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Balancing it out with Functional Fitness

What is functional fitness training?

Functional fitness training teaches you to become more aware of your body movement patterns and helps to build the mind-body neural connections so that you perform everyday activities safely and efficiently. This method of training improves your quality of life by emphasizing multi-planar movements (sagittal, frontal, transverse) in a proprioceptively enriched environment (unstable, yet controlled) while activating your core.

How to maximize your functional fitness training?

Bilateral exercises are the go-to exercises where you exercise both sides of your body at the same time, meaning you perform an exercise with both legs moving at the same time or both arms moving at the same time (e.g., seated machine leg press, seated machine leg curls, dual bicep curls etc.). However, consider introducing unilateral exercises, where you move only one leg or one arm at a time. Unilateral exercises either activate contralateral (opposite side) or ipsilateral (same side) muscle groups, and adding these to your exercise routine will challenge your body even more. For example, contralateral movements encourage muscles on opposite sides of your body to work together to resist rotational forces, thereby increasing core stability which translates to improved maintenance of good form through an exercise set. On the other hand, ipsilateral movements engage muscles on the same side of your body to work overtime to resist rotational forces, thereby increasing core stability which translates to minimizing compensations (such as leaning, arching your back etc.) as well as improved maintenance of good form through an exercise set.

What are examples of functional fitness exercises?

A squat can be a bilateral movement (both feet on floor when performing squat) or a unilateral movement (single leg chair squat). This movement trains your body how to rise from a chair without using your hands or descend into a chair without free-falling down. This movement strengthens your LPHC (lumbar-pelvic-hip complex), core and improves your balance.

A row can either be a bilateral movement (seated machine row; dual arm movement) or a unilateral movement (seated machine row; alternating single arm movement). This movement trains your body to brace your shoulder complex and back muscles so that your upper body doesn’t get pulled down with the weight of an object (groceries, luggage, plants etc..), hence, reducing the likelihood of injuring your shoulder or back.

The single leg deadlift is a unilateral movement which can be modified to be contralateral (weight held on lifted leg side) or ipsilateral (weight held on standing leg side). This movement strengthens your LPHC (lumbar-pelvic-hip complex), core and improves your balance.

What are the benefits of functional fitness training?

Functional exercises train your mind and body to work together to create a synergy between multiple muscles and joints. Incorporating functional exercises, especially unilateral movements, in your exercise routine will help to amplify your training results, in addition to improving your joint stability, balance and core strength. The most important outcomes are that your everyday activities become easier, you reduce your risk of falls and injury, and improve your quality of life. Imagine the following becoming easier - getting in and out of the car, standing up from a chair or couch, pushing or pulling a door open, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, lifting a suitcase, gardening etc.

Should you perform functional fitness exercises?

It is always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen. A safe way to begin is with body weight exercises and as you become more fit you may workout with weights or resistance bands.

When you begin to workout or if you adjust your routine to challenge yourself, soreness is normal. It is your body’s way of telling you that it is responding to your workout and building lean muscle which will increase your strength. However, ensure that you challenge yourself without putting excessive strain on your joints and muscles (i.e., you should be able to perform your daily activities even if you experience some soreness).

What is your return on investment?

Fitness and health is less a one-stop deal and more of a long-term investment. As with all long-term investments, a consistent deposit (of time, effort and money) will lead to increased returns (think compound interest). As with any investment, research what you need to do, create your plan and then execute. If you need help, hire a professional - a personal fitness trainer would cater and adjust workouts for your body and you may find that this investment provides you with the returns you have been seeking. As always, you must do what works best for you.


Imrana G. Kazam, PhD, NBC-HWC, CPT, CES, WLS

Personal Trainer, The GYM @ Milford

  1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. 2nd ed. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  2. Laskowski ER (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. May 23, 2019.

  3. Peterson JA. Ten nice-to-know facts about functional training. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2017;21:52.

  4. Feito Y, et al. High-intensity functional training (HIFT): Definition and research implications for improved fitness. Sports. 2018;6:E76.

  5. Cortell-Tormo J, et al. Effects of functional resistance training on fitness and quality of life in females with chronic nonspecific low-back pain. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation. 2018;31:95.

  6. Ofei-Dodoo S, et al. The impact of an active lifestyle on the functional fitness level of older women. Journal of Applied Gerontology. 2018;37:687.

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