Wednesday Workout Buzzword: Functional Fitness Defined

In yet another lazy day of Wednesday Workout, instead of actually working out, I am going to set a few things straight. There are many buzzwords in fitness, they change as often as the season. Think “core, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), plyometrics, circuit training, periodization, dynamic, Zumba, fusion, aerobics, toning…yes, I probably can go on forever.

The buzzword that I hear most often lately is “functional fitness” or “functional exercise.” Most of us in the fitness business use it frequently. You may use it too. But what does it mean? Some of us in the industry, when we hear the word used so often, start to assume that everyone knows what it means. But do they?

There is a good reason that functional fitness has become the top buzzword in fitness. It’s about training your body for real life situations. Imagine this: You’ve been working out at the gym three days a week. You are bench pressing more weight that you ever have before, and you just increased the weight on the seated row machine. You’re feeling pretty good, ready to show off your six pack on your vacation. You pick up your 60 pound suitcase and throw out your back. What happened?

Chances are you’re not doing enough functional exercise, which focuses on real life bodies exercising in real life positions, not lifting a standard weight in some imaginary posture created by a gym machine. The point of functional exercise is to teach all the muscles to work together, as they do in real life.

Let’s compare. We’ll take a rowing exercise, a standard machine in all gyms, where you sit with your back and feet braced while pulling on two levers or a cable. Yes, you may be strengthening some muscles, but you’re not teaching your body anything. You don’t have to activate any stabilizing muscles in your core, shoulders or arms, so these muscles aren’t learning to work together.

Now let’s examine a bent over row, the kind where you bend over a bench with the weight hanging down in one straight arm, where you pull the elbow up bending it until your upper arm is parallel with the ground. Think about what is happening. Your core is activated because you are bent over at the hips. The muscles in your arms and shoulders must work to stabilize the movement. Compare this to any kind of bending and lifting movement that occurs in real life.

Several of my cross country girls offered to demonstrate these functional exercises. Here we have the squat.

Using that same thinking, compare a leg press to a squat. A chest press to a push up. A leg curl to a lunge. The first exercise in each example is a common gym exercise, which is designed to work a certain muscle or muscles, while the machine does the stabilizing. But a squat, a push up, or a lunge, all require you to recruit many muscles, including your small stabilizing muscles, to do the work, and they all translate to real life movement.

Here the girls demonstrate a push up. Each girl is at different level of the movement.

If you are just starting with functional exercise, it is actually a good idea to lose the weights altogether, while you work on balance and stability. Sure, you may be able to leg press a lot of weight, but can you do a one-legged squat without falling over? Go ahead and try. I’ll wait.

Here the girls demonstrate a lunge. Thanks Aztecs, from left to right: Taryn, Acacia, Irene

If you can’t it may be because the muscles in your body are not used to working together and you need to work on balance and stability. Practice that one legged squat. When you can do it (on both sides), add a light weight on one side. Then try picking that weight up from the ground as you do the squat. Each step adds a little challenge as you build balance and stability.

If you are a gym rat and used to pressing heavy weight, your thinking will have to undergo a paradigm shift. No longer will you push to failure, grunting out those last few reps, increasing weight at regular intervals. Now, the set will end when you can no longer keep perfect form. Instead of increasing weight regularly, you will increase the muscular challenge. Take that squat to an uneven surface, extend a leg in the air as you do your push up, twist or reach as you do your lunge.

Does that mean never doing another gym workout? Probably not. If you have weakness in certain areas that can be detrimental to functional form. If you don’t balance those weaknesses before performing functional exercise, the stronger muscles will take over and get stronger, while the weaker muscles will stay weak. If you blend both styles of exercise together, functional exercises will teach the isolated muscles how to work together.

If functional exercise is new to you, finding a qualified trainer with a background in functional fitness is an excellent idea. It shouldn’t be hard. As with all fitness buzzwords, good trainers try to keep up with the trends, educate themselves and pass their knowledge on to you.

Do you incorporate functional fitness into your training? (If you do some of my Wednesday Workouts you do, most of them are quite functional.) What is your favorite exercise and what real life movement to you relate it to (a test!). What is your favorite fitness buzzword? How about your least favorite?

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  1. says

    So good Debbie! I need to do more of this, and I’m learning…bit by bit. It’s such a good reality check when you try this stuff. For example, my balance is atrocious 😛
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  2. says

    oh wow! this is such a cool post!!! stuff i have never really thought about before! how cool! i guess id heard of functional fitness but never really paid attention to what it was or really meant. very cool!!! thanks for sharing this! spa love!

  3. says

    Such a great post Debbie. I like that there’s a move more towards functional fitness and an emphasis on balance and stability. More and more, I’ve been realizing that those are the key (thanks surfing and thanks physical therapy). Especially in PT, most of my exercise focused on improving my balance and stability and getting my body to work together.
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  4. says

    this makes perfect sense!! the reason i can run 5+ miles a day, and take an aerobics or weight class and feel like death! different muscles/movements!! same reason i try to tell people who do aerobics they can’t just jump into doing a race because “they work out all the time” you have to condition for everything!! great post!
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  5. Sable Weisman (@SquatLikeALady) says

    I think there’s room for both kinds of exercises – bench presses and push-ups, squats and leg presses (so long as there are no contraindications)! If you want to be able to do 50 push-ups, you’re going to have to find alternative ways to train the shoulder & lock-out, to make sure that all of the muscles involved in that exercise are performing maximally. I do agree though that functional training > ‘beach muscle’ training =)

    • says

      It depends on your goals, too. If you’re training for competition like you do, you’re going to have to focus on certain types of exercises to create the type of muscle development that you want. I imagine that your training is periodized, so after competitive season you can focus on more functional type of exercises.
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