the definitions above as a guide, an isolated triceps push down is unlikely to be classed as functional. However, performing this exercise may have a positive impact on other functional activities such as pushing. Therefore, it can be considered to have a positive impact upon functionality. Simply put, functional training could be considered as any training which meets the purpose for which it is intended, and therefore specific to the goals of the client.

Having a clear rationale for why you are performing each exercise within your program is central to clever and effective program design. Without this rationale, the exercise will lack purpose and direction, with it less likely to relate to the goals of the client. If the trainer cannot explain why a certain exercise has been selected, it is likely that it should be removed from the program. Therefore, the benefits of implementing a functional training philosophy needs to be fully understood.

Below we’ve listed seven key benefits of functional training:

  1. Functional training will encourage integrative work across multiple muscles

Selecting larger, compound movements will engage more muscles than isolation exercises. These muscles will also work in synchrony, providing further stimulus to the nervous system. This is the way the body is built to operate. There are very few movements regularly performed in daily life that are not compound in nature.

  1. More muscle activation = greater force

Increased muscle activation leads to greater force production. This increase in force production will result in the client achieving enhanced gains in strength and power.

  1. More muscle activation = more energy use

With greater muscle work comes an increased demand for energy. Using functional exercises will therefore provide the client with more time efficient workouts, as more energy will be used within a given time. This is beneficial for clients that are time poor.

  1. Challenges balance and proprioception

Functional exercise will place demands upon both components of performance, which are largely related to the nervous system and motor control. In order to maintain balance during the performance of functional training, stabilising muscles are recruited to a greater extent than other forms of training. Strength and endurance within smaller stabilising muscles is essential if force is to be transferred through the kinetic chain effectively, and injury avoided.

  1. Variety

Following a functional training philosophy creates a larger exercise bank from which the trainer can design programs. This is beneficial in maintaining exercise adherence and motivation in long-term clients. Clients can be challenged to learn new movements, and overload can be provided through means other than increases in intensity or sets/reps. Furthermore, progressions and regressions of functional exercise are easily achieved, making it a suitable training form for everybody.

  1. Specificity

One of the key principles of an effective training program is specificity, in relation to the goals of the client. Using a functional approach to training, alongside a thorough needs analysis can assist in ensuring that exercise selection best suits the needs of the individual client.

  1. Injury prevention and management

By training and appropriately overloading movements seen in daily activities of the individual, the likelihood of becoming injured due to poor movement or biomechanics decreases. This creates a healthier population and a client that is best placed to achieve their goals.

Interested in learning more? We offer five CEC courses that can help take your knowledge on functional training to the next level, either for yourself or your clients.

Ewan Birnie

Ewan Birnie

National Academic Manager

Ewan is an experienced fitness educator having taught in the field for 12 years in the UK and Australia, as well as working within the industry for over 16 years.  He is passionate about creating and delivering high quality and current learning experiences to fitness students.  His fitness interests lie in working with young athletes, with a history of employment in sports coaching and strength and conditioning in a variety of sports.  He is also a big believer in creating simple and sustainable exercise solutions for the general population that can have a meaningful impact on health and wellbeing.

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