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What is Functional Fitness!?

Written by Joey Adduci, CF-L3, TRS Movement & Mobility Specialist

Functional

Functional is defined as something designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. In regards to one’s fitness, this would indicate that the goal of training would be to enhance and improve performance in an individual’s fitness, sport, and/or lifestyle goals. Body composition and aesthetics are therefore the byproducts of healthy nutrition and lifestyle habits – not the goal.

 

Fitness

Fitness describes the ability to perform a physical task. Think of fitness development as building a pyramid. A pyramid can only grow as tall as its base. When it comes to building a large base, we first need to start with General Physical Preparation (GPP). GPP is non-specialized training aimed at developing a wide range of fitness qualities and all-around physical development. GPP also includes improving weaknesses and fixing imbalances.

 

Special Physical Preparation (SPP), also known as sport-specific training in the United States, is intended to more closely mimic the movements and energy systems’ demands of a sport. Getting back to our pyramid analogy, SPP would be us now building the pyramid vertically. Sports athletes may use the in-season/off-season schedule to plan different phases of training. For example, the closer you are to starting your season, the more specific your training should become. GPP should be maintained, while SPP is emphasized.

 

If you don’t have specific fitness or sports goals, keep your training to GPP. Young athletes should also keep their physical preparation to mostly GPP work (more on that in another article). Once you’ve built a large base of GPP, you can choose to specialize in a specific sport or fitness goal.

 

Movement

In Functional Fitness, we train movements, we don’t train muscles. Stronger, leaner, and more powerful muscles are the byproduct of training and practicing functional movements. Form follows function.

 

Movement is a language. Just like learning any other language, qualities must be practiced to acquire the skills necessary to become fluent. Most people believe that exercise is about training the muscular system, but we’re actually targeting the nervous system. When we first learn a movement pattern, the nervous system is learning the skill of the movement. The skill refers to the technique to safely and successfully complete the movement. Practicing the skill develops balance, coordination, timing and fluidity. After enough practice, the movement patterns will become more automatic and will require less conscious thought. Over time the nervous system will slowly allow the muscles to generate higher degrees of force, which is why it’s possible to get extremely strong and powerful without added muscular bulk (more on that in another article).

 

Movements should be safe and simple. Movement patterns like squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling, bracing, crawling, jumping, falling, running, and lateral movements should be trained and practiced. These patterns replicate movement that happens in sport and real life, where the body is moving as one unit and doesn’t isolate individual muscle groups. Training in this manner develops balance, coordination, joint mobility, stability, and overall body awareness. This is why we train multi-joint, compound movements with our own body weight or free weights instead of using machines.

 

Functional movements inherently all train the “core.” Unfortunately, the general population believes that the term “core” means the appearance of the abdominals. This has resulted in the practice of isolated ab exercises that promise to deliver amazing results in a short period of time. In reality, we’ve seen climbing obesity rates and spine problems from high-sugar diets and excessive spine flexion exercises. The first mistake is believing that the core is only made up of the abs. In reality, the core consists of the whole trunk (front, back, and sides), glutes, hips, pelvic floor, and diaphragm. The primary role of the core is to act as a stabilizer and force transfer center. Real core strength is the ability to stabilize the spine by remaining rigid in the presence of resistance. By practicing functional movements, we learn the safest and strongest sequence to apply force: core-to-extremity. This teaches you to fully engage the core muscles before transferring outward and using the muscles further from the center of your body.

 

Keep in mind this article is meant to be an introduction to Functional Fitness. Listing each movement is beyond the scope of this article, but the principles behind the movements are meant to be explained here. We will have more in-depth material regarding the specific movements, standards and progressions in future material!

 

Disciplines 

There are several disciplines Functional Fitness athletes will practice and develop. To keep things simple, we can categorize these disciplines into three buckets: Bodyweight Training, Free Weight Training and Endurance Training. Think of each discipline as a tool.

 

Bodyweight training consists of calisthenics, beginner gymnastics, yoga and jumping. Free Weight training makes use of barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, medicine balls and clubs. Endurance training consists of running, rowing, biking, swimming, rucking and cross country skiing.

 

These disciplines should be taught and practiced in a progressive manner to allow the individual to learn relative to their skill level. White belts don’t try to perform black belt techniques. The same progressive approach should be taken when learning different movement disciplines.

There are certain standards and requirements that should be met before progressing to the next level (more on that in another article).

 

Exercise vs. Training 

The difference between exercising and training is the “why” behind the movement. Exercise doesn’t have a “why” beyond the immediate session. If you leave the gym sweaty and exhausted, it was perceived as a “good workout.”

 

Training is done in order to improve something measurable—strength, power, endurance, health markers, etc. Training can only be judged as a success if it works; that is, if after an appropriate amount of time you can clearly show improvement in the discipline that is being trained. This requires an objective measurement of progress over time. We will be releasing our Functional Fitness Standards in a future article.

 

It is certainly possible to exercise while doing Functional Fitness, but there may be risks of stagnation and injury. The risk for stagnation comes from multiple disciplines that require progression and practice. If an individual progresses different disciplines through training, they will be able to make continued improvement due to the road map that a training plan can provide. The risk for injury is when an individual works out at max-effort for each of their exercise sessions. When the goal is to get tired and sweaty, muscle fatigue leads to sketchy movement technique. Over time, this can lead to burnout, chronic joint pain and injuries.

 

Having a training plan is essential for making long-term progress, preventing burnout/injuries and creating a purpose for you to be committed to training. At the end of the day, if you’re exercising it’s better than doing nothing. Just be sure to remember: “Consistency and moderation over intensity.”  Good things take time so don’t fall for quick-fixes.

 

Implementation and Inclusivity  

Functional Fitness is for everyone. The safety and success of training is dependent on the implementation of the methodology. Someone should train within their skill level. As stated earlier, a white belt shouldn’t try tapping out a black belt. This is why having standards of movement progression and performance are so essential to the safety and success of an inclusive program (more on that in another article). An individual can assess their baseline level then implement these standards safely. Since movement is a language, we can use the template of systematic education like we used to learn math when growing up. Math skills were based on first learning the numbers in the correct sequence. Second, we learn to add and subtract these numbers. Third, we learn to multiply and divide these numbers.  The system continues progressing, always maintaining the skills learned in the previous steps, while developing new skills. A systematic education offers the best way to learn anything.

 

With this model, Functional Fitness can be implemented by sports athletes, lifestyle athletes, elderly, obese and any deconditioned or untrained populations. The drawback of systematic education is that it takes a long time. If someone is willing and able to remain patient, focused and consistent for the long-term, they will achieve more than they thought possible.

It is my hope that someday training will be approached with the same respect, patience and commitment that we see in the student’s journey in martial arts or education of math and science.

We will be providing a system of progression that clarifies and defines these standards in the next series of articles.

 

References 

John, D., & Tsatsouline, P. (2011). Easy strength: How to get a lot stronger than your competition – and dominate in your sport. New York, NY: Dragon Door Publications.

Tsatsouline, P. (2000). Power to the people: Russian strength training secrets for every American. St. Paul, MN: Dragon Door Publications.

CrossFit Level 1 Training guide – free PDF and EPUB ebook. (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://topshelftext.org/crossfit-level-1-training-guide

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