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What is Functional Fitness?

Functional training is growing in popularity as more people besides weightlifters and high-performance athletes are hitting the gym. In the past, strength training was used mainly by bodybuilders and power lifters to increase muscle size and strength, according to the training manual, “NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training” by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Today, people with fitness goals other than bulking up - such as weight loss and general fitness - are trying strength training. Research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) indicates that functional training is particularly useful for older adults, but functional training is truly for everyone. Functional training provides a practical training method for benefits that extend out of the gym and into daily living.

General Benefits of Functional Training

Functional training utilizes exercises, equipment and programs that translate into the strength and flexibility that people use in every day life. Activities as simple as stepping up and down off a step or doing bicep curls standing on one leg can be functional exercises. These might not give a person huge biceps or a six-pack, but true fitness is not only what makes a person look better, according to the IDEA Health & Fitness Association. Functional training produces benefits to assist people in activities of daily living, such as walking up stairs, carrying groceries, and picking objects up off the floor. Functional training accomplishes this with such benefits as:

* Stronger Core Musculature

* Increased Flexibility

* Increased Strength

* Better Dynamic and Stationary Balance

* Improved Agility

* Improved Cardiovascular Endurance

* Better Posture

* Stronger Joints

Older Adults and Functional Training

As people get older, it is expected that they will lose muscle tone, flexibility and balance. This reduced strength and capacity for movement makes the need for functional training even greater for older adults. A study conducted in 2007 at the La Crosse Exercise and Health Program of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse observed the effects of a functional training program on men and women between 58 and 78 years of age. The participants who engaged in a functional training program gained significant improvements in upper and lower body strength, balance, shoulder flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. John P. Porcari, Ph.D., and Denise Milton, M.S., conducted the study that was later published in the July/August of 2007 issue of “ACE FitnessMatters.”

Improved balance also reduces chances of a potentially debilitating fall. Additionally, increases in functional strength make seniors more independent as they are again able to perform more of the tasks that they once could do without assistance.

Other Populations and Functional Training

Older adults are not the only people who need functional training. Most anyone can benefit from building a strong, flexible and agile body. The average person benefits from functional training because it slows or eliminates the potential loss of strength and mobility that comes with age. Despite some misconceptions, children and teenagers also benefit from strength training, according to ACE. This population has little need for heavy weight training or advanced sports-specific training, making functional training a more practical and enjoyable choice.

Goals and Tools of Functional Training

Functional training makes the physical aspects of life easier. The goal of functional training is not to lift as much weight as possible, known as maximal strength, or to drastically increase muscle tissue size, known as hypertrophy. Therefore, extremely heavy weights and weight machines are not the tools of choice for functional training. Instead, functional training involves resistance and core training using bodyweight, free weights and balance trainers.

Bodyweight exercises and free weights including kettlebells, dumbbells and resistance bands are effective for functional training because they require the body to lift weights without the support weight machines provides, thereby mimicking real-world scenarios. Even soup cans and water bottles can be effective functional training tools. When a person needs to lift a heavy box or raise their body up off the floor, there are no levers, pulleys or adjustable seats that control the weight and support the body as when using weight machines. Without the unnatural support of machines, functional training also improves body awareness.

Another popular functional training tool is the TRX Suspension Trainer. The TRX has two ropes with handles for the hands or feet that hang from the ceiling. This allows a person to use their own bodyweight as resistance for various exercises. The TRX is simply the latest trend in bodyweight, or body leverage, functional training. Yoga, Pilates, boot camp classes, and even fitness pole dancing are also examples of functional training programs.

Balance trainers also work for functional training. They are small tools that create an unstable surface on which a person can stand, kneel, sit or lie upon. For some individuals, standing on one foot is enough of a balance challenge, but for others there are balance trainers such as the Sportstep and Step360. A Sportstep has two sides, either of which can rest on the floor.  One side is half of a stability ball and the other is a flat platform. Both sides wobble when a person lies, stands or sits upon it. Balancing while standing on an unstable surface improves proprioception, which is the body's ability to discern where its parts are in physical space. Increased proprioception translates to better balance. Balance training also requires greater recruitment of core muscles, which is why crunches on a round, inflated stability ball are harder than regular crunches on a flat, unmoving surface like the floor. Even a pillow or folded towel can serve as a balance trainer.

Functional training may be receiving more attention now, but it has always been part of exercise in some form or another. Gymnasts, soldiers and yoga practitioners have been using functional training to build better bodies for years. Gym goers or home exercisers benefit from functional training with little financial investment and only a few days a week of functional workouts.



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