What the heck is functional fitness…. and how do you do it?
by Craig Faeth, PT, ATC, CSCS, FAFS(FMR), 3D MAPS, FGS
Most of what you read about functional fitness in the literature and on the internet is pretty generic. “Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability.” ( Mayo Clinic )
When I ask clients to recount their functional fitness efforts, they most often talk about their boot camp class at their local health club or CrossFit, especially if it involves kettle bell swings. Both can be fantastic exercise options, but neither emphasizes a truly individualized approach to exercising in a way that “improves” your body.
WAIT, WAIT, WAIT!!! That’s right, I said it. Here is what I mean. No two individuals are alike, and that doesn’t just refer to their fitness level. It refers to their biomechanical profiles. Now before you roll your eyes and think that you’re about to hear some mumbo jumbo that just about takes away your interest in exercise altogether, hear me out.
I am not talking about the kind of biomechanics where we stick reflective markers on your body and film you in super slo mo to measure your vectors and levers. I am talking about the symmetry of movement you have from your right side to your left side, from your front to your back, and when rotating right and rotating left. Those are functional biomechanics.
Who cares? You should. Asymmetrical mobility in these areas is a sure recipe for increased wear and tear, injury and degeneration. I am pretty sure you exercise to prevent all of these things, but if you don’t know, and address, your movement asymmetries, you could be increasing the likelihood of these problems without knowing it.
A functional fitness program should address these movement limitations from the standpoint of reducing or eliminating them, and reinforcing the neuromuscular control required to maintain better symmetrical function. If that sounds to mamby pamby, just hold on a minute. Shouldn’t your workout improve the efficiency and power of your joints and muscles, as well as your heart and lung function all at the same time. Well of course it should, but is it?
I get asked all the time by clients what are the best exercises they can do to get in or stay in shape. That is never enough information for me to answer their question. So I start asking questions myself. I want to know what they are staying, or getting, in shape for? It is very surprising to me how many people do not have a defined why for their exercise efforts, and don’t have any particular goal for their exercise pursuits.
The number one answer clients give me is they just want to stay in general shape. Second most given answer is they would like to lose weight. I want to give credit to the young man who said he was trying to get a girl he has a crush on to notice him. None of these goals are inherently bad. However, when you try to put together a workout plan to fit them, you tend to get a misguided, vanilla program that you don’t stick with and leads to mechanical inefficiency down the line. You also become vulnerable to the latest and greatest exercise craze, whether it is actually good for you or not.
Putting together a customized functional fitness program that improves your functional asymmetries and movement inefficiencies, while at the same time making your body more adaptable, resilient, and fit starts with an authentic functional assessment. To learn more about why, I encourage you to read my blog Total Movement Freedom…And You. To take your learning and functional assessment to the next level, check out my book Move Better, Feel Better, Live Better.
Once an assessment is done, you know where your inefficiencies are, and you can construct a program to make them more efficient, stronger and faster. This process can have as much or as little intensity as you want. This makes it a program that, over time, allows you to progress in feeling better, performing better and aging better. It allows a continual advancement in intensity and physical development. BUT it is always important along the path of your life for your fitness efforts to fit your goals in life. If you fall back into general fitness and success in the mirror or on the scale, it is easy to become lured away from what improves the health of your movement system toward activities that your body tries to survive, with compensations.
What makes a fitness program functional is an incredibly high level of individuality toward your compensations and a high level of customizability to your three dimensional restrictions. My mentor is often quoted as saying something similar to the following, “If it doesn’t look and smell like the task you want to be better at, it may not be that functional.” (Gary Gray, PT, The Father of Function, www.grayinstitute.com )
Look for future blogs and articles specifically critiquing various exercises for their functionality relative to your unique movement signature, your secret code. If you don’t know your secret code yet, you can get started on that journey by getting your copy of Move Better, Feel Better, Live Better: Your Secret Code to Effortless Movement, Enhanced Performance, and Aging With Ease today.