What Is Functional Fitness? Is It the Right Move for You?

Photo: Stocksy/Felix Hug
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 do in our everyday life: 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 muscle groups to help you do everyday activities easier, more safely, and efficiently.

"Functional fitness is working out in such a way that prepares you for real-life movements and scenarios," says Dan Castillo, instructor at GRIT Bxng, pointing out that moves like squats, lunges, push-ups, and pull-ups (aka a lot of staple strength training exercises) fall into the functional exercise category. "These movements are easily transferred over to real-life scenarios such as getting out of bed, which is rising in a squat, walking up a flight of stairs, which involves lunges, falling and pushing yourself back up, or a push-up motion, and climbing over a fence, or a pull-up."

It's a great option to train using functional exercise movements for those who want to perform their usual tasks with more 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, trainers break down what functional fitness really entails, what its many 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?

Functional fitness relies on natural body movements such as squats, multi-directional lunges, pushing, and pulling (often holding a weight) to strengthen upper and lower body 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 in a workout without necessarily realizing it—equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells, ropes, and medicine balls are used in a series of low-intensity moves, each one focused on a different muscle group, and easily work as functional movements.

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

What are the benefits of functional fitness training?

Overall, the main health benefit of doing functional fitness training is that it helps you move in everyday life more fluidly and with better posture. These are all of the perks that functional exercises give you:

1. Less injury: Tom Richardell, owner of MOB (Mind Over Body) Fitness in 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. So a proper functional fitness program will restore and maintain strength across multiple muscle groups, train your muscles so that you can move better in everyday life, minimizing the risk of injuries, and increasing endurance.

2. It can be social: 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. Just think of Crossfit, which teaches a lot of functional fitness and is known for having a big community.

3. It's for all ages: Functional fitness is 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.

3. You get increased flexibility: According to Castillo, functional fitness strengthens your muscles and your bones, and results in an increased range of both motion and flexibility. "Because of this, you'll get a reduction in joint pain," he says.

Is functional fitness the right move for me?

If you're wondering if functional fitness is something that's right for you, know that trainers firmly believe that it benefits everyone, regardless of their fitness level. "Functional fitness is for everyone," says Castillo. "Humans are meant to move and to move often. Our current world and daily activities require us to run, jump, reach, push, and pull. As a result, all individuals should be training in such a way that allows them to navigate the world in the most efficient way possible."

Even if you're doing body weight activities, he points out that functional training is simple and safe for just about everyone (it doesn't have to be high intensity or high-impact).

What dose functional fitness look like?

To give you a better idea of just what functional fitness entails, Castillo gives us some of his go-to strength training movements, including those that work on core strength and moves that target multiple muscle groups at once. "Two great push movements are push-ups and squats," he says. "For pull movements, I love renegade rows and pull-ups."

1. Push-up: Start off in a plank position with your hands placed directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet elevated and shoulder-distance apart. Lower your chest in a controlled manner to the ground and explosively push up to the starting position. Modify by doing this from your knees or using an elevated box or a bench for assistance.

2. Squat: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider and angle your toes out about 20 degrees to allow hips to open at the bottom of the squat, says Castillo. Maintain your weight mostly in your heels and center of the feet, and send your butt back while lowering, keeping the chest upright and open. Allow your butt to lower knee crease level or below for full range of motion. Push through the heels to rise back up.

3. Renegade row: From a plank position or from tabletop as a modification, use dumbbells underneath your shoulders and grip the weights. With your abs tight, pull one dumbbell up to the side of your chest, driving that elbow up to the ceiling while grazing the ribcage on the way up. Lower the weight down back to starting position in a controlled movement. Do the other side.

4. Pull-up: Set your body up directly underneath a pull-up bar. Hop up or step up to the bar and dead hang, positioning your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Retract your shoulders and pull yourself up towards the bar until your chin fully clears. Keep your abs tight, fleet glued together, and maintain a slightly hollow position with your body. For a modification, try a banded pull-up or a leg-assisted bar pull-up.

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.)

Originally posted August 2, 2018, updated with additional writing and reporting by Rachel Lapidos on February 28, 2020

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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