What is functional fitness?

Updated: Apr 19

Functional fitness is a concept that has been around for some time. In recent years, the term has become associated with CrossFit, cross-training, and the functional training programs available in gyms and online. However, these programs may or may not be functional fitness, as what is functional is relative to the person. Functional fitness defined Functional fitness is the ability to complete physical work relative to the physical demands placed upon a person. The more physical ability the person has to meet these demands, the fitter that person is in a general and functional sense. If a person’s job requires them to sit and type, while home life requires the individual to walk, lift kids, and carry groceries, then this is functional for them, and the person’s fitness would be functional if it allows them to complete these tasks. Any functional fitness program in which this person engages should support these daily activities. For an athlete—whether recreational, collegiate, or professional—functional fitness depends on the sport in which he or she participates as well as life demands. A competitive collegiate rower will need the ability to row, which will require upper body strength, particular in the core, back, shoulders, and arms, as well as cardiovascular ability for sustained rowing sessions. While a training program may focus on other areas such as improving one-rep max in the squat, the primary focus on that training plan should always be the functional—or in this case we can say sport-specific—aspects of the trainee’s sport. Apply this idea to any sport, including football, soccer, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, marathon running, 10K running, pole vaulting, and disc throwing. For a program to be functional, for a program to be effective, it must have specificity. That is, it must focus on the specific goals, demands, and situational factors of the individual. On a side note, specificity is a core part of exercise programming, and something we included in our blog post Things to consider when designing or selecting a training program. Any exercise can be functional There are no exercises that are in themselves functional. By that I mean any exercises that prepares you for the task at hand is a functional exercise. Exercises that do not prepare you are not. For example, running is touted as a functional movement, but saying that someone has follow a running program in order to run and be functional is not true. Everyone can run. A training program simply makes you be able to do so. If you do not have to run daily, a running program is not functional, though it is beneficial for other reasons. Many people believe isolation exercise are not functional. While we agree that better movements exist, isolation exercise, can be functional. For example, in physical therapy, isolation exercises such as leg extensions, lateral raises, and biceps curls are used to aid recovery form knee, shoulder, and elbow injuries or surgeries. While these exercises may not be functional for an injured athletes, the movements may be very function for the injured athlete. Some people believe a person must complete compound exercises such as dumbbell overhead presses, barbell deadlifts, and back squats for exercises to be functional. This is not true, though the movements do have benefit and can be some of the most efficient exercise for someone to build strength, muscle, and performance, all of which aid function. However, a person could complete band presses, glute bridges, and medicine ball squats and work the same muscles, movements, and overall functions. Functional fitness is just fitness Functional fitness is a hot word, something that catches attention. While it may no be as hot as it once was, it is still a marketing term used to draw in gym goers who “do not want to look like a bodybuilder” or who “just want to be a little more fit.” CrossFit, cross-training, and the functional training programs available in gyms and online may all be good options, but are not the only options. Someone does not have to complete these programs to be fit, functionally or otherwise. A person could run a mile three days per week, complete full body workout three times per week that focus on squatting, overhead pressing, and hip hinging, add accessory work to those sessions, and focus on mobility to become fit, fit, functionally or otherwise. Functional fitness is fitness. If you are healthy and can complete the physical demands your life presents, you are functionally fit, or we can just say fit. Again, functional fitness is something that catches attention, but fitness is what a person is really striving for, as being fit is what enables to someone to complete physical work, functional or not.

Examples of functional exercises by goal or athlete type For the sake of furthering the discussion and understanding of fitness, functional fitness, and specificity, below are several examples of goals or athlete types. Next to those are exercises that are specific to the goal, and therefore functional. The movements noted below are not the only possible movements that will work for the goal or athlete type, and instead are just some examples.

  • General weight loss goal—an activity will do as nutrition, specifically being in a caloric deficit, is what matters for general weight loss

  • Building muscle—to build full body muscle, complete compound exercises such as the bench press, back squat, barbell deadlift, and barbell overhead press. Also add isolation exercises by body part, such as dumbbell biceps curls for biceps.

  • General fitness improvements—any hip hinge, squat, and overhead pressing movement as well as a form of cardio, ideally running. Add varied exercises, with a focus on compound weight movements, calisthenics, mobility work, and varied forms of cardio to push the various aspects of fitness.

  • Powerlifter—the barbell bench press, back squat, and barbell deadlift (conventional or sumo) are required. Add variations of the exercises, such as straight leg deadlifts, front squats, or incline barbell presses, to build more strength. Isolation exercises, such as dumbbell rows or triceps pushdowns, and calisthenics, such as dips and pull-ups, may be beneficial as well.

  • Soccer player—a general full body strength program that includes any hip hinge, squat, and overhead pressing movement as well as a form of cardio, ideally running. Explosive movements such as sprints and jumps should be included as well.

These are just ideas. In some instances, the powerlifter for example, certain exercises must be included. Again, however, any exercises has the potential to be functional. The more exercises a person can do, the more activities in which a person can engage, the fitter that person is. No one exercises or set or exercise is functional. If you want to be fit all around, diversify your movement selection and push yourself with the activities you complete. That is the end, but before you go, you read this far, so why not check out our online workout plans and nutrition programs, which include options for at home workouts, gym workouts, and body weight workouts.

Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.

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