Brian Parr

Brian Parr

Functional fitness involves exercise to improve balance, coordination, strength and endurance to enhance the ability to perform activities of daily living. Practically, functional fitness training aims to replicate the movements associated with the wide range of physical activities someone might do in his or her daily routine. For example, athletes have long used functional fitness training to target the movements they utilize in their sport.

This concept of “sport specific” training has applications outside of athletics. Firefighters come to mind, lifting and carrying heavy equipment, climbing stairs and ladders, and moving through tight spaces, often for extended periods of time without rest. But the same could be said for construction workers, landscapers and other occupations that require manual labor. To be sure, the components of functional fitness are as important for workers as they are for athletes.

This is important to you even if you don’t participate in sports or have an active job. Functional fitness plays a role in nearly all activities, from simple things like maintaining posture, sitting and standing, to more complex movements including lifting a heavy box, carrying bags of groceries or playing with your children (or grandchildren). Even something as routine as bending down to tie your shoes requires strength, flexibility and balance. These are the very activities that become more difficult as we age, so improving functional fitness can help maintain independence and quality of life.

How to improve functional fitness

Good functional fitness programs address all components of fitness, including aerobic, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility that you would expect from traditional exercise. Additionally, functional training emphasizes core strength, agility, balance, coordination and applying muscle force effectively – called muscular power. Many exercises use your body weight as resistance, so you may also see bars and rings for pull-ups, boxes to step or jump up on, ropes to climb and lots of floor space for basic exercises like push-ups and sit-ups.

Weight training is typically done using your body weight or free weights instead of machines, mostly because using free weights also teaches proper body position and balance – something you don’t always get from weight machines. Training to do squats using your body weight, either with added weight or without, is directly applicable to that movement in real life. You could use a leg press machine, in which you are seated and push the weight upward or forward, to work the same major muscle groups, but that movement rarely occurs in real life – it simply isn’t functional.

Another example of functional exercises that translate to real-life activities include the deadlift, in which you bend forward to lift a weight off the floor which help build strength for lifting and carrying everything from bags of groceries to heavy equipment on the job. The shoulder press involves lifting a weight up over your head, like putting a box on a high shelf (or a bag in the overhead bin on an airplane). The plank involves holding your torso off the floor in a push-up position and is excellent for improving core strength, which is essential for balance and stability. Lunges, in which you step forward with one foot and lower your other knee to the floor, are another important exercise for enhancing balance.

It is important to note that almost every exercise used in functional fitness programs is scalable, meaning the intensity can be altered so it is appropriate for people of all abilities. In this way, the same exercise used by a young, fit firefighter can also be used by that firefighter’s grandmother with the same benefits. Considering that nearly everything you do involves movements enhanced by functional fitness training, it will be time well spent!

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.