Form and function

Christine Hennebury
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Functional Fitness programs provide strength for daily living

Bad backs, painful knees and stiff shoulders are not always an inevitable consequence of aging. Aches and pains of that sort can result from using incorrect form when doing daily activities, and some training in functional fitness can help.

Functional fitness is a form of strength training designed to help individuals with their daily tasks, reducing body strain and minimizing the chance of injury. It can be learned in a functional fitness class or through sessions with a personal trainer who can customize exercises to meet an individual's needs.

Bad backs, painful knees and stiff shoulders are not always an inevitable consequence of aging. Aches and pains of that sort can result from using incorrect form when doing daily activities, and some training in functional fitness can help.

Functional fitness is a form of strength training designed to help individuals with their daily tasks, reducing body strain and minimizing the chance of injury. It can be learned in a functional fitness class or through sessions with a personal trainer who can customize exercises to meet an individual's needs.

Gerard Thorne, fitness writer and personal trainer from Nubody's in Atlantic Place, has been training individual clients in functional fitness for the past 12 years. He uses squats, sitting, climbing and lifting to help individuals to keep up with their day to day activities. While this doesn't sound especially different from other forms of fitness, there is one crucial difference.

"Most other forms of fitness are focused primarily on the overall health aspect, functional fitness is aimed more at the specific movements that individuals use each day."

Kelly Ryan, personal trainer with New World Fitness who has been training people in functional fitness since 2005 agrees.

"My definition of this type of fitness is training the muscles to work together so everyday activities, like carrying your groceries to the car and into the house, become easier to perform and exercises mimic everyday body positions."

While clients in the gym might use weights, exercise balls and bands to simulate everyday activity and strengthen the muscles in question, functional fitness trainers encourage the use of everyday materials like stairs, boxes and grocery bags to reinforce the training while at home.

While conventional weight training tends to involve isolating a muscle during exercise, functional fitness has a different emphasis.

"Functional fitness emphasizes getting more of the body involved in a move, with multiple muscle and joint activities that combine upper and lower body movements, for instance, or require lifting and twisting. The key to this approach is integration. Conventional weight training isolates specific muscles or muscle groups to make them stronger but doesn't train the muscles to work efficiently with other muscle groups."

The compound nature of functional fitness does not mean that the sessions are complicated. "My sessions consist of 5-10 minutes of cardio and light stretching to warm up the individual." Thorne says, "This is followed by 20-25 minutes of exercise using free weights, machines and body-weight exercises. I then have the individual do some core training and stretching to finish off."

Ryan's offers an example of an exercise from one of her sessions: a bent-over row using a ball as the bench.

"The client would be bent at the hips so the back was parallel to the floor with a weight in one hand while the other was resting on the unstable ball. The weighted hand would be straight and hanging to the floor to start and they would pull up on the weight until the upper arm was parallel to the floor. This type of exercise really challenges the core, the power house for all activities, but also the arm, back and shoulder."

Strengthening the muscles while training them to work together in this fashion is the practical benefit of functional fitness, since this motion would help people in everyday situations, especially on the job. Ryan gives some examples.

"We see this same motion when a carpenter bends over to saw a piece of wood, a nurse bending over a bed to help a patient, or an auto mechanic bending over the car bonnet."

Ryan says that functional fitness programs should be part of a varied exercise program that includes other types of strength training. Combining the different types of strength training will help address muscular imbalances (stronger muscles compensating for weaker ones) while teaching muscle groups to work effectively together.

While anyone can benefit from functional fitness, Thorne finds that most of his clients are women over 35 and he has some recommendations for who would benefit the most.

"While argument can be made that everyone should do some functional exercise, the elderly should definitely participate in some form. Those recovering from injuries and accidents also make good candidates."

Ryan recommends that individuals have a good understanding of how their body works. "I recommend it to all my clients once I feel the client has become aware of their individual muscles and has learned how these muscles all work independently. Experienced clients are easier to train functionally because they already have this knowledge."

While all exercise has its benefits, the direct application of functional fitness to an individual's daily life can make its results very clear and can be very encouraging for people on the path to physical fitness.

Organizations: Ryan's

Geographic location: Atlantic Place

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Recent comments

  • juliet cj...
    September 15, 2013 - 21:55

    how can i get this to my door step...

  • ginny crandall
    July 08, 2011 - 14:00

    This functional fitness program seems wonderful and perfect for me. I threw my back out a couple of months ago, despite not having any problems with it previously. I talked to my doctor about it and he said that it was probably a result of doing some regular motion incorrectly. I've been working on strengthening my muscles and things are going well now. I would love to learn how to use all my muscles properly, though, so that I can prevent future problems.