Functional Fitness: What Does It Mean & What’s All The Rage?

“Functional fitness” and “functional rehab” seem to be pretty big buzz words these days. But what do those terms even mean? I’ve seen plenty of “Instagram experts” claiming to be doing or teaching functional fitness when, in reality, that is not at all what they are doing. In the age of social media where seemingly anyone can claim to be an expert on anything, and false information can spread like wildfire, it becomes particularly important to know how to weed through the junk and determine what is factual and trustworthy. I hope to shed some light on what functional fitness and functional rehab actually mean as well as what to look for/avoid in anyone who considers themself a fitness or health professional.

First things first, what is functional fitness? And why does it matter?

Functional fitness is exercise that trains the body for activities in daily life. Ideally, the exercises performed should closely mimic movements or activities you could easily identify in your daily life because, at the very least, everyone should be training for life. Even if you don’t like sports or working out, and even if you have never considered yourself an active or athletic person, this still applies to you. Life itself is an athletic event, and the reason I as a chiropractor will never be out of a job is because too many people are ill-prepared for basic life functions and end up hurting themselves over silly things like picking up a laundry basket or pulling weeds. So many concepts in fitness do NOT apply to just athletes. Deadlifting, squatting, and pressing (just to name a few) are movements that everyone does daily. Every time you sit in a chair or on the toilet you’re performing a squat. Every time you lift something off the floor, you’re deadlifting. Think about how many times a day (and in an entire lifetime) you perform these movements—you’d be doing yourself a huge favor if you trained them and knew how to do them properly.

A large majority of the injuries and pain I see presenting in my office are what are referred to as “cumulative trauma” injuries—rather than singular traumatic injuries—and are ultimately a result of failure to train/prepare for life. I’ll use low back pain as an example. We know that the low back does not do well in a flexed/rounded position for a prolonged amount of time or under load. But think about it. How many times in a day do we round our low backs? Every time we sit, every time we drive, every time we improperly bend over to pick something up, we are rounding our low backs to some degree. Rounding your low back is NOT necessarily a bad thing! But when you do it hundreds or thousands of times, and especially when you add weight or load, it can become a bad thing. And especially when you think comparatively about how few times you move your low back in the opposite direction. Not very many. I cannot count how many people have come into my office saying, “I have no idea what I did, I just woke up and suddenly had this crazy low back pain”. A hallmark of a cumulative trauma injury is “not knowing what you did” to injure yourself because eventually, after months or years of these repetitive or incorrect movements, all it takes is one more small thing to be the straw that ends up breaking the camel’s back. (Ha, see what I did there? It’s you, you’re the camel). (Ok jk sorry that was bad). Anyway…

When we train for life, we have our longevity in mind. Most of us have a LONG time to be in our bodies (for Pete’s sake, the average life expectancy in America is 78 years old). It was a huge wake-up call for me when I realized I potentially have 50-60+ years left in my body, so I better do everything I can NOW to take care of it and set myself up for a vibrant future. I want to be doing my job, traveling, running around, and throwing heavy weights around for as long as I can! And unfortunately the “use it or lose it” concept also applies to our bodies—our strength, balance, cardiovascular endurance, coordination, you name it. If we don’t use it and train it, we begin to lose it. And of course, there are many other benefits to functional exercise/movement other than just physical ones. Improved energy and mood, increased immune function, enhanced sleep quality, mental clarity, stress release…..

So back to my original point—how do you know if your training (or rehab) is “functional” or not?

Here are some key tips:

  • First and foremost, you should see a ton of parallels in your training/rehab and your daily activities or specific sport. I’ll go back to the squatting example. Squatting (body-weight, with a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, whatever that may look like) is a fantastic functional exercise because it is a movement we ALL do in our daily lives.
  • Functional fitness focuses more on push, pull, and carry movements and involves coordinating your whole body or multiple body parts into one movement/activity. Some workout programs emphasize exercises based on specific body parts—like “back and biceps day”, “shoulder day”, “chest and triceps day”, etc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but hardly any life event involves the use of just one isolated muscle group, so therefore those exercises & workouts are not as functional.
  • AVOID silly and outlandish moves. Sometimes simpler is better. For example, doing bicep curls on a Bosu ball is probably something you want to avoid. What activity in your daily life does this mimic? I personally can’t think of any…
  • Lastly, when it comes to seeking advice or expertise, credentials aren’t everything, but they DO matter. I’ve seen plenty of “fitness experts” on the internet with no degrees or credentials giving out specific exercises for specific injuries like low back pain, shoulder pain, etc. Under no circumstances should you be taking health advice from an INSTAGRAM MODEL with no medical credentials. The only people who should be diagnosing and treating injuries/pain are licensed physicians, chiropractors, and physical therapists. Not Ashley with 100K followers and a booty band.

Ok friends, in conclusion, there is a LOT of information out there. But when it gets overwhelming, just remember to take it back to the basics and, more importantly, find a coach/mentor/friend/health expert you can trust and go to with questions and who can guide you in the right direction. Hopefully this has cleared the air for you a little bit and given you some things to think about in your own training. Or, if you are not currently exercising or training and want to get started but don’t know how, I’m here to help. Feel free to reach out via the contact tab and we can chat. And as always, thanks for reading. 🙂

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