What is Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness. That’s the buzz-term that was popularized years ago and still gets thrown around and bastardized today by trainers, coaches, and gyms across the world.

Functional fitness sounds great doesn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be “functional” and “fit”. The idea that your training will carry over to some sort of function is a good thing.

But does your training really fall into functional fitness?

Let’s start by defining it.

The standard definition is “training that attempts to adapt exercises and programs that improve a persons ability to perform daily activities.”

But that’s way too vague and it doesn’t meet the standard of what true functional fitness should be.

From that basic definition, there are a million interpretations depending on your background. Crossfitters will interpret it differently than bodybuilders versus runners versus weightlifters and so on. You get the idea.

I have my own interpretations, which some of you may cast off as just another opinion, but stick with me for a second.

Let’s revisit the original term and break it down into two parts.

“Functional”, which has a number of definitions, really implies that something, in this case a human, is practical and useful in the real-world.

“Fitness” is a relative term, mostly because people use the term loosely. While it means to be “fit and healthy”, that is a vague concept and doesn’t do much to really define fitness. The second part of the definition however does, in which fitness is described as “suitable to fill a particular role or task”.

So putting that together, “functional fitness” is really the suitability of a human in their real world environment. If you are functional, you will be able to handle what life throws at you.

functional fitness

Now here is where this gets important, and where I think a lot of trainers and coaches have it all wrong. Fitness professionals take this idea of “functional fitness” way too far, and their training is in no way making their clients functional or more suitable for the real world.

With the exception of some professions (the military comes to mind, where endurance can be paramount), peak human function in real-life scenarios where functional fitness is tested is characterized by short, intense bouts of exertion and strength. 

(I’m glossing over most athletes here because there are tons of different variations in sports performance training that are very sport specific. Let’s stick to non-athletes for the purposes of this article.)

Now think about your daily life. Where is your fitness tested?

If you’re an office worker or someone without laborious job demands, it might come up in your personal life when you have to help friends or family move furniture (you know, where “strong gym bros” get exposed by trying to get a couch up some stairs.)

If you work construction, it might be carrying heavy objects on the job-site or demolition work. If you’re law enforcement, it might be a 60 second foot chase and scuffling with a criminal. If you’re a fireman, it may be moving heavy debris and then pulling someone from wreckage. Even if you’re an athlete, say a football player, on average you are sprinting for a few seconds, followed by a minute of rest.

So with your daily life in mind, and the idea that “functional fitness” should really characterized by your suitability to perform short, intense bouts of exertion and strength, are you training properly for function?

Crossfit is not functional. I know Crossfit is based on “general physical preparedness”, but their programming goes far beyond that, nor is it designed to maximize strength.

Group exercise like you see in commercial gyms is not functional. Doing hundreds of reps throughout an hour with little to no resistance will burn calories and fuel weight loss, but will not make you significantly stronger or more explosive.

Personal training sessions that have you balancing on one leg on a wobble board while holding weight out in front of you is not functional. In fact, that is just stupid.

This is not an attack on other fitness disciplines, nor am I trying to denigrate Crossfit, group ex, or a lot of personal trainers (unless you are a trainer and have people lifting on wobble boards, and yes, in that case, I’m singling you out.)

If you love Crossfit, P90x, or whatever else you are in to, by all means do it. Physical activity is good and should be embraced, and doing what you love while sharing it with others is all that should matter in the end.

In fact, I have Crossfitters and people “who love them some group ex” (including my wife) that also train at the Primal Strength Gym. They are impressive athletes and I will readily admit that I’d get my ass kicked in the endurance realm trying to keep up with some of the things that they do.

But as an industry, it’s important to be honest, educate people, and not misuse terms (especially for marketing purposes) to mislead people with certain goals who are looking for specific results. In most cases, functional fitness is overused and misunderstood.

The big point here is that your training should always be geared towards your goals, and if functional fitness is what you are after, you might need to reconsider your current programming to capture that blend of strength, power, and short endurance.

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So who am I to talk about functional fitness? Feel free to read further if you’re interested.


 

Functional fitness is what got me first started in Strongman. I was looking for a way to train that would not only make me bigger and stronger, but that would also carry over outside of the weight room and into reality.

Back in my early days of “getting in shape” I ran a lot, usually an average of 3-6 miles a day, and I would “lift weights” 3-4 days a week. I looked good, but the truth was that all of the running was taking away from potential size gains that I could have been making.

And then taking that a step further, I was lifting weights but not getting that much stronger, at least not above levels that I think all males should be at.

What I really needed was to have enough cardiovascular endurance to go “full speed” for upwards of 60 seconds, with maximal strength, like I defined above as the most “reality based” definition of functional fitness.

In Strongman training, you look to build maximal strength in lifting/loading events (with often times odd objects), and then endurance in moving events, which typically require 60 seconds or less of high cardiovascular exertion. Both of the above most closely mirror what the average person would encounter in a daily “fitness” scenario.

“But Tank, I’ll never need to deadlift a car, or a 400lb atlas stone in the real world”.

I can guarantee you that even as an ordinary citizen, you have a better chance of being a first responder in a severe car crash that may require elite level strength to move wreckage and unpin a casualty, and then the short duration/max effort endurance to carry them to safety, than ever being in a situation where marathon endurance pays off.

Want to be functional? Train for life!

One thought on “What is Functional Fitness?”

  1. Great article, I’am a construction worker, and have been in the gym all my life, except for 5 years that I thought I was to busy to lift. Lost muscle during that time and hurt both shoulders. To keep from having surgery I’ve been back in the Gym for about 2 years now, with both muscle and weight back on. It’s been rough at times but I ‘am back and should never left heavy training.

    Thanks

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