There is no doubt that functional training has gained mass popularity in the fitness community over the past few years. It’s a classification of exercises that most fitness trainers are pushing on their clients these days.
However, functional training is one of the oldest and most basic forms of physical fitness. It's a concept that has been around for ages - working out to improve your daily life.
With that being said, as with everything in life, it is evolving.
Functional training is to fitness what walking is to running - It is the foundation of "movement".
Every professional in the fitness world understands the importance of functional training. Functional training is as important for beginners as it is for experts, like pro athletes. It is a form of training that is imperative at all levels, albeit, for different reasons. Nonetheless, the concept has the same overall purpose of enhancing the physical aspect of daily life, whatever that might entail.
Functional training can mean different things for different people.
It is an important part of physical rehabilitation for helping patients and athletes recover after injury or disability. Basic functional movements can be done without equipment, helping those with injuries regain function of natural movements, which allows them to return to their normal daily activities.
On another level, functional training involves the performance of more complex, weight-bearing exercises that improve overall strength and athletic skills.
In almost all cases, functional training incorporates core stability, balance and strength training through natural movement patterns instead of fixed range of motion exercises, such as machines or isolated movements that focus on only one muscle group and limit the range of motion.
We can break functional training down into two levels of intensity - Low and High.
Low-intensity functional training is mainly designed to benefit older people so they can maintain active lifestyles. Low-Intensity functional exercises usually involve only bodyweight movements in the most simple form.
High-intensity functional training is great for people who are well-conditioned. The exercises are intensive, combining training of cardio, endurance, and strength. This type of functional training usually involves weighted loads. It can actually pose a risk of injury for people who aren’t fit enough, and fit doesn't mean only strength, but also mobility, coordination, endurance, etc. High-intensity functional training requires a solid foundation. Exercises such as sprints, barbell squats, and long distance cross-country runs are considered high-intensity. The US military is big on incorporating high-intensity functional training into their regime.
Depending on what kind of physical rewards you are looking to reap, will help you decide what kind of functional training to focus on. There, of course, is a middle ground between low and high.
In this article, we are going to explore the benefits of functional training (as a whole), and we will focus on the types of equipment used in functional training, and the basics for how to incorporate it into your fitness routine.
The purpose of functional fitness training is, as mentioned above, to enhance the performance of your daily activities.
“Daily activities” entails something different for each individual. It could be as simple as improving how you walk up and down stairs, carry groceries, play with your children OR it could be as advanced as boosting your skills for a specific sport like basketball or football.
Thus, the type of functional exercises you should perform will depend on your specific of your needs. Essentially, that is exactly what functional training is, people-specific.
In any case, though, functional movement training will always incorporate compound movements, rather than muscle specific, isolated movements.
Functional workouts create powerful coordination between your nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal systems. The benefits will emphasize improvements in your strength, respiratory, flexibility, stability, and balance.
All in all, functional training aims to boost your overall health and wellbeing. It's all about longevity, people.
Below are some specific reasons for why you should incorporate functional training, no matter what level of fitness you are at.
In general, functional training, if done properly, puts considerably less pressure on one's joints and body.
Functional training exercises will help you build a solid foundation so that when you start performing more intense exercises, your body is steady, strong and ready for high-impact training.
It will also help strengthen your joints and stabilizer muscles, which is great for sports like MMA, football, and other high-impact sports.
Many functional fitness exercises implement full body training, which improves not only strength but balance and core stability. This, in turn, will help improve your posture...plus, it'll fix muscle imbalances.
One aspect of training that many people forgo, especially men, is flexibility. A good functional training program will incorporate flexibility training, at the appropriate time, of course (i.e. after workouts).
Being flexible has many benefits in and out of the gym and sports arena. It will help reduce the chance of injury and cure muscle imbalances while also improving your mobility and range of motion. Therefore, improving daily life and intense workouts and sporting activities for the more serious athletes.
A lot of functional training will involve unilateral training and plyometrics. Unilateral training and plyometrics involve single leg movements and offset weights, which seriously develops balance and coordination. This is incredibly important for contact sports. Furthermore, good balance and coordination will also help prevent injuries when push comes to shove.
A sedentary lifestyle leads to weak and constricted muscles. Many of the benefits above lead to probably the most important fact, injury prevention. Without the necessary mobility, even the simplest movements, like picking up a box, can be risky.
Functional training is essentially “practical” training.
People train for different reasons, so a good training program will be geared towards your needs. If you are an MMA fighter, many unique exercises will need to be performed to help you in the realm of fighting. If you are a firefighter or police officer, you will train for certain occurrences that may happen when out on duty. Functional training is very specific to what you need to enhance longevity.
The benefits really don’t end there but for the sake of keeping this post a reasonable length, we will stop at that. Now, let’s get into some good exercises and equipment that functional fitness programs could include.
The concept of primal movement patterns is the heart of functional training. By looking at the body in the most primitive way, we can learn a lot about our natural movement patterns.
There are seven different patterns: squat, lunge, push, pull, bend, twist, and walking/running; and there are 3 planes of motion that these movements move through. Any exercise that includes one of these 7 movements is considered to be “functional”, as it directly correlates to the way we move naturally in our daily lives.
And the list goes on...
It should be noted that as you advance, you can add loads to these exercises, using weights like dumbbells and barbells. Conversely, if you’ve always trained with weights, it could be great to try something different by doing bodyweight movements at higher reps for a couple months, as the dynamics are completely different and will test you in a new way.
Now, we are going to discuss the types of equipment that can be used to train these 7 different movement patterns, with a video example for each.
Apart from bodyweight movements, there are many types of equipment that are great for functional training, and none of them include machines that isolate movements.
One of the best tools you can use is a barbell and plates, and dumbbells. The “big three” lifts are essentials for a high-intensity functional training regime. Also, full body movements that use dumbbells are great too.
Aside from the obvious, at SET FOR SET, we like to incorporate unconventional fitness tools into our functional training programs.
Other noteworthy tools:
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