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Functional Fitness – Are You Doing It Right ?

It’s absolutely funny how the fitness industry tries to make things sound so scientific and complicated. In fact a lot of the terms used for certain exercises, bodyparts and processes sound much more complicated than the real things are. Take for example terms such as  “core” (which basically is everything except your arms, legs and head), “CNS” – Central Nervous System (which is your brain and spinal cord ), “GPP” – short for General Physical Preparedness (or basic fitness training),  or “posterior kinetic chain” which is just a term for hamstrings, glutes and and the lower back!

Probably one of the most misused terms in fitness at the moment is functional fitness. Functional fitness means selecting exercises that replicate everyday/sport movement patterns and therefore have a positive carryover into real-world tasks and sports. For example, performing a deadlift is a lot like picking up a heavy object and that makes the deadlift a very functional exercise. Likewise, squats are a very functional exercise as they replicate sitting down and standing back up again, something we all do many times a day.

Another definition of functional training refers to the practice of selecting exercises that meet your specific exercise goal. For example, the triceps kickback is a bit of an exercise that involves simultaneous shoulder and elbow extension which makes it a great exercise for freestyle swimmers. I’m not a swimmer so if I want a good triceps exercise, I’ll do dips, narrow grip bench press or the amusingly named skull crusher. I’ve never really liked kickbacks but to label an exercise as non-functional shows a distinct lack of understanding. Every exercise is functional, just maybe not for you!

Trainers around the world debate which exercises are more functional than others and often try to outdo each other with ever more complex exercises, all in the name of greater functionality. Inevitably, the more complex an exercise becomes, the less resistance can be used and, ironically, the less beneficial the exercise in question becomes. For example, squats with a barbell, as discussed previously, simulates an action we all perform many times a day – sitting down and standing up. In terms of functionality the squat scores 10 out of 10.

However, for many so-called functional trainers, the squat is not complex enough. Instead of squatting with a barbell and developing a good level of muscle strength, they might suggest doing the squat with dumbbells raised above your head while standing on a bosu ball. The instability of the BOSU ball combined with the raised center of gravity requires that you use much less weight so your legs, the target body part in a squat, receive less and not more stimulation. Surely I am not the only one who sees the flaw in this approach!?

Broadly speaking, there are seven primary movement patterns that we all perform, or would perform if we lead moderately active lifestyles:

  1. Squats (a movement pattern and an exercise)
  2. Vertical push (pressing objects overhead)
  3. Vertical pull (pulling yourself upward)
  4. Deadlift (a movement pattern and an exercise)
  5. Horizontal push (pushing objects away from you at around shoulder level)
  6. Horizontal pull (pulling objects towards you at around shoulder level)
  7. Single leg movements (lunges, sprinting, stair climbing etc).

To develop true functional strength, simply perform a few challenging sets of one or two exercises for each of the above movement patterns. Add in some cardio, core, mobility and stretching and you have truly balanced approach to functional fitness without the need for any exercises that make you look like an circus act.

Lifting weights heavy enough to make you stronger and using compound movements is hard enough without to increase your functional fitness without the risk of an injury. Things don’t get much more simple or functional than that and no circus skills are required.

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