The term “functional fitness” is everywhere—but what does it mean and is it right for you?

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Most of us go to the gym for greater strength, energy, and stamina that we can carry into our day-to-day lives. And while running on a treadmill and tapping it back on a bike will definitely help achieve those goals, they don’t fully reflect the movements we make most often: carrying heavy farmers’ market bags, squatting down to grab leggings from the bottom drawer, or pushing a vacuum cleaner around an apartment.

That’s why many trainers recommend adding functional fitness to your routine. As defined by the Mayo Clinic, functional fitness exercises mimic the motions you make every day, training your muscles to help you do everyday activities safely and efficiently.

It’s a great option for those who want to perform their usual tasks with grace and ease—so, everyone?—without necessarily doing super-intense cardio or heavy weight lifting. (Although Crossfit and F45 are some extreme examples of functional fitness training, there are lots of lower-impact options as well.) Here, a trainer breaks down what functional fitness entails, what its benefits are, and how to find the right gym for you.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about functional fitness.

What is functional fitness training?
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What is functional fitness training?

Functional fitness relies on natural body movements such as squats, multi-directional lunges, pushing, and pulling (often holding a weight) to strengthen muscles and stretch limbs. The aim is to improve your quality of life based on your personal abilities and goals.

Many functional fitness classes are done in a circuits with a trainer. You may have engaged in functional fitness before without necessarily realizing it—equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells, ropes, and exercise balls are used in a series of low-intensity moves, each one focused on a different muscle group.

These exercises can gradually increase in complexity and difficulty with added resistance as one progresses and adds strength, flexibility, and stamina.

What is functional fitness training?
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What are the benefits of functional fitness training?

Tom Richardell, owner of MOB (Mind Over Body) Fitness in Essex, Connecticut explains: “The number-one benefit of functional fitness is that the slow progression of difficulty will protect you from injury.” A good instructor will have a variety of exercises to help someone overcome physical limitations such as a bad back, sore joints, or other issues.

A proper functional fitness program will restore and maintain strength across multiple muscle groups, helping you to move better in everyday life, minimizing the risk of injuries, and increasing endurance. And it’s not just for the young and active—according to the Mayo Clinic, it can also be beneficial for older people, as it helps improve balance and agility.

There may also be some social perks associated with functional fitness, just like there are for any highly interactive group fitness class. “We find clients get better results and become more engaged, compared to the typical commercial gym experience of putting on headphones, getting on a treadmill and then hitting a few exercise machines,” says Richardell.

What is functional fitness training?
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How can I find the right gym for me?

When starting out, resist the urge to join the first functional fitness gym that pops up on Google. It’s important to ask questions and find a trainer who’s worked with clients that share your goals, and who has experience with any potential limitations or injuries you’re working on correcting.

Richardell says functional fitness training should ideally occur in a small-group setting with personalized instruction from an experienced trainer, especially if you’ve got an injury or are just starting to work out. “Most functional training gyms are micro gyms—very small—but they have powerful and defined communities,” he explains. “Some may be more focused on the 40+ crowd than others. Ask for testimonials. Watch a class and observe what people are doing.” After all, you want to make sure the workout’s a match for your ability level. (And, who knows—maybe someday you will graduate to that Crossfit box.)

Another fitness trend to know if you aren’t ready for boot camp: HILIT training. And here are three easy ways to get moving now, without hitting the gym.

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