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Functional Fitness

Yesterday you had a great workout. You pressed and pulled more weight with perfect form than you ever had on the circuit machines. In fact, you’ve been consistent in getting in your gym workouts all month. However, when you got home that evening you reached into the closet to get a box down. Now your neck hurts. How could that happen?

You’re probably not doing enough of the type of exercises that prepare your body to perform your daily activities with ease and efficiency. You’re not doing enough functional exercise.

What is Functional Fitness?
“Functional exercises are series of movement patterns,” said Ben Fidler, fitness director at Sport & Health Capitol Hill. “They involve pushing, pulling, bending, stepping, sitting twisting and stabilizing – all movements the body is designed to do every day.” They focus on building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine.

Functional fitness is not a new method of training. It’s been around for several decades. It got its origin in rehabilitation. Therapists use it to retrain patients with movement disorders so they can return to normal life activities after injury or surgery. “Fitness professionals have been talking about and using functional fitness exercises for years,” said Ben.

“Conventional weight training isolates muscle groups, but it doesn’t teach the muscle groups you’re isolating to work with others,” says Greg Roskopf, MS, a biomechanics consultant with a Muscle Activation Techniques. “The key to functional exercise is integration. It’s about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently.”

I’m working with a client who is returning to exercise after an illness. He wants to get back onto the squash court. Twice a week we combine exercises using weights to give individual muscles strength, with exercises that involve balance, twisting, reaching, bending and pushing – all movements he will need on the squash court.

What are the Benefits?
Functional exercises can help anyone – injured, overweight, baby boomers, millennials or athletes. They are adapted to an individual’s specific needs and goals. Functional exercises are challenging and fun. They provide variety to workouts. “You’ll have healthier joints and stronger musculature which means denser and more active muscle fiber – muscles that are more likely to turn on when needed and can produce more force when required,” explained Ben. “It can be a simple as being able to open up a jar, lift a suitcase or get up from a chair.”

The benefits are many. They are more neurologically demanding than machine exercises. Functional exercises help stabilize your spine and improve posture. They also improve balance, and they create toned muscles and allow you to stay upright and stand strong.

For example, I was walking my dog on a warm summer evening. Suddenly I tripped on an uneven part of the sidewalk. I lunged forward. My chest was parallel with the sidewalk. To my horror, I was sure I was going to eat some concrete. Instead, still holding the leash, my core muscles activated. I lifted my torso up and stood on the sidewalk once again, shaken but relieved.

Functional exercises can also help you become more aware of subtle irregularities in your body allowing you to correct the imbalances quickly.

Incorporating Functional Exercises into Your Routine
There’s no need to abandon the weight machines at the gym. A combination of weight-bearing activities with functional exercises can create balance in the muscular structure of your body.

Functional exercises can be done anywhere – at home, outside or in a gym. At Sport & Health Capitol Hill at 3rd and G Sts. SE (formerly Results Gym), a former basketball court has been redesigned into a functional fitness space. “The goal is to create more functional space for members,” said Ben. “We want members to be able to incorporate modes of exercise in one room instead of going up and down looking for equipment in different places in the gym.”

The large space has weight machines lining one side that allows for neuromuscular activation and an Astroturf lane on the other for functional movement such as sprinting, jumping or lunging. “We also have two skill mills which is a kinetic-powered treadmill with resistance,” said Ben. Instead of you keeping up with the speed of a traditional treadmill you actually create the speed through your own force on the skill mill.

The room also has other popular tools that promote functional exercise such as stability balls and Bosus which force you to work your core to keep your body balanced while you’re lifting a weight. A multifunctional, circular exercise workstation called, “Synergy” in the center of the room gives several members the opportunity to work out at the same time on functional fitness equipment such as the TRX.

Sport & Health is also in the process of building a small group training program called, ‘Explosive Performance’ held in that room that will incorporate functional movement patterns into the training.

Where to Start?
You could take a class or hire a personal trainer, or you could start rethinking the way you are working your muscles. For example, if you are used to using a leg press machine, try a two-legged squat with proper form or a single-legged squat from a seated position. If you usually use the pull-down machine or seated row to work your lats, try a bent-over row. Lean over a bench, hold the weight in one hand with your arm hanging straight down. Then pull the weight up as your elbow points towards the ceiling. Finish with your upper arm parallel to the ground. Compare that exercise to lifting a suitcase or bending over to pick up something, tasks most of us do regularly.

Functional exercises can be more tiring and challenging than weight machines. You can’t do functional exercise with the same levels of intensity as machine exercise. But, just like weight lifting, functional exercise can be performed every other day.

Functional exercises are a way to make your workouts more interesting. It’s also a practical way to begin to get stronger and more flexible and help your body to work better.

To learn more about Sport & Health’s functional fitness programs, contact Ben Fidler: bfidler@sportandhealth.com.


Pattie Cinelli is a holistic personal trainer, yoga and Pilates instructor who has been teaching and practicing functional fitness for 20 years. To contact Pattie with fitness questions or column ideas email her at: fitness@pattiecinelli.com.

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