Can you remember what was the ‘in-thing’ to do when you started getting into exercise?
Over the decades, there have been many fitness trends in the industry:
- The introduction of “group classes” opened exercise up to the masses. It caused a growth in the general public looking after their health and fitness in the 60s.
- The growth of holistic related fitness, which includes the likes of Yoga and Pilates, made exercise accessible to people of any physical circumstance. More importantly, it saw the older generations take part in physical activity where previously they would have avoided it.
- If you didn’t have access to a gym, you could buy home workout videos so that you could train in the comfort of your own home.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) was now available for those limited on time: the ability to get a full workout, started and finished within 30 minutes, but promising all the benefits of a longer workout.
- With the recent popularity of social media, there has been a big surge in what are called ‘fit-fluencers’. They use their social channels to spread health and fitness information to thousands of people daily.
As well as trends, there have been many technical advancements in the health and fitness industry. These have led to more of the general public looking after their health and fitness. Unfortunately, on the flip side, there are some of those advancements that, as fitness professionals should apologise for:
- The shake weight.
- Electric ab belts.
- Waist trainers.
- Sauna suits.
- The thigh master.
Amongst this ever-growing list of gadgets and trends, one will always stick out as having mixed interpretations: “functional training”. So, what exactly is functional fitness? In today’s blog we look at what it is, and more importantly what it is not.
What is functional training?
According to Wikipedia, one definition of functional training is that it is a type of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life. The idea of functional training is to make you more efficient at performing regular tasks whilst minimising the risks of injury. But the modern-day application of functional fitness refers more to rehabilitation from injury or surgery. Exercises are designed and selected as rehabilitation to help you rebuild stability, mobility, strength and movement patterns. The goal is to return you back to functionality in the fastest and safest route possible.
The first civilisation known to practise functional fitness was Ancient Greeks. When you think about it, this may not be a huge stretch of the imagination. Greek history is full of stories and statues of the demi-gods. Big, muscular lean men who were worshipped by the nation. The most common past time of the Greeks was physical sport. It is well documented that the ancient Greeks where the originators of the Olympic games. They consisted of multiple sports, including Boxing, discus throwing, running, javelin and Pankration, the original form of wrestling. It is also recognised as one of the oldest sports on the planet. Both of these pastimes require the athletes to be not only strong but also conditioned for the specific activity.
Physical training was something nearly all would participate in, and functional fitness was the choice for the general population. As cited here , Hippocrates was known for getting patients to throw weighted balls between them, This is thought to be the origin of the medicine ball. Even back in 400 B.C., they understood the importance of physical preparedness for the promotion of health and reduction of injury and illness.
The revival of functional training?
The term ‘Functional Fitness’, in terms of its use in the general population, reared its head again back in the mid 80’s. At this time, the fitness industry was experiencing the peak of an interest wave. The 70’s brought about a new interest in looking after health and fitness, and the rise of the action hero on the big screen and on our TVs. Companies and trainers saw this as an opportunity to promote the latest gimmicks – not only make a name for themselves but to also generate income.
Then came the use of rehabilitation exercises to challenge and train the body. People would mimic the training of their favourite athletes. They would see them balancing on one leg whilst pressing a dumbbell overhead or using stability balls and BOSUs to challenge their balance and co-ordination. Trainers would see this footage and replicate it with their clients. Usually they would add greater loads and the clients would enjoy it as they found it challenging. And anything that must be challenging, must be good for you, right? Unfortunately, the ‘context’ of these exercises was missing. The exercises viewed in the footage were designed to be used by athletes for rehabilitation. These were now being inappropriately loaded and used as general preparation drills. In addition, those exercises were originally selected to assist in the athletes’ performance in their chosen sports, making them functional and specific to the athlete.
The ‘balancing’ act
Stability balls and BOSUs (half of a stability ball with one flat side) are used to perform unstable training. The understanding was that if you can perform on an unstable surface, you will be better on a stable one. This misunderstanding brought about a new trend – the era performing every exercise on a Swiss ball. However, a study published in the 2007 strength and conditioning journal by Eric Cressy showed that training on a stable surface brought about better results than unstable surface training.
Now, I would like to point out, there is a time and place for performing exercises on an unstable surface. Instability should not be used to just create difficulty. Pretty much all activity you perform is on a stable surface. The additional use of instability potentially brings in a risk of injury. This is partly due to the difficulty to perform technique. It is also because it causes the body to recruit more muscles than normal in an attempt to generate stability. Take this image for example:
Another iteration of functional fitness was to take a movement and turn it into an exercise. One example I can think of would be replicating a golf swing using a cable machine. Using a long handle and attaching the cable at the bottom and performing the golf swing technique. The belief that in adding resistance, when removed, would make your swing faster and stronger. The reality is, this would decrease your technique as you are using the wrong muscles and forces to pull the cable.
The new era
Within the last 15 years, there have been two new key players in the realm of functional fitness. First was the invention of the TRX system. Former Navy Seal Randy Hetrick created a suspension training system that was both portable and versatile. This was a way for people (such as serving military) to carry with them minimal equipment and be able to get a full work out. You are able to use your own body weight as a form of resistance.
More importantly, the TRX gave you the ability to increase or decrease the load you use whilst also having to activate more core muscles. Rather than focusing on compromising stability, it allows you as the user to determine the level of stress created on the body to suit your purpose. Not only that, there are hundreds of exercises that can be replicated with one small piece of kit that can be taken anywhere. The TRX system genuinely is a functional tool.
The weekend athlete
Another new addition is the phenomenon of CrossFit. The original theory behind its invention was a solid one. Make the every day person fit and ready for any ‘physical contingency’ they may face. At the start, the program worked in stages (known as meso cycles). You would have a primary focus, but also train other outcomes as well. For example, you may spend a 4-week block mainly focusing on your maximal squat strength. But after your strength work, you may do some gymnastics style callisthenics followed by some endurance work. The primary focus would shift every meso cycle.
Over time, this has evolved further, and there has been a change to the programming and the popularity. CrossFit has moved from a training programme into a sporting event. This has seen the general population aspire to become “weekend athletes”. If you speak to most trainers, they will have a ‘Marmite’ view to CrossFit. They either love it or hate it. CrossFit is one of the reasons that fitness and working out has seen a rise in popularity over the last 15 years. It has also seen the general population train as athletes and become more well rounded in their fitness.
It has, however, also seen the rise of inexperienced practitioners passing the CrossFit instructor qualification. This allows you to own and teach at a CrossFit gym. This has coincided with a sharp rise in the injury rate of participants. This is due to the level of highly technical movements being used alongside a highly competitive training environment.
A cautionary example
For example, one workout requires the participant to perform 50 full barbell snatches in as fast a time as possible. This is done with a heavy load (the male weight is 100kg and female weight 60kg at competition level). These moves were not designed for endurance events but rather max effort attempts where you would perform 1-3 reps per set. They are a highly advanced movement to perform. The official weights are far beyond something that in reality should be attempted for high repetitions. This exact event 3 years ago caused one athlete to now be paralysed permanently. This is due to injury caused performing this event.
Functional fitness and you
The first and most important thing to understand when it comes to functional fitness, is that although it is a general term, it’s application will be specific to the individual. If we go back to its original definition, it relates to preparing the individual for their day to day life. There is an element of general and specific functional fitness that can be applied to everyone.
Specific functional fitness
The specific functional fitness requirements for a tennis player will be different for the mum who is looking to lose weight. What would be prescribed to the overweight office worker with bad posture would be different to someone rehabilitating after hip surgery. For all of us, there will be the need for some stability and mobility work. This should be prescribed after a functional fitness test and posture analysis. Think of this functional fitness as the fine tuning to allow you to perform optimally. Once you know where your personal limitations sit, you will then know which specific balance, coordination and stability exercises you need to incorporate to improve.
General functional fitness
There is a general functional fitness that requires a level of strength, co-ordination and endurance. Everybody can achieve these with their exercise selection and routines. A lot of compound movements will give us all the functionality we might need. The number one functional move would be the squat. Performed correctly, the squat activates and coordinates most muscle groups in the body. This would be closely followed by the deadlift which simply can be described as a squat pattern in reverse. The next stage of functional exercise would be single leg variations such as split squats (performed in a lunge stance), single leg deadlifts, Bulgarian squats (performed with the rear foot elevated on an object like a bench) or the more advanced pistol squat (one leg unsupported).
Loaded carries are a close second. For these, you can carry a load either on your body or in your hands. You can load in one hand or both hands, and walk for distance or time. They challenge strength and stability and the amount of challenge can change depending on how you perform them. For example, wearing a weighted vest whilst you walk around is a mild form of loaded carry. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, or both hands. You can purchase specific implements to use called ‘Farmers carry handles’ which require further balance of the weight used.
Any free weight compound or body-weight movement will require a full body coordination, core activation and muscular balance. This in itself is functional. What they will require in some cases is teaching of correct technique, and a base of strength to perform. Most exercises will have regression and progression methods. These will make them easier or harder to perform based on your level. Not only do you have technique variation, but you also have implement variation. Dumbbells, Kettlebells, power bag, barbell, trap bar, fat grip handles, rope handles: the list is vast!
As mentioned above, the TRX is an excellent tool. It allows you not only to vary technique and resistance, it will allow you to do this during the exercise. For example – if you are performing body-weight rows, you can start at a lower position to the ground, which is harder. As your strength begins to drop, you can move further away to make the level of resistance lighter. This allows you to perform more repetitions.
The final one I want to mention is the sled. You may also know this as a prowler. It is a sliding frame which you load with weight that you can push and pull for a distance. These are an excellent option for conditioning as they allow you to stress the body without placing additional load directly on the joints. You can choose a light load for long distance, or a heavy load for shorter distances. The reason I have left these last on the list is because, although they are a brilliant option, they are not readily available at all facilities.
You will find our previous blog here with a list of some of our function equipment and how it’s used
Any training programme you decide to implement will need a functional element to it. This functional element will be specific to your needs and requirements. Not only does it need to meet your personal training goal, but also your physical needs. Think of it as correcting a minor issue before it becomes a major issue. If you’re driving and your fuel light comes on, do you find the nearest petrol station to fill up? Or do you wait until you run out of fuel and hope it’s not on the motorway?
Ensure most of your training is based on the classic methods and equipment. New doesn’t always mean best and harder doesn’t always guarantee greater results. Always ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ and understand the reason behind it.
At Life Force Fitness we make sure we screen all our clients. This is so we can get the perfect balance between what you want to achieve and what your body needs to make you optimally functional. If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch and book a chat.