Functional Fitness Training: The Good and The Better

We realize that given the present COVID environment, many of you haven’t been able to participate in group training. That said, spring is right around the corner and many gyms are conducting their version of functional training outside or with reduced class size. What that in mind, this article will arm you with some information and options then the time comes.

 Getting bored with your training routine? Need something to break you about of the exercise doldrums? Perhaps you’ve considered functional fitness training as a way to break through the staleness.

Functional fitness training centers focus on small groups – typically no more than 15 participants – where everyone performs the same series of exercises in some specific format. The format may be to complete all exercises as fast as you can or that you have a time frame set in which you do as much as of the prescribed training as possible.

While there are brand name training centers that specialize in functional fitness, you will also see terms used such a “boot camp” and “HIIT” (high-intensity interval) training. There’s a lot to like about functional fitness and a few possible concerns.

The Good

1. Practical.

Functional fitness is based on enabling you to be stronger, more effective and efficient in the performance of your normal activities. It involved large muscle groups in multi-joint movements because that’s what you do every day.

For instance, when was the last time you performed legs curls (leg flexion exercise) in your daily activities as you would on a machine in a typical gym? Never, that’s when. But how many times do you work those same hamstrings bending over to pick something up in a kind of Romanian Deadlift? All the time. That’s what a functional fitness class is focused on.

2. Performance-Oriented.

Exercises are all about moving from the starting position to the finishing position. The point in functional fitness is to complete the movement.

So, let’s say the workout for the day includes pullups. A female classmate may never have done a full, unassisted pullup in her life. But, again, functional fitness is all about moving from Point A to Point B. So, your classmate will be taught to kip (swing her hips high) to get to the top of a pullup. And that is completely legit in functional fitness. Moreover, it then enables that person to begin lowering herself slowly under tension, thereby developing the strength necessary to eventually perform a full, unassisted pullup.

3. Broad-Based.

What do you do in your standard gym? Chances are, if you’re like most people, you do what you like and/or what you are good at.

A real benefit of functional fitness is that it makes you do things you would not normally do. Hate running? Sorry, you are going to need to run a little. But – and this is important – that is good! Assuming you aren’t trying to make the Olympics in one specific event, being proficient at a broad base of physical tasks is essential for optimal fitness.

That marathoner is limited if he or she can’t lift a 65-pound bag of dog food. And that weightlifter is not fit if he or she can’t walk up a few flights of stairs without stopping.

4. Fun.

This is what keep people coming back to functional fitness courses (and gets them paying significantly more than a typical gym membership).

Fact is, these classes are fun. They are challenging, sure, but the social environment in most functional fitness centers is positive, constructive and just plain fun. I have seen a comradery in these classes that I rarely have seen in other gyms.

The Not-So-Good

1. Tests, Doesn’t Train.

One fair criticism of functional fitness training is that it is not actually training. The main event for a functional fitness class – and the largest portion of the class – is the actual workout itself. And that workout is a test; it tests your physical capacity in some format. But, how does the participant develop that capacity? It rarely happens in the class.

That is precisely why the most proficient members in functional fitness classes tend to be former athletes – gymnasts, weightlifters, wrestlers, track and field athletes, etc. They had already developed their capacities; now they are simply testing that capacity in another venue. It is also why many members of functional fitness centers also have other gym memberships.

2. Technique Suffers.

If you are familiar with complex and technical movements such as the clean-and-jerk and the snatch, you will know how difficult they are to master. Every lift needs to be focused and deliberate, not rushed.

In functional fitness classes, members are moving as fast as they can. As an example, one workout – and I am not making this up – has the participant performing 75 snatches as fast as possible. No weightlifter in his or her right mind would ever attempt this; they know how technical the lift is and how fatigue can alter good technique. Each rep requires the proper setup and concentration.

So, here is what you will see: The member completes 3 good reps and 72 bad reps. Question: What movement just got reinforced? The bad technique.

3. Injury Potential.

It’s great that functional fitness centers are bringing in those who may not normally feel comfortable in a standard gym. But, many are new to fitness training.

When you couple a person who has not been trained with movements that are ballistic and contain significant acceleration and deceleration forces you have a greater potential for injury than you would find with slow-speed, controlled movements.

4. Limited Expertise.

This may be my biggest concern. The development and progress of the participant in functional fitness training is directly tied to the quality of their coaching. Problem is, for many functional fitness training centers they certify their own coaches. And those who do the certifying often lack any real education in exercise science or a related field.

Coaches are trained in that program’s own philosophy, indoctrinated into a system of thought that may or may not be grounded in science. In too many cases, these coaches become so blinded to other forms of training that it actually limits them as a coach instead of opening them up to continually improve their understanding of the physiology of training.

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About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.