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Gone are the days when gymnasiums in the country only had a set of weights and a few basic machines, and working out in the gym often meant you had aspirations of becoming a bodybuilder. Fitness is increasingly being viewed as a way of life and something that must be pursued by everybody, regardless of age, gender or the status of their overall health.

Fitness or training programmes today have evolved to incorporate new techniques and methods to exercise - this has the added benefit of making workouts more engaging and enjoyable. This has also led to the introduction of new styles of training such as Crossfit, HIIT, circuit training and kettlebell workouts. These modules are great for weight loss, building muscle mass, increasing stamina, and indeed improving overall health.

Hundreds of bicep curls, bench presses or dumbbell fly may help you develop your body’s targeted muscles, but they do not do anything to boost your strength levels while performing daily chores. This is where functional exercises come in.

Any exercise that helps you in your daily routine is called functional. Carrying big loads across a room or when moving houses, pushing that heavy bed out of a corner or carrying groceries back home are common examples of movements that require functional strength, which these exercises help you condition.

  1. Benefits of functional training
  2. Who can benefit from functional training?
  3. Types of functional training exercises
  4. Tips for functional training
  5. Takeaways of functional training

Functional training seems to have had two important influences:

  • Rehabilitation programmes in which people suffering from crippling illnesses are given certain exercises to help them regain strength and function in whichever part of the body was weakened by illness.
  • Sports, where elite athletes have incorporated functional training methods to improve their performance.

The following are some of the benefits of including functional training into your workout programme:

  • It's functional: The movements are similar to the everyday tasks we perform. So, these exercises help to increase strength and flexibility in the muscles and joints we use to perform daily chores. Functional exercises focus more on efficiency rather than aesthetics, which allows you to use the multiple muscles in your body wisely.
  • Improves muscle memory: Continuous practice of a movement allows you to repeat it faster and by burning less energy over time, thereby improving your overall muscle memory for everyday tasks. This allows you to get your chores done faster, better and with less fatigue than before.
  • Increases core strength: Most functional training exercises engage the core muscles, which consist of the muscles in the stomach and the lower back, which boosts core strength.
  • Improves flexibility and coordination: Functional training requires the body to move in every direction it can, and not limit itself to bending forward or back. This helps in improving the body’s range of movement and coordination.
  • Improves balance, stability and posture: Engaging the core muscles, moving in different directions and controlled movements help the body become more balanced and stable. As the exercises help to strengthen the lower back, they are also good at correcting posture.
  • Reduces joint pain: Those who complain of joint pain or have chronic back pain can benefit greatly by getting on a functional training programme. Based on physical therapy, these movements are designed to make your life easier. These exercises give enough strength in your problem areas to allow you to continue performing your tasks with more efficiency and without feeling pain.
  • Decreased injury risk: Functional training includes movements to strengthen your muscles as well as the surrounding ligaments and tendons. The improved fitness and body coordination help to reduce the chances of falling - thereby preventing muscle strains and injury.
  • Muscle growth and recovery: The combined movements of functional exercises mean that there is combined muscle growth at all times. It also translates to quicker muscle recovery from injuries as it is rehabilitative in nature.
  • Promotes fat loss: Working multiple parts of the body at the same time means there is greater calorie burn. These exercises also help to burn calories from every part of the body, triggering fat loss that helps in people losing weight overall.
  • Low impact movements: Unlike more high-intensity workouts like Crossfit or exercise that require the use of additional weights, functional training is low impact - that is, it does not put a lot of pressure on the joints and muscles of the body. It allows the body to get accustomed to movements at a steady pace without causing any strain.

Standard strength-training programmes may be fine for individuals who are in good shape physically, but those with underlying physical problems, who haven’t exercised in a long time or are recovering from injuries stand to benefit from the use of functional training methods.

Pregnant women, individuals with chronic problems in the back or other joints of the body, or even those recovering from long-standing illnesses can greatly benefit from functional training. Those who have suffered injuries like tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, herniated disc, rotator cuff problems or even ACL injuries have been known to recover faster using functional training methods and exercises.

Functional training exercises are varied and target different muscle groups. Most of them do not require any equipment, as they rely on your body weight to create resistance. There are, however, exercises which also involve the use of equipment.

Before you begin, though, please keep in mind that you should perform exercises in the presence of a trained instructor who can guide you on form and correct movement, and can also help you in movements that are difficult for you in the beginning.

Also, don't forget to warm up before the workout and stretch afterwards, to reduce the chances of workout injuries.

Here is a selection of exercises that can be employed in a functional workout:

  1. Push-ups
  2. Suitcase or dumbbell squat
  3. Step-ups
  4. Medicine ball throw
  5. Side lunges
  6. Single-leg hip raise
  7. Bear crawl
  8. Planks

Push-ups

The fact that the push-up finds a mention in pretty much any fitness regime points to its universal appeal as well as versatility. Push-ups don’t require the use of any additional equipment (although there are several variations that you can do with weights and machines, too). Push-ups can be performed pretty much anywhere, making it a uniquely accessible exercise.

Here's how to do a simple knee push-up for beginners:

  • Lie down on your stomach on a mat.
  • Place your hands under your shoulders.
  • Bend your knees. If you like, you can cross your legs behind you.
  • Now, straighten the arms to raise your chest, stomach, pelvis and thighs off the mat. Do not lock the elbows.
  • Your body should be in one line from the head to knees. Check the position of your hips - they should not be lifted up or lowered, but in line with the body.
  • Bend your elbows back to come down. This is one rep.
  • You can do three sets of eight, 10, 12 repetitions, respectively.

Suitcase or dumbbell squat

Weighted squats require you to keep a barbell resting behind your neck or in front of your collarbone, or dumbbells or kettlebells kept at shoulder height. Suitcase squats require you to carry weights in each hand beside you, as you would in real life.

Do it like this:

  • Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand, keeping them beside you.
  • Keeping your back straight, bend your knees and push your hips back to come into a squat. Make sure that your knees don't go beyond your toes.
  • Straighten the knees to come back up. This is one repetition.
  • Do three sets of 12-15 repetitions each.

Step-ups

Another practical and useful exercise that mimics daily life, step-ups allow you to build coordination and balance between the legs while climbing up and stepping down from a platform with weights in each hand.

Do it like this:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Stand in front of a platform or bench, keeping arm's length distance between you and the bench.
  • Step onto the bench, placing one foot on the platform at a time.
  • Get down in the same manner. This is one repetition.
  • Try doing 15-20 repetitions in the beginning and gradually increase the repetitions.

This exercise is also beneficial for activating the hip muscles - glutes - as well as the core of the body in addition to the leg muscles.

Tip: Before stepping on to the platform, make sure the platform is stable and doesn't shake when you climb up and down.

Medicine ball throw

A common practice among sportspersons, this exercise engages a rotational movement of the upper body while the lower body remains anchored to the floor - this is a solid core exercise. Hold a medicine ball with both hands while standing sideways to a wall and feet shoulder’s width apart. Keep the arms straight and swing to release the ball to hit the wall with force, and catch it back again. After performing a set of ball throws, turn around and target the other side of the body.

Side lunges

Instead of the walking lunge or backward lunge, this exercise engages a sideways movement to activate the hips and glutes in addition to the muscles in the legs. Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart, and take a long-ish step to the right, while pushing your hip back and dropping down. Repeat in the other direction after coming back up to the neutral position.

Single-leg hip raise

Sitting all day at one place tends to compress the spine with time, thus leading to chronic back problems. This exercise helps in stretching the lower back and glutes. Lie down with the right foot placed on the edge of a bench with knees raised in the air beside it. Plant your hands beside your back for stability, and lift yourself up by pushing the anchored foot and driving the hips upwards. Your right knee should form a straight line with the hips, back and shoulders as you rise up, and bring yourself down again. Perform the same number of repetitions on each leg.

Bear crawl

Part of the animal flow series of exercise movements, the bear crawl is a simple yet effective functional movement designed to mobilise the entire body - it promotes great coordination between the hands and the legs. Get down on all fours and raise your knees off the ground, and start crawling forward using opposing hands and feet (left hand with right leg, and right hand with left leg). Keep the back straight and stomach tight at all times to prevent crouching or curving to avoid unnecessary strain.

Planks

Ending the series with yet another common yet effective exercise, planks are based on stillness rather than movement, and yet promote balance and stability throughout the body, while also being a tremendous workout for the core muscles. Lie down flat on the floor on your stomach, plant your forearms on either side of the body and hoist yourself up to form a straight line from your head all the way to the heels. Hold your body still while breathing normally for at least one minute, or however long you can without compromising on form.

Functional training exercises can be performed anywhere as they don’t require the use of specific machines found only in gyms. And they can be tailored to your fitness goals. However, one must keep a few things in mind before beginning a functional training programme.

  • The functional exercises you opt for must be reflective of the physical movements you carry out in your daily life, which helps you condition yourself suitably.
  • Mix up your routine with exercises that focus on strength, flexibility, balance as well as endurance.
  • Whether physically fit or returning from injury or illness, determine your fitness level before pursuing an activity like this. You can consult a doctor before beginning your fitness journey.
  • Functional training involves movement in every direction and your fitness programme should incorporate that.
  • Make your functional training programme a mix of weight training and bodyweight exercises.

Functional training has its roots in rehabilitative as well as sporting movements, both of which ensure that these exercises will continue to evolve.

Functional training can be very enjoyable, given the different workouts and exercises one can perform on any given day. One can also modify the intensity of the workout, based on their skill level and comfort.

Functional movements can be customised unlike any other fitness programme.

It is always a good idea to consult a medical practitioner before proceeding with any kind of exercise routine, especially if you have a history of illness or injury.

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References

  1. Feito Y et al. High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): Definition and Research Implications for Improved Fitness. Sports (Basel). 2018 Sep; 6(3): 76. PMID: 30087252.
  2. Cress ME et al. Functional Training: Muscle Structure, Function, and Performance in Older Women. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 1996; 24(1):4–10.
  3. Pacheco MM et al. Functional Vs. Strength Training In Adults: Specific Needs Define The Best Intervention. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2013 Feb; 8(1): 34–43. PMID: 23439782.
  4. Liu C et al. Systematic review of functional training on muscle strength, physical functioning, and activities of daily living in older adults. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. 2014 Aug; 11: 95–106.
  5. Matos D et al. Effects of eight weeks of functional training in the functional autonomy of elderly women: A pilot study. The Journal of Sports medicine and Physical Fitness. 2017 Mar; 57(3):272-277.
  6. Thompson CJ et al. Functional Training Improves Club Head Speed And Functional Fitness In Older Golfers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2007; 21(1): 131–137.
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