Functional training is all the rage – but does it work?

The lunge is a key component of any functional raining regime - Klaus Vedfelt
The lunge is a key component of any functional raining regime - Klaus Vedfelt

In the world of sweat, Lycra and trendy workouts, “functional training” has overtaken HIIT as the exercise regime du jour. Is it a fancy fitness craze or should we all be doing it?

“Functional training” is a slightly baffling term. Surely all types of exercise are functional? Even a star-jump will get you fitter, help with sideways movement and lubricate your joints, right? Yes and no. Functional movement is a term used to describe exercises that mimic key movements we do in daily life. Take sitting as an example – we sit down into a chair, onto the toilet, into a car seat many times a day. Another example is lifting something heavy and placing it overhead.

Sounds obvious? It is. However, fitness trends have been so focused on hoola-hooping or “training like an athlete” that we have overlooked the most important exercises of all: the ones we do all the time.

More and more research is coming out of the word’s Blue Zones (five places in the world where people live long, healthy lives into their 100s). Blue Zone inhabitants do regular, natural movement throughout the day – walking, cycling, dancing and gardening. It correlates therefore that doing more natural movements could help us live longer.

Functional movement is a term used to describe exercises that mimic key movements we do in daily life - Getty
Functional movement is a term used to describe exercises that mimic key movements we do in daily life - Getty

Personal trainer Caroline Idiens specialises in fitness for women over 40. She says functional exercise can help prevent debilitating injury: “When people injure themselves, it’s not often in the gym. It happens when they are pulling the lawn mower out of the garage, or just getting out of the bath,” she says. While it’s great to, say, be a runner, this may not help when it comes to ­carrying the bins out.

So which exercises are key? Caroline says that we should all be doing compound movements that use more than one muscle movement at a time because this mimics real life. “We don’t just squat down and pick up a basket of washing,” she says. “We pick it up, turn with it and place it on the side. It’s about mimicking and enhancing everyday movement patterns,” she says, rather than using a machine that just isolates our hamstrings.

Compound movements build strength and help increase bone strength (vital as we age), but according to Bebe Beachus, a personal trainer at the Soho House Group, we must also focus on “stability, mobility and flexibility” to injury-proof ourselves. She stresses that we need to keep moving through our backs so we can still do our laces up into old age, or as she says: “Get out of the car and remain graceful.”

Anyone can do functional training at home as it typically uses bodyweight rather than machines. Caroline says from mid-life we should all be doing 30 minutes three times a week, even if you already walk, swim or run.

The Longevity fitness plan

The Squat press

Squats form a core aspect of many functional training regimes - Getty
Squats form a core aspect of many functional training regimes - Getty

We squat more than any other movement (other than walking) – sitting down, going to the loo, getting things off the floor, getting in the car.”

Place feet just wider than hip distance apart. With shoulders back and chest lifted, sit back as if into a chair until thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight and your weight through your heels. With core engaged throughout, push back up to standing, engaging your glutes at the top. Once mastered, hold light dumbbells (start with 2kg) in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing forward. As you stand up push the dumbbells overhead.

The Weighted lunge

Lunges boost both flexibility and stability - Getty
Lunges boost both flexibility and stability - Getty

“Lunges build lower body strength for all daily activities such as walking, running and climbing stairs, but also increasing flexibility and stability.”

Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Engage your core. Keeping your torso upright with shoulders back, take a big step forward with your right leg making sure your knee stays out and behind the toe. Lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the floor and your left knee is at 90 degrees. Press into the right heel to drive back up to starting position. Repeat on the other side. Once mastered, hold some light dumbbells (starting at 2kg/3kg) by your side and incorporate a bicep curl or rotate at the waist towards the bent knee on the same side.

The Deadlift

Deadlifts can build strength and stability throughout much of the body - Rii Schroer
Deadlifts can build strength and stability throughout much of the body - Rii Schroer

“This is about hinging, which is so important when doing things such as picking up small children, gardening or cleaning the bath.”

Stand with your knees slightly bent, feet hip-width apart. Engage your core. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your thighs. Hinge at your hips sending them back and sliding the weights slowly down the front of your thighs until your chest is parallel with the floor. Keep a slight bend in the knees and a neutral spine, shoulders back. As soon as your chest is parallel, and with your core tight, push through your heels to stand back up straight. Keep the weights close to your thighs, then pause at the top as you squeeze your glutes.

The Row

The basic movement of rowing mimics many pulling actions we complete day to day - Getty
The basic movement of rowing mimics many pulling actions we complete day to day - Getty

For an added progression you could add a row to the deadlift – it’s like pulling a weed out of the ground! Once hinged at the hip with the back straight and abs tight, row one arm (holding your weight) back towards your hip, squeezing shoulder blade at the top of the movement. Extend arm back down to full range each time and switch arms. Then stand up as per your deadlift.

The Push up

The Push up is a classic exercise for building strength in the upper body - STOCK4B-RF
The Push up is a classic exercise for building strength in the upper body - STOCK4B-RF

“A great full body exercise, building strength in several muscle groups at once. It’s great for upper body strength.”

Starting on your knees, place your hands on the floor slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Your elbows should line up underneath your shoulders. Engage your glutes and draw your belly button up to your spine keeping a neutral spine throughout and head in line with the spine. Slowly bend elbows (try to go back rather than out to the side) and lower your chest to just above the ground, pushing through the heel of your hand to lift yourself back up to the starting position. Once you have mastered it on the knees you can progress to full press-ups.

Bicep curl shoulder press

Bicep curls build muscle whilst aiding day to day movement - Rii Schroer
Bicep curls build muscle whilst aiding day to day movement - Rii Schroer

“This is important for daily movement, such as carrying bags or putting something heavy in an overhead cupboard.”

Stand with feet hip width apart, arms by your sides with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing inward. Flex the elbows to curl the weight. Do not use momentum or swing – use a controlled motion. Then slowly extend overhead. Return to the starting position. Keep core tight to protect lower back.

Verdict: Fact

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