Functional Fitness Training

by Corley McBeth, DPT

The terms “functional fitness” and “functional strength training” are popular buzzwords in the fitness industry. But what do they mean? The answer is open to wide interpretation. To put it simply, functional training is the idea of building strength that matters for daily life by doing exercises that stem from natural, every day activities like bending, pushing, rotating. For example, squatting mimics getting into and out of a chair, while deadlifting is used to lift heavy boxes off the floor. This is achieved by focusing on multi-joint movements that exercise several muscle groups together, rather than isolating single muscles or a single group of muscles. The desired result is that the individual is able to perform daily activities with greater ease.

However, in order for these types of functional strengthening exercises to effectively transfer to everyday movements, the training components need to be comparable. This means that coordination, muscular contraction, speed of movement, and range of motion need to be similar. The exercises with the greatest transfer effect are those that are essentially similar to the actual movement or activity in all four components. Effective functional strengthening requires training to enhance the coordinated working relationship between the nervous and muscular systems.

As specialists in the movement system, physical therapists are extremely adept at analyzing functional movement patterns and facilitating coordination between the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. They are an excellent resource for anyone interested in developing or participating in a functional fitness program. Individuals that decide to integrate functional strength training into their regular exercise routines would benefit from consulting a physical therapist to develop an effective program.

It should be noted that functional strength training should be used in the continuum of strength training activities. While it can be said that machine-based exercises in the weight room may transfer less directly to the real world, they are still a beneficial part of a training program. Isolated, single-joint exercises using either machines or free weights can aid in strengthening the “weak links” in the system in order to promote greater muscle balance. In addition, there is less of a risk of injury when muscles are isolated in a stabilized, controlled environment. This allows individuals to participate in an effective and safe program while still reaping the benefits of resistance training.

Regardless of the type of exercise an individual chooses to perform, ACSM’s overall recommendation is for most adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. A complete program also includes resistance training, with the recommendation that adults should train each major muscle group two or three days each week using a variety of exercises and equipment.