Functional Fitness: How It Works & What It Does to Your Body

FORM AND FUNCTION. “Functional Fitness” resurfaces as one of the most popular exercise trends of the year, and for good reason. Here we explore why function can trump form




When it comes to fitness trends and buzzwords, “functional fitness” might sound pretty straightforward. But ask, say, a kettlebell user and an FMS trainer to explain about functional fitness, and you’ll get two different answers. Ask a CrossFit coach, and you’ll probably hear yet another answer. The common thread uniting all these (hypothetical) answers, however, is that “functional fitness” is all about what we can do with our fitness.



Imagine you’re a moderately fit guy in, say, your early thirties. So, you’re pretty much comfortable bench-pressing anywhere between 90- to 100-percent of your bodyweight. But then you pulled your back trying to carry a 30kg suitcase down the stairs. What happened?

Most of the exercises you do in the gym, especially weight training, tend to isolate certain muscle groups. Problem is, real-life activities performed in real-life positions (which are often kind of awkward, such as when you’re bending over to scoop up your child from his car seat) require several muscle groups to work together.

This brings us to the core of functional fitness: Integration and teaching your muscles to work together. No less important is balance, as in training your body’s core stabilizer muscles as well as those in your arms and shoulders. When you’re using fitness equipment like the popular seated row machine, you simply engage certain muscles, but your body doesn’t “learn” how to incorporate those muscles in other activities and how to stay in balance while doing so.



“The core of functional fitness is integration and teaching your muscles to work together”




The best way to learn functional fitness is finding a trainer with the appropriate background and skills; which shouldn’t be hard as this type of fitness training has been on the rise for some time. However, there are two easy exercises that can serve as good starting points and perhaps convince you of the need for functional fitness.

1. The barbell bent-over row

Bend your knees slightly and bend over the barbell while keeping your back straight. Then, grasp the bar using an overhand grip, and pull it up to your upper waist. As you lower the barbell, make sure that you extend your arms until your shoulders are stretched downward. This simple exercise targets the back; but in fact, 11 different muscles will be working in synergy, while another eight will be put to work in maintaining your balance and posture.

2. The single leg squat

Extend your arms in front of you, then extend one leg forward as straight and as high as possible. Squat down as far as possible without letting the elevated foot touch the floor. Then raise your body back to the original position and repeat. For an added challenge, you can work with added weights, either dumbbells (grasped to the sides) or a medicine ball held in front of you.




Embracing functional fitness does not mean that you should entirely abandon other forms of exercise targeted at specific muscles. On the one hand, isolated weaknesses will hamper overall functional movement. On the other, without “learning” how to integrate separate muscle groups, our body will fall into the habit of compensating where your strong muscles become stronger and your weaker muscles stay weak. By combining the two, you get the complete package: Every muscle and muscle group will receive the attention it needs to develop, and your body will also learn how to fully utilize these well-developed muscles.

Adjusting to functional fitness, however, isn’t always easy. Pacing, for example, will be different. Instead of training until muscle fatigue sets in (also known as “training to failure”), functional fitness exercises end when you can no longer maintain perfect form. This kind of training also forces you to be more attentive and focused on each and every repetition.

All that being said, the benefits of functional fitness are more than worth the hassle: You’ll be fit, toned and—more importantly—you can actually do what most people would expect from a fit and toned gentleman.