Ideally, being “fit” is a concept that encompasses, not only your physical well-being, but also the mental and emotional aspects of your overall health. It’s easy for everyone to focus on the more outwardly visible effects of strength training, mostly because marketing focuses on aesthetics. The reality of strength training is that it takes many different shapes and forms. Hearing the word “strength” doesn’t necessarily need to invoke visions of stacked barbells and biceps larger than your head. When we talk about strength training, traditional isotonic training (the exercise involves both a lengthening and shortening of the muscle being worked i.e. the biceps during a biceps curl), and isometric (muscle contraction that doesn’t involve movement of the joints i.e. a plank) training methods are generally what first come to mind. However, the addition of functional strength exercises to any traditional strength program is what will have the greatest effect on your daily life and overall health.
But what do I actually mean when I say “functional?”
In the last decade “functional” has become a bit of an all-purpose word among fitness professionals, and, in itself, is open to different interpretations. Because of this lack of consensus, there isn’t one simple agreed upon definition. “Functional” can be thrown in front of just about anything. Functional movement? Sure why not? Functional “exercise” or functional “training?” Which one do you choose, and how do they differ? Not surprisingly, this ambiguity leads to misuse and difficulty for those want to benefit from the concept. Functional training is exactly that, a concept that manifests differently depending upon who is using the principles that make up the idea.
Click *here*, *here*, and *here*, for three informative, but also very different explanations of functional training. There’s no lack of information out there. But what does functional mean for you? This is where the waters can muddy for some and rightfully so, but this variability is also what makes fitness so beautiful. What’s functional for you will undoubtedly be different from the person standing next to you. When beginning an exercise program, whether you’re starting from (or feel as if you’re starting from) scratch, your consideration should be on what goals you’re trying to achieve, and how will your exercise program serve the “function” of reaching those goals. The more specific the goal the better. Do you want to lose weight, gain weight, train for a marathon, train for a bodybuilding competition? Functional training doesn’t have to mean doing a single-leg squat on a BOSU ball, blindfolded with a dumbbell in one hand, a kettlebell in the other. If you’re an 80-year old and it’s getting harder to get out of bed every day then part of your functional strength plan should probably include exercises to help you move more easily. What makes this approach different than the more traditional forms of strength training mentioned above (isometric and isotonic) is the emphasis on movement as the key, instead of focusing on individual muscle groups.
Specificity is the key, and in the end, functional strength training is any program that works with the distinct purpose of quite literally improving the way you function in your everyday life. This idea is known as “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” or the “SAID” principle. In a most general sense, the SAID principle asserts that the body will adapt to any physical demands that you place on it. Through SAID, we can start to understand why any effective training program should be individualized and begin to realize that nothing happens by accident. All training is specific to a task and the benefits gained from the adaptation that occurs when the body is introduced to certain stressors cannot be generalized among other tasks.
So are you incorporating functional training techniques into your routine? Did you think you were and now you’re not so sure? If you’re looking for the definitive answer, ultimately the only person who can answer that is you. What’s important to you? What are your goals? Are you looking to compete in your first triathlon? Or simply to be able to ascend from the depths of the subway without it seeming as if you’re climbing Kilimanjaro? Functional training is training for life, and you get to decide how that life looks for you.