Functional fitness may be one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in the fitness industry. All it means is working out with a purpose, so your body can perform daily activities. The goal is simple. To be strong, to be free of pain and to reduce the risk of injury while performing everyday life — running to the train station, picking up your toddler, weeding the garden, carrying groceries, putting a carry-on bag in the overhead compartment on a plane, etc.
Functional fitness is really a continuum of movement. It’s individualized and, when done correctly, progresses from body weight to load to more complex movements. It’s bigger than just looking better, it’s about feeling better.
The problem with traditional machine training is that machines try to isolate a muscle (which is anatomically impossible) and work against our natural biomechanics (the way our body is meant to move). Your body is meant to move freely. It is not built to function in a fixed groove or axis by a machine.
To truly feel good about yourself, you need to have complete freedom of your body. To move better, you need to focus on stabilizer strength and neutralizing movement, functions a machine cannot do. In fact, Smith machines, seated abductor/adductor machines, and ab crunch machines have actually been found to be very dangerous. Functional fitness consists of using multi-joint movements in various planes of direction (forward to back, side to side, and rotation). The multi-joint movements require you to push, pull, carry, drag, and rotate. Exercises like squats, pushups, dead-lifts, rows, pulls, lunges, and plank variations will always be better for muscular activation than any machine out there. For some people, the idea of sitting on a machine and performing an exercise seems safer and they feel as if they will get stronger, but in reality, it feeds a dysfunction and in some exercises a flawed movement pattern, which is the opposite of what people need.
In sports, functional moments have greater carryover. Conditioning your body to move as it does in performance means maximum potential and peak performance when competing, and you will reach greater levels of athleticism beyond anything a machine-based exercise program will do for you. How many sports are done sitting? How many legs are on the ground when you run? There are no machines on the line of scrimmage in football, just you and your body’s ability to move in the most effective way.
When properly applied, functional training can help you look, feel and move better than ever before. If you still have doubts, ask yourself these question as you move throughout the day. Do I look as good as I want to? Can I move as freely as I want to? Do I feel as good as I want to? If not, then the solution’s the easiest it’s ever been: simply train for life and find your functional freedom.
Ian Nimblett is a certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of Premier Fitness located in Vista-South Salem, N.Y.