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

 


Lean middle age man trying to open a jar

What is Functional Training?

The short answer: Functional training is exercise that mimics and prepares you for the movements you make in everyday life.

The longer answer: Will depend on who you talk to! Functional training can have as many definitions as there are trainers.

In exercise science, functional training refers to an exercise or training program that will keep you physically capable of meeting the demands of daily life. Programs are designed around your day to day activities and include exercises that develop strength, endurance, and mobility in the same movement patterns that your daily activities use. As an exercise physiologist, I see functional training programs as those meeting your physical needs, whatever they are, which of course leaves a lot of room for variation. For instance, the program for an avid runner might include specific exercises to increase running speed, or to help the body better absorb impact. A program for a stay-at-home parent with young kids might be focused on maintaining good hip mobility to help with getting down and up off the floor, and on building upper back strength and core strength to help balance out the changes in posture that happen when you carry kids around. In other words, true functional training is really specific to YOU.

How does this mesh with functional training programs provided by different gyms and personal trainers?

Functional has been a fitness industry buzzword for a while now, but it’s often not clear what you might get in any given functional workout. Early functional training programs were focused on neuromuscular training exercises, generally involving moving with your eyes closed or balancing on a stability ball to challenge balance or reaction times. One might think of this training as developing the finer points of physical coordination and movement.

More recently, Crossfit and other fitness and training companies like F45 have grabbed onto the “functional” term, though these workouts have moved far away from challenging the finer points of movement. I’d argue that this current crop of functional training providers actually provide cross-training, as the workouts are changed on a daily basis with an emphasis on developing a broad base in strength, power, and cardiovascular endurance. These are all elements of fitness that are needed for high quality functional movement and for good health in general.

When I compare them to the movements of daily life though, I find them somewhat lacking – from a true functional perspective. Heavy squats, battle ropes, box jumps, chin-ups, sprints, and other exercises are common components of these workouts. But when in day to day life do you find yourself needing to jump up onto something as high as your knees?

How much do the differences between functional personal training or gym programs and other functional programs really matter?

They might not matter at all. It really depends on how much you feel like you need a specific, individualized exercise plan. Some people will be fine with the generalized, cross-training style “functional” training, namely those who already have a moderate level of fitness and good movement control. True functional training provided by an exercise physiologist or a personal trainer with significant additional training in movement assessment and movement quality is the right choice for you if you:

  • Are starting physical activity or exercise for the first time, or after a long period off
  • Have a history of joint pain or injury
  • Have a long-term health condition, especially if this impacts your movement ability and physical capacity
  • Want to refine your movement technique to prevent injury and maximize progress

You will always be the best judge of what will work best for your lifestyle and your body. If you want to focus on functional training that supports your everyday activities, think about what movements are required, and look for exercises (or professional guidance) that will help you replicate those movements with just a little more intensity.

 

 

HealthFit Coaching provides in-home personal training and exercise physiology in Brisbane. HealthFit Coaches specialize in providing individualised functional training for general fitness and long-term health conditions. Contact HealthFit now for an obligation-free phone call to find out how we can help you be healthy, fit, and happy.


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


At-Home Exercise: Single Leg Deadlift

No equipment needed, yet a highly effect exercise for working the hips and back of the legs (hip stabilizer muscles, hamstrings, and glutes). This exercise looks simple, but it takes a lot of concentration to really get the benefits, so take your time and only move as much as you can control it:

Single Leg Deadlift
  • Stand tall and brace core
  • Lift one foot off ground and make leg active by pulling toes towards shin
  • Move heel back and behind body
  • As foot moves backward, torso will tilt forward (keep head and neck in line with spine)
  • Keep a straight line from keep to top of head, even if it means you don’t go down as far
  • Keep back in “neutral” position as you move
  • Keep “bottom” knee slightly bent
  • Arms can reach to the side, front, or anywhere you are comfortable
  • You should feel: work through the outside of the hips, back of the thigh, and your core

single-leg-deadlift