You may have read or heard about the term “functional exercise” being thrown around by personal trainers and fitness experts. With the increased awareness about the importance of core strength, flexibility, and movement patterns, functional exercise has become quite the buzz.
So what exactly is functional exercise? The best definition I’ve found is functional exercise is simply exercise that works the muscles in your body through integration in multiple planes of motion, the same way we move in everyday life.
This is in stark contrast to traditional health club machines that work your muscles in isolation. Although there are some benefits to isolating a muscle (primarily hypertrophy or increasing muscle mass) for most people who want to BOTH look and move better, the benefit of functional training cannot be understated.
It is my opinion that exercise should not be something done while “sitting down.” Exercise should be about conditioning the body within the 7 main pillars of human movement. These include having us do things like push, pull, squat, hinge, etc. We train these movements primarily on our feet in a manner that replicates activities in everyday life.
The pillars of human movement do not change from person to person. All that changes is the intensity and demands placed on the body for their chosen “everyday” activities. Therefore, at my Shaping Concepts personal training studio we train everybody from athletes to senior citizens with the same movement patterns but merely look to change the stability and intensity demands.
Each one of us needs to perform these patterns, but some individuals just need to do the movements with more power, speed, strength, endurance, or intensity.
A lot of times when you talk about functional exercise many people think it's just exercise that uses things like stability balls, bands, medicine balls, foam rollers, and other non-traditional equipment. This is a common misconception.
While these are common training tools for functional exercise, their use does not constitute functional training. We can train functionally with free weights and bodyweight as well. The key difference is the way in which the exercise is completed.
Somewhere along the line, exercise changed from something that worked the entire body to today being isolation sagittal plane movements done on fixed, stationary equipment in health clubs. Physical culture of years ago included jumping jacks, handstands, push-ups, and other bodyweight calisthenics that could be done most anywhere.
If you look at the pioneers of physical fitness like Eugene Sandow, Farmer Burns, Jim Pedley and others, they had magnificently built bodies all created without the use of any modern isolation-based strength training equipment. Makes you stop and think for a second. How far have we really come with physical culture and improvements with personal fitness?
When it comes to exercise most people are uncertain about the type of exercise needed to meet their individual goals. Unfortunately, the one place you think would help the most has been part of the problem.
Walk into almost any gym or health club in the country and you will see most people doing the same exercises. Rows of isolation equipment can be found with exercisers moving from machine to machine working on only one muscle group at a time.
I often question individuals in the gym why they selected the equipment they are using. A lot of times I’ll hear “because I wanted to work <fill in the blank>” (the muscle groups shown on the equipment placard). This picture will show a part of the body that most people want to change (their midsection, inner thighs, etc). They think to tone and firm these areas they should work on the machines that highlight muscles found there.
The health club industry has done a poor job educating its members on how to reach their goals, taking into consideration their unique needs and fitness level. The free personal training session or initial consultation is usually a sales presentation.
Confused and embarrassed, most people will just start mimicking what they see others doing in the gym. The result is sadly often a “blind leading the blind” paradigm. No wonder people get frustrated with not seeing results then quit.
The problem with the health club equipment model is the human body does not work in isolation, it works with integration. It is common for people new to exercise to have muscle imbalances that affect their neck, back, knees, shoulders, or hips. That is why movement pattern assessment completed by a qualified health or fitness professional is so valuable.
Many people that suffer from hip pain, shin splints, knee problems, low back pain, sciatica, headaches, etc, could find a lot of these problems significantly improved if not eliminated with a thoughtfully designed exercise program.
If you are just starting out on a fitness program, I would highly recommend you consult with a knowledgeable and certified personal trainer for instruction. He or she can help you customize a program with functional exercise to cater to your individual needs.
If we can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to let us know. We offer a no obligation consultation and a 50% off intro trial with (3) sessions for $79.
Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He has over 24 years' experience with fitness coaching and consulting and specializes in training programs for middle age and mature adults. If you live in the Charleston, SC area you can schedule a no-obligations consultation.
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