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Natural Awakenings National

Functional Fitness : Exercise That Translates to Real Life

Apr 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Lisa Marshall

So, you can bench press 200 pounds, run 10 kilometers in 45 minutes and turn heads when you slip on your Speedo.

But, can you hoist your suitcase into the overhead compartment without throwing your back out, or squat to tie your toddler’s shoes without grimacing? According to advocates of “functional training”—predicted to be among the hottest fitness trends in 2009—these are the questions and answers that really matter.

“Functional training is about doing exercises that assist you in performing activities of daily living more efficiently,” says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise (ACE).

The notion of practicing everyday movements during a workout, rather than just bulking up with weights or slogging away on the bike, is not new. Professional golfers and skiers have long mimicked swings or turns in the gym. Physical therapists often ask rehab patients to practice the motions they perform most at work. But, only in the past decade has the idea of functional training reached the general population.

The updated philosophy has transformed everything from the way some weight machines are made (with more freedom of movement) to the types of equipment used in classes (think lightweight medicine balls, kettle bells, resistance bands and Bosu balls) and the everyday moves trainers ask clients to do.

In November 2008, the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a trade group for health clubs, listed functional training among the top trends for 2009. This spring, the nonprofit ACE will travel the country, hosting workshops from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Portland, Oregon to teach personal trainers how to safely incorporate functional fitness into their classes.

“It’s a whole new paradigm in fitness,” observes Juan Carlos Santana, a Florida-based trainer who creates functional fitness videos. “It can be done with easily accessible equipment that is not intimidating to the regular Jane or Joe.”

Walk through RallySport Health and Fitness club in Boulder, Colorado, on any given day and you’ll find svelte men and women doing squats (handy for tying shoes) and overhead reaches (for pulling a plate from the top shelf) with 2- to 4-pound medicine balls. They also perform squats or stand on one foot, atop an unstable surface, such as a DynaDisc or Airex pad, to train their bodies to maintain stability; it’s a good skill to have when traversing an icy parking lot.

In an adjacent studio, trainer Erin Carson leads women in their 30s to 50s through an hour-long class using functional circuit machines called Kinesis. They are honing oft-neglected stabilizing muscles and refining their coordination.

“When you do a bench press or a seated chest press on a conventional machine, you are training your muscles like a bodybuilder, making one muscle perform the same range of motion over and over again,” explains Carson. “That’s good for building muscle and strength, but it’s not how people move in daily life.”

Instead, the Kinesis machines employ pulleys that allow a full range of motion and force the user to stand while lifting. In this particular class, the women work through a series of exercises that resemble movements in a busy parent’s day: a “single-leg dead lift with a reach,” looks a lot like leaning over to pick up a kid’s toy; a “lateral lunge with an overhead press,” mimics reaching into an overhead compartment; and a “lateral lunge with a decline press,” resembles pushing a vacuum cleaner.

Functional fitness group classes have proved a hit among seniors, too, with YMCAs from Atlanta to Albuquerque joining in. One recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, found that adults ages 58 to 78 who engaged in functional training three times a week showed greater improvements in upper and lower body strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, agility and shoulder flexibility than those who stuck to lifting weights and cardiovascular training.

No one has to convince Cindy Cruz-Mazzei of the benefits of functional fitness. She says she’s seen her training translate to real-life, time and again: “We were in the grocery store once when my daughters were little, and both of them jumped on the cart on one side. It was about to tilt over on them, when I grabbed the cart and flipped it back,” she relates. “My body just instinctively did all the right things it was supposed to do, and I didn’t hurt myself. It just kicks in.”

Lisa Marshall is a freelance writer in Estes Park, CO. Connect at


Consider a trainer:
   Functional training requires balance, stability and coordination; it can be more challenging than using machines that support body weight. A personal trainer can start you off right.

Use your body for resistance:  Squatting, standing on one leg or standing on one leg and reaching for a lightweight object on the floor with one hand or foot, promotes balance. Once mastered, add more resistance.

Add a little resistance at a time: Lightweight medicine balls, dumbbells or kettlebells add resistance while allowing freedom of movement. Resistance bands, anchored to a stable surface such as the pole on a stationary bike, can lend resistance for stationary running or upper body exercises.

Throw in an unstable surface:  After mastering the moves, try them on a balance pad or wobble-board. Ultimately, add some weight, but avoid injury by using wisdom and not upping the ante too soon.
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