Is Functional Fitness Right For Me?
These days, a lot of talk gets passed around concerning functional fitness. It has become a catchphrase for every other bootcamp and personal trainer to attempt to lure you in with the promise of being more “functional”. So what exactly is functional fitness and why do any of us care about it?
Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines functional as “performing or able to perform a regular function.” Ingenious really. The same group of super smart people define fitness as “the quality or state of being fit.” From a concrete standpoint, functional fitness is being in good enough shape to perform regular function. Well that’s easy enough. Aren’t we all naturally designed to perform what we were made to do? Why then, is the world littered with people who say such things as: “I can’t run, I can’t walk, I can’t carry this bag of groceries, I can’t jump, I can’t move this rock”? The real mystery is that you never hear anybody say: “I can’t sit on the couch.” So, were we designed to sit in chairs for long periods of time, whether in the comfort of the living room or the locomotion of the car seat? I hope not.
A functional exercise program incorporates total body movements used in everyday life. Movement is generated from core to extremity using multiple joints and muscles. When you pick up a box from the floor and place it on a shelf in the closet, your movement begins at the center, or core, and extends downward through the hips, knees, and ankles and upward through the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Functional exercises like the deadlift and the push press are different from isolation exercises, like bicep curls and the chest press machine. Isolation movements incorporate independent muscle groups whereas functional exercises utilize multi-joint, multi-muscle groups.
Take for example a back squat compared to a leg press machine. The back squat requires a stable core, proper posture, balance, and coordination to handle the load, and a combination of speed and strength to generate enough power to push the weight up from the bottom position. In contrast, the leg press requires simply possessing enough strength in the leg and butt muscles to press the load up from the starting position. The part that is lacking in the movement is the balance, coordination, and teamwork of the supporting muscle and joint groups stemming from the core outward. The machine does all this for you. That is why people are generally able to leg press much more weight than they can back squat. A functional exercise is profoundly harder, yet is POSSIBLE for everyone to perform. Additionally, there is no equivalent in nature to the leg press. The likelihood of finding yourself in that position is next to none. Yet, next time you are out camping and find yourself doing your “business” in the woods, you may thank yourself for making it so much easier by your functional fitness training.
Functional movements develop power by utilizing three important attributes: load, distance, and speed. This refers to the ability to quickly move weighted loads over a certain distance. Generally, we move loads, (like a 55-gallon fish tank full of water) as quickly as we can without compromising our safety. Functional movements prepare us for these moments in life. We take the load (the fish tank) from point A (the day room) to point B (the moving van) utilizing enough power and speed to get it done, and hopefully save ourselves for the dining room table and the three-piece sectional couch the wife just had to have.
One key aspect of functional movement exercises is that they require you to work on proper body mechanics or open yourself to the risk of pain or injury. In other words, proper body position and mechanics involve stabilizing the midline in a neutral spine position. This is important no matter what we are doing but most important when our body is under load or stress. For more infomation on neutral spine see: Five Tips for a Healthy Spine.
So during your next workout, consider trying the following functional exercise routine. Then, take a moment to look at each of the exercises and evaluate how they will help you later on in life. I promise you will be thankful when you find yourself moving that three-piece couch.
After a 5 min warmup, do the following exercises completing 1 set of each, one after another, and then rest 1min. Do this five times through.
1. Lunge 20 reps (alternating 10 each leg)
Stand up straight, feet hip-width apart, and hands on your hips. Step foward with one leg and slowly lower you body until the front knee is bent 90 degrees and the back rear knee is slightly touching the ground. Drive youself back to upright to the starting position and step out the the opposite leg.
For an easier version do not lower your body as much. The less you lower the body the easier it will be.
2. Pushup 15 rep
While on all fours, position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. With your feet together, straighten out your arms and legs, while simultaneously squeezing your butt and tightening your abs. Lower your body until your chest barely touches the floor then drive your body back to the starting position
For an easier version try these with your knees on the floor.
3. Push press 10 reps
Grab a pair of dumbbells, a medicine ball, a sandbag, or any other weighted object. Choose a weight at which you can easily do the following exercise for 10 reps: Standing upright with feet hip-width apart and holding a weight at the shoulder level, bend your knees slightly while keeping your torso upright. once you’ve lowered yourself a few inches, drive through the heels and press the weight straight up overhead. Lower the weight back to the starting position and repeat.
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