The concept of “functional fitness” has existed for decades, but the term only gained widespread recognition in the 21st century.1 2 Chances are you’ve seen this type of training mentioned in magazines or advertisements. You may even have friends or family members that practice it. So, what’s the appeal?
Functional fitness training aims to improve and maintain the performance of all muscle groups.1 This variety of exercise can reduce the challenge of real-life, everyday activities, such as lifting moving boxes or playing catch with your children.
Functional training, also known as neuromotor training, differs from traditional exercise types, such as strength training or bodybuilding. Instead of targeting a specific muscle group, the focus is on combined and simultaneous movements that use the whole body to imitate common daily activities.1 For instance, a squat trains the muscles that help you sit in and get up from a chair, and strengthening your core by doing planks can improve your balance to prevent falls.
One of the perks of functional fitness training is that it doesn’t require any special equipment to achieve results, making it both beginner and budget-friendly. Body-weight exercises to improve strength, such as squats, push-ups, lunges, and planks, utilize more of your body than many exercise machines and still deliver noticeable improvements.3
Functional exercises for improving flexibility and coordination include yoga, tai chi, and other controlled movement or sustained stretching activities.4 5 Regularly practicing yoga or other stretching-strengthening exercises can significantly improve balance, strength, flexibility, and mobility.5
If you prefer exercising away from home, some gyms offer a dedicated functional fitness area or host classes specializing in neuromotor workouts. You may find various functional-fitness-appropriate exercise tools in a gym, such as kettlebells, dumbbells, jump ropes, medicine balls, and more.
If you’re looking to up the ante on your functional fitness routine, another form of functional training combines the basics of neuromotor exercise with some aspects of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). High-intensity functional training (HIFT) focuses on completing a number of functional exercise repetitions in the fastest time possible or trying to fit as many reps as you can into a specific amount of time. CrossFit training is considered the most common HIFT program.6
While much of the research has surrounded the benefits of functional fitness training in older adults, more recent studies have shown that all age groups see marked improvement from neuromotor exercises.7 8 9
Current guidelines from the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion show that any amount of physical activity has some health benefits, replacing the previous 10-minute minimum requirement.10 So, functional fitness training can benefit anyone, regardless of age, sex, or ability. If you're new to exercise or starting again after an extended break, taking it slow and starting with body-weight exercises or a low-impact aqua aerobics class can help you build strength and reduce the risk of injury.
If you have a chronic health condition, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, or osteoporosis, it’s best to speak with your doctor and get their input before starting.11
For those who are pregnant, it’s important to discuss exercise with your obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) to ensure it’s safe for both you and your baby. Generally, 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week is the recommendation for pregnant individuals cleared for exercise.12
The Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q or PAR-Q+) can provide guidance if you’re unsure whether or not you need to speak with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen. The current form of the questionnaire, the PAR-Q+, is a seven-step screening test for people of all ages. The questionnaire determines risk factors you might face during moderate physical activity, including family history and disease severity.13 The official online version of the PAR-Q+ questionnaire can be found here.
Functional fitness training improves your ability to perform daily activities through greater autonomy, flexibility, strength, balance, and agility. These benefits can mean greater independence in older adults, with fewer falls and doctor's visits.14 For young children, the benefits include greater gross motor skills and proprioception — the ability to sense and locate parts of your body.8 Even in adult athletes, functional training was found to improve speed, muscular strength, power, balance, and agility.15
Besides the specific benefits of neuromotor exercise, any physical activity can improve your brain health, help with weight management, reduce disease risk, and strengthen your bones and muscles.16 Regular exercise, even in small amounts, can reduce depression and anxiety; it can also help you to rest better when you sleep.16
Starting a new exercise regimen can be intimidating. If you’re unsure where to start, here are a few simple neuromotor exercises to get you started.
Push-ups can be modified in numerous ways, making them an excellent choice for people at all stages of their fitness journey. To reduce the difficulty, you can do push-ups against a wall, utilize an elevated surface, such as a countertop, or keep your knees bent if you do push-ups on the floor.
If you would like a visual example, here’s a video guide on push-ups.
Squats are another excellent beginner exercise that can be modified as needed. You can sit down and get up from a chair if you need some extra support. Adding weights or jumping can increase the difficulty and intensity. The following steps are to perform a beginner-friendly squat, known as a prisoner squat.
Here’s a video guide on the prisoner squat.
This beginner-friendly deadlift works your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.17 The only equipment you need is a kettlebell. If you don’t have a kettlebell at home, you can get creative and substitute it with something like a weighted backpack, milk jug, or paint can.
Here’s a video example of the kettlebell deadlift.
With its beginner-friendly, accessible approach and numerous physical and mental benefits, now is the perfect time to start functional fitness training or add some exercises to your routine.
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Teixeria, C., Evangelista, A., Novaes, J., Grigoletto, S., & Behmm, D. (2017, August 30). “You're Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link”: A Current Opinion about the Concepts and Characteristics of Functional Training. Frontiers in Physiology, 8. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00643/full.
Thompson, W. (2017). Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2018: The CREP Edition. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 21(6), 10-19. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2017/11000/WORLDWIDE_SURVEY_OF_FITNESS_TRENDS_FOR_2018__The.6.aspx.
Harvard Medical School. (2022, February 15). The advantages of body-weight exercise. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/the-advantages-of-body-weight-exercise.
Sivaramakrishnan, D., Fitzsimons, C., Kelly, P., Ludwig, K., Mutrie, N., Saunders, D., & Baker, G. (2019, April 5). The effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls on physical function and health related quality of life in older adults- systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16, 33. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-019-0789-2.
Goethe, N., & McAuley, E. (2015, August 22). Yoga Is as Good as Stretching–Strengthening Exercises in Improving Functional Fitness Outcomes: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 71(3), 406-411. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/71/3/406/2605263.
Feito, Y., Heinrich, K., Butcher, S., & Poston, W. (2018, August 7). High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): Definition and Research Implications for Improved Fitness. Sports, 6(3), 76. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/6/3/76.
Begun, R. (2018, February 14). Is Functional Exercise OK for Kids?. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.eatright.org/fitness/physical-activity/benefits-of-exercise/is-functional-exercise-ok-for-kids.
Fu, T., Zhang, D., Wang, W., Geng, H., Lv, Y., Shen, R., & Bu, T. (2022, July 11). Functional Training Focused on Motor Development Enhances Gross Motor, Physical Fitness, and Sensory Integration in 5-6-Year-Old Healthy Chinese Children. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 10, 936799. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9309543/.
Liao, T., Duhig, S. J., Du, G., Luo, B., & Wang, Y. T. (2022). The Effect of a Functional Strength Training Intervention on Movement Quality and Physical Fitness in Adolescents. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 129(1), 176-194. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34784820/.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Top 10 Things to Know About the Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The United States Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/physical-activity-guidelines/current-guidelines/top-10-things-know.
Harvard Medical School. (2012, August 23). Do you need to see a doctor before starting your exercise program?. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/do-you-need-to-see-a-doctor-before-starting-your-exercise-program.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (n.d.). Exercise During Pregnancy: Frequently Asked Questions. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/exercise-during-pregnancy.
APTA. (n.d.). Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q, PAR-Q+). American Physical Therapy Association. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.apta.org/patient-care/evidence-based-practice-resources/test-measures/physical-activity-readiness-questionnaire-par-q-par-q.
Beckham, S., & Harper, M. (2010, November). Functional Training: Fad or Here to Stay?. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 14(6), 24-30. American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2010/11000/functional_training__fad_or_here_to_stay_.8.aspx.
Xiao, W., Soh, K., Wazir, M., Talib, O., Bai, X., Bu, T., Sun, H., Popovic, S., Masanovic, B., & Gardasevic, J. (2021, September 6). Effect of Functional Training on Physical Fitness Among Athletes: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Physiology, 12. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2021.738878/full.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 16). Benefits of Physical Activity. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm.
Martín-Fuentes, I., Oliva-Lozano, J. M., & Muyor, J. M. (2020, February 27). Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLOS ONE, 15(2), e0229507. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0229507.