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Functional Fitness

What's Your Function?

Written by Brian McGladrey

Exercise to get functional. To improve your performance of everyday activities, give the weight machines a break now and then and focus on improving your functional strength. Functional strength exercises should imitate the movement you want to perform but also force you to work against resistance. For example, doing several sets of squats each week would be a good way to improve your stair-climbing abilities because squats use the same muscles and motions involved in climbing steps.

Add Function to Your Program!

If you've done any reading of fitness periodicals lately you're probably now saturated with one of the latest buzz phrases industry folk like to use, that of "functional training." If so, and if the term doesn't immediately reveal its definition in a layperson manner, allow me to ask the pertinent question for you:

Translated, functional training simply refers to any exercise or training program that involves movements that human beings execute on a daily basis without really thinking about them. Twisting, turning, lunging, bending, squatting, and reaching, or perhaps a combination of these movements, are performed every day by most of us.

Think of it this way: How does what you're doing in the gym transfer to what you're doing outside the gym? This is a question all athletes had best be able to answer. The objective behind integrating functional training exercises into a fitness routine is to allow the body to develop an ability to perform the myriad of movements we ask of it without incurring injury, and hopefully with greater ease and strength. For example, athletes are interested in training with functional movements that will allow them to perform in their chosen sport with greater speed, strength, and agility Whether athlete or not, everyone can benefit from including functional exercises in their fitness programs. Functional exercises will assist with developing flexibility, balance, coordination, and motor skills, all of which seem to deteriorate commensurate with the aging process. Additionally, functional exercises train a number of muscle groups simultaneously, and can provide variety and excitement to an otherwise stale routine. The following are examples of functional training exercises. Most incorporate a balance challenge, multiple movements, or both:

  • Squat on balance board
  • Walking lunge with medicine ball rotation
  • Step-up with overhead press
  • One-legged squat with cable row
  • Lateral walk and squat with exercise band
  • Lying dumbbell press on stability ball
  • Shoulder press on stability ball
  • Push-up with toes on stability ball

When integrating functional exercises into a fitness program, be certain to give consideration to your movement abilities and the difficulty of the functional exercise about to be performed. In other words, these exercises can be modified for a beginner, or designed to be extremely difficult. The squat, for example, can be done using a balance cushion under each foot (beginner), or you can attempt squats standing on a stability ball (advanced). Knowing when to increase the difficulty of an exercise requires an understanding of progression. When an exercise progresses in its balance challenge, most likely resistance will need to be reduced. As your performance of the exercise improves, and your body's movement skills have adapted to the greater balance challenge, resistance in the movement can then be increased. Finally, your goals will have much to say about the extent to which you incorporate functional training exercises into your program. For example, if your objective is to build as much muscle mass as your genetics have determined possible, you'll probably want to perform squats or deadlifts without a balance challenge built into them. Remember, the balance component will mean having to work with less resistance (weight). Achieving the goal of hypertrophy (muscle building) requires working with loads of 80 to 85 percent of maximal, which is not recommended when introducing a balance challenge to an exercise or movement. For most of us, however, a fitness program that includes functional exercises may provide greater daily benefits than one that requires hoisting extremely heavy weights with the hope of busting out of our t-shirts.

Article Reviewed: July 25, 2012
Copyright © 2014 Healthy Magazine

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