two medicine balls for at home strength training exercise and fitness

Client Question: What is functional exercise?

This is a great question!!

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the fitness industry for years now. It likely conjures up images of someone exercising while standing on one foot, doing much of their workout sitting (or standing – though please don’t!) on a big rubber fit ball to switch on their core. Spoiler: This isn’t actually what it means!**

In reality, most exercise can be functional exercises: Functional exercises are those that have a direct benefit to the movements you make in real life, whether that’s going about your day to day activities, going to the gym to get stronger, starting a beginners running program, or even training to compete in a big race. There is no particular group of exercises that are “functional”.

** As people (personal trainers, coaches, clients, and athletes) have seen how little the above types of exercise help in daily life and performance, the industry has moved away from the balance and instability elements that are the hallmark of the early “functional” trend. In fact, these exercises can lead to poor exercise technique, increased compensation patterns, and minimal additional benefit. They aren’t terrible across the board, but you can make better choices with your time!

Writing A Functional Exercise Program

When I see a client who’s interested in getting into functional movement or exercise, I get really excited, since it lets me stretch my creative juices a bit (and also because these clients have the highest chance of long term success – winning!). The process starts with a good chat about what real life looks like for you, what kind of movements you might struggle with, what kind of movements you get pain with, and what you would like to be able to do more easily. We’ll do a brief movement screen to let your body tell it’s side of the story, since most of us have movement compensations we are not aware of, and then we’ll get started on creating a balanced exercise program to match your needs and goals.

Here’s where the art comes in. When I think about what exercises should go in this program, I think about the movements you make in daily life and/or training. I’ll pick exercises that are similar to those movements to help strengthen the muscles that keep you going day to day. I’ll also pick exercises that will turn on any muscles that aren’t quite pulling their weight in your normal movements (under-active muscles play a key role in injury rates) and exercises that provide a balance to your main working muscle groups, which will further decrease injury risk. You should be able to recognize your in your workout exercises that mimic the movements of your job, or that help you improve strength or cardiovascular fitness levels so that the activities of everyday life become easier.

Common Examples of Functional Exercises

Functional Exercise

Similar Real Life Movement

Squats Sitting down and standing up, as from a chair
Step Ups Walking up stairs
Bicep Curls Picking up a small child
Farmers Carry Carrying the grocery bags

Is Your Program Functional For You?

Whether it’s called functional or not, the best program will evaluate your daily movements, energy needs, and lifestyle goals, and focus on exercises that will improve or maintain your abilities in these areas. Not every exercise will seem like something a movement you make every day, since creating strength for movement can require different muscles and joint angles than you might expect. Your body is a complex machine, and it’s rare that you’ll ever sit down, stand up, walk, carry, or lift things in the same perfectly straight line every time! Overall though, you should be able to see the similarities to your daily life, and within a few weeks should be able to feel the benefits.

If you’re not sure that your program is ticking these boxes, HealthFit can help. Your exercise physiology program is designed to be done in-home, at your gym, or anywhere else you feel the most comfortable and likely to do it, and if that’s not functional, I don’t know what is!

HealthFit looks after residents of inner city Brisbane and the western suburbs, including Spring Hill, Paddington, Bardon, Rosalie, Milton, Auchenflower, Toowong, Taringa, St Lucia, Indooroopilly, Chapel Hill, Kenmore, Graceville, and Chelmer. 

Want more info about how HealthFit can help you? Get In Touch

 


What Is Functional Fitness?

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the fitness industry for years, but many people – including many in the health and fitness industries – struggle to define it. To some, the word may conjure up images of exercise standing on one leg with your eyes closed, or even on a huge exercise ball. Good news: You can save those circus tricks for, well, the circus!

Functional fitness means being physically able to meet your daily demands of work, sport or exercise, and leisure activities. Functional training refers to exercises that give you the strength, coordination, and endurance (or cardiorespiratory fitness) to do so. The muscles of the upper body, lower body, and core must be strong, with good neuromuscular coordination to tie it all together effortlessly. Increasingly, functional fitness also means being physically able to counteract the poor postures and physical stresses we encounter in daily life. 

Many people are facing the same physical, functional needs, ranging from weakness in foundational-level stabilizing muscles to imbalances in muscle tension, length, or strength. Creating functional fitness in these circumstances means building up weak points and decreasing stress on overused areas. This can be done by teaching your muscles to activate better, loosening or lengthening muscles and connective tissues, or using a targeted exercise program to build strength and balance out poor posture.

Some of the most common scenarios we see:

  • Too much sitting: Your desk job, meeting, car/bus/train commute – all of these things create excessive tension and shortness at the front of the hips and thighs, which can be a major (eventual) contributor to lower back pain. Stretch out the hip flexors and quads to regain that length and take pressure off the lower back.
  • Too much computer: Any screen time falls into this category, including tablets and smartphones. The forward postures that go along with this shortens the front of the shoulders and over-stretches the muscles of the upper back, leading to the neck and shoulder tension you are likely way too familiar with. As with the hips, stretching through the front of the chest and shoulders is a good start. I’d also recommend doubling up with a deep tissue massage (aka remedial massage) through the entire upper body, as this will help the tissues stretch much more easily and (added bonus) will actually get you feeling better fast!
  • Not enough movement in general: Many, many people have swapped physical stress for mental and emotional stress. We work too much, our leisure activities often involve the TV or computer, and there’s little actual need for movement. But even just 10 minutes of low-intensity movement (going for a walk or playing with the dog, or even doing household chores) can help decrease stress and counterintuitively, can give you a great energy boost!

Not sure what your functional fitness needs might be? Ask one of our expert coaches below to have your answer featured on a future post!


At-Home Exercise: Side Planks, Level 2

Ready for the next step? The Level 1 Side Plank is a great intro to this exercise, and though the positioning isn’t all that different, the effect sure can be!

It’s important to note that if you aim for this version before you’re ready, you can do more harm than good. The stabilizer muscles that work to support the spine and pelvis can fatigue easily and be overloaded if you try for too much work, too soon.  If this is happening, you’ll usually feel this as an aching or burning in areas like your lower back rather than through the “core” muscles that should be working. (It’s also helpful to note that many, many, many people will feel this exercise in the bottom shoulder more than anything. Our arms and shoulders are not used to supporting our body weight and they’ll be working triple overtime and complaining about it. No need to panic, this is normal and those muscles will be fine.) Pick the right level to start with. You’ll get strong and progress soon!

Remember from the post about Level 1 Side Planks that doing these correctly will result in better activation and strength in the muscles that provide support for your spine and pelvis. This is good: Stable equals pain-free and decreases risk of injuries, as well as allowing more efficient movement.

 

To really maximize the benefit of this exercise, it’s important to maintain the straight lines that you start with. That means that shoulders need to stay stacked (one directly above the other), as do hips. The hips also need to stay straight, so keep squeezing your glutes! Keeping your pelvic floor activated will also make a huge difference in the strength and activation. (Not sure what that means? Think about the last time you had to pee and had to hold it. That’s the same squeeze you want.)

Side (Lateral) Plank, Level 2
  • Start by laying on your side with your shoulders and hips stacked (one of top of the other) and elbow under shoulder
  • Legs are aligned straight down from torso – if you look straight down your body, everything should be in line
  • Brace through tummy and gently squeeze pelvic floor and glutes
  • Lift hips off the ground, pushing through your bottom foot and elbow
  • Keep top hand on hip, or reaching straight up in the air (this will help keep you aligned)
  • When at the “top” keep squeezing glutes to maintain straight line
  • Keep head and neck in line with spine
  • Hold for 10-12 seconds, then relax back to ground
  • You should feel: work/bracing through the core and glutes, and through the bottom shoulder

side plank core exercise


At-Home Exercise: Side Planks, Level 1

Do these. Love these. Your body will love you right back.

Doing side planks (correctly) will result in better activation and better strength in the muscles that provide stability for your spine and pelvis. This makes everything else work better, since with poor spinal and pelvic alignment we open ourselves up for a whole host of problems ranging from discomfort to major spinal disc issues.

To really maximize the benefit of this exercise, it’s important to maintain the straight lines that you start with. That means that shoulders need to stay stacked (one directly above the other), as do hips. The hips also need to stay straight, so keep squeezing your glutes! Keeping your pelvic floor activated will also make a huge difference in the strength and activation. (Not sure what that means? Think about the last time you had to pee and were not close to the bathroom. That’s the same squeeze you want.)

Level 1 is the easiest version of the side plank, though still challenging, both for the muscles of the hips and torso, and the shoulder on the “down” arm. It’s not uncommon to feel it there the most: Your arms aren’t used to holding up your body weight and will likely complain about it.

Side (Lateral) Plank, Level 1
  • Start by laying on your side with your shoulders and hips stacked (one of top of the other) and elbow under shoulder
  • Legs are aligned straight down from torso – if you look straight down your body, everything should be in line
  • Tuck the bottom foot behind the body so the knee is at a 90 degree angle (bottom knee should not move forward)
  • Brace through tummy and gently squeeze pelvic floor and glutes
  • Lift hips off the ground by pushing through your bottom knee and elbow
  • Keep top hand on hip, or reaching straight up in the air (this will help keep you aligned)
  • When at the “top” keep squeezing glutes to maintain straight line
  • Keep head and neck in line with spine
  • Hold for 10-12 seconds, then relax back to ground
  • You should feel: work/bracing through the core and glutes, and through the bottom shoulder

side-plank-level-1