Functional fitness seems to be the latest “fad” in the fitness community right now. But is it really fad? Let me explain in more simple terms…
Here’s a scenario for you:
Two days ago you were at the gym. You had a great workout, throwing up heavy weight on the bench press and curling as much as some people squat.
But then just this morning you were rushing off to the airport and forgot your keys in the house.
You quickly ran back into the house only to find yourself out of breath.
Then when you went to lift your bag into the trunk of your car, you threw out your back.
Does this sound familiar? Maybe it hasn’t happened to you yet, but it very well could if you don’t start training for functional fitness instead of just trying to get big or look good.
What is Functional Fitness Anyways?
Functional fitness is training in a way that requires your muscles to work together, or in other words, work in the way they were supposed to.
Instead of focusing on a particular muscle group at a time as you do with conventional weight training, functional training recruits more muscle groups by using more primal movements that require your muscles to work in harmony.
Some of the issues or negative aspects of conventional weight training come from it requiring non-natural muscle contractions or movements. This can sometimes lead to injury (usually when you least expect it).
It could be argued that these non-essential muscle contractions also do not improve or contribute to muscular stability and/or mobility but I’ll save that for another post!
Just in case you are not fully convinced yet, I put together some reasons why you should implement some functional fitness training into your workouts or routine.
Reason #1: Be prepared for any situation
Big muscles may look great, but they are not really ideal for anything besides being able to lift heavy stuff.
Functional fitness training can prepare you for the unexpected and lower your risk of injury during those activities. Physical altercations, climbing things, lifting yourself up, running around are all types of situations where this type of training can benefit you.
Ever wonder what kind of training special forces soldiers do?
You guessed it. Functional training. And there’s a good reason for doing so. The fact of the matter is: Navy SEALs or Army Rangers could not care less how much they bench or curl because they know that when it comes down to it they need to be able to out run, out maneuver, and out last their enemies.
Now I’m not saying that these guys never bench or do curls like the rest of us but A LOT of their training is definitely functional.
Oh not to mention the 60 lbs of gear they have to carry around at all times. Yeah, there isn’t really a specific back workout that will prepare you for that..
Reason #2: Your ancestors didn’t have gyms
If we’re being honest, before the modern era, functional fitness was basically the only kind of fitness there was.
Ancient humans hunted stuff and gathered stuff. That’s how they survived. If they couldn’t run fast enough to catch their prey or were not strong enough to wield their weapons they simply would not live.
Ever hear of the phrase “survival of the fittest”?
This is how the human race was able to evolve over millennia. Our bodies adapted to our environment and what we needed to do to survive. By training for functional fitness you are training your body the way it was designed to be used.
If you are only training your body in a gym to get big muscles and look good, you are doing your body a disservice. Your muscles are supposed to be working together to accomplish tasks and movements. Isolating your biceps or triceps may help you add some mass to them, but you have to ask yourself: “why am I doing this”?
I understand this may not be everyone’s mindset initially, but once you start training for fitness and overall health instead of just training to look good or impress other people you will reach a new level of understanding with your body.
Reason #3: Build a natural physique
By training your body the way it was designed to be trained, you’ll build a more ‘natural’ looking physique.
Instead of worrying if your right bicep is bigger than your left or if your calves are too small, you’ll be concerned with training your body the best way possible. Not because it looks good, but because it’s plain healthy.
In doing so, you’ll be able to build a physique that is unique to your body (because everyone is different!).
I don’t know about you, but I like to be different. Who wants to have a body where someone sees you and thinks to themselves “oh… he or she looks JUST like the rest of the people at my gym”….??
Not me. I want to stand out and you should get in that mindset too. It’s easy to be like everyone else (that’s why everyone else is like everyone else!). Don’t fall into that trap…
By applying functional training principles you will no longer have to worry about looking “proportional” or “big enough” or “lean enough” because the exercises you’ll be doing will do this all for you!
Pretty cool right?
Reason #4: Core strength
A common theme I see with body building workout routines is the lack of core training.
Sure there are definitely routines that have a dedicated abdominal day or whatever it may be, but let’s be honest most lifters neglect ab training.
This is unfortunate because core strength is literally the most important muscle group to train in your body. And I’m not just saying that because it makes you look good!
Functional training will often have a heavy focus on core strength and balance. Many of the movements you do will include some form of core in it.
And this is a good thing…
Core and abdominal strength plays into all of your other lifts. Having a strong core will improve everything you do in the gym or weight room. Literally!
Deadlifts, bench press, squats you name it, all of these will benefit from a stronger core base.
Your abdominal muscles are often referred to your core for a reason and it’s because it is literally the core of your body. It supports everything and balances you out. Do not neglect it!
Reason #5: Better on your joints
Have you ever done bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, shoulder flies or any other lifts that isolate the elbow?
Doing these sorts of lifts and isolating one muscle group is great for building mass. However, they often put too much pressure on the joint because your muscles are not meant to be isolated in such a way.
I’m not saying to never do isolation lifts, but if you are doing them regularly and straining your elbows consistently it could lead to problems down the road.
The straining of joints when weight lifting in particular can sometimes lead to arthritis, bursitis and tendinitis. All of which are no fun whatsoever.
As I’ve already mentioned, your muscles were designed to work in unison and this is a core principle of functional fitness training.
By working the muscles together and activating multiple muscles groups at the same time, you are taking the strain off your joints.
Reason #6: Less injuries
Bodybuilders tend to be injury prone. Not all, but a lot of them end up finding themselves injured fairly regularly.
This goes back to my initial explanation of the difference between bodybuilding and functional fitness. Looking big is great but it’s not always practical or functional.
A lot of bodybuilding routines neglect some of the smaller stabilizer muscles that functional training focuses on.
While these may be small muscle groups they add up. Especially when it comes to injuries. By strictly isolating the large muscle groups like chest, arms, and legs you leave yourself more injury prone when doing simple everyday tasks.
When you start creating a body that uses it’s muscles how they are designed to be used, they are able to compensate for one another when there are deficiencies.
Reason #7: Bodyweight exercises
In my opinion bodyweight exercises are where it is at. But again this is my opinion.
Generally speaking, everyone’s body responds differently to different types of muscle building and/or strength training.
I personally see the best results doing bodyweight exercises. That’s how my body is, yours can (and probably will) react differently.
With that said, there is a reason that bodyweight exercises and functional fitness training are so closely related.
As the name implies functional fitness is meant to be functional. The majority of situations you will ever be put in will involve your bodyweight more than anything. Having complete control over that weight and feeling in control of it can only assist you in your task or mission.
Using Navy SEALs as an example once again, you will notice that in their preliminary training school called BUD/S, there is no weight lifting aspect. It’s all push ups, dips, ab work, running, swimming and obstacle courses.
If this interests you then check out this blog post for more about the reality of combat and special forces training
Reason #8: Spend less time in the gym
A generic bodybuilding gym routine will likely keep you in the gym for at least an hour minimum.
On top of that you’ll find yourself in the gym 5 or 6 days a week!
Now that’s a lot of gym time!
I’m not saying that spending 10 hours of your week in the gym is a bad thing, but for a lot of people that’s simply unrealistic.
With a functional training routine you can cut down the time you spend in the gym considerably.
Since you’ll be focusing on more than one muscle group per workout (unlike traditional bodybuilding routines) and training at a high intensity not only will your workouts usually be shorter but you’ll also only need to train 3 or 4 days a week to see some good results.
Reason #9: You can do most workouts anywhere
Gyms are great and a lot of us genuinely enjoy going to the gym.
However, gyms can be expensive and not always close by. Not to mention the absurd signup fees they make you pay when you join!
As I mentioned above in Reason #7, a lot of functional routines contain a significant amount of bodyweight exercises.
And that’s great news for you if the gym isn’t your cup of tea because your gym is with you wherever you go and whenever you need it!
If you’re a broke college student like myself or a night owl who can’t find a gym to workout at that is open 24/7 then you might find yourself benefiting the most by switching to a functional fitness training regimen.
To sum it up, for a bodybuilding workout, a gym is basically mandatory (or at least several pieces of expensive equipment are) but with a functional routine that is not necessarily the case.
Reason #10: Cardio
When I first started lifting and trying to put on muscle I was always told how bad cardio was for my gains.
A lot of really big guys simply refuse to do cardio and a lot of the lifting routines you find will completely ignore it.
The reality is you should absolutely do cardio! Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. It’s the thing that keeps you alive! Ignoring it is the worst thing you could do!
Now don’t get me wrong, cardio can be super boring which is honestly why I used to hate doing it along with a lot of other people I know in the gym.
The good thing about this whole functional fitness type of training is a lot of your workouts will combine cardio and lifting all into one workout.
Think of things like burpees, punching the bag, lunges, bunny hops…the list goes on! I’m just naming a few off the top of my head. All of these are great ways to not only pack on some muscle but also burn some of that excess body fat you’ve been trying to lose for months!
If you feel this amount of cardio might hurt your chances of packing on muscle then you might want to be sure you’re getting enough calories in throughout the day in your diet. Check out my post outlining some great weightlifters’ diets here if you need some diet ideas.
I’m in no way saying the only way to train is through functional fitness training. I’m simply outlining some reasons it might be a good fit for you. Everyone’s body is different and reacts in different ways to certain types of workouts. What works for me may not work for you. If you are a bodybuilder and this seems stupid to you then by all means continue to do you!
But if you are bored with your routine, have hit a plateau, or simply are looking for a way to spice things up in the gym I urge you to try throwing some more functional exercises into your regimen. I’ve found great results over the last few months.
Good luck! As always, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments below!