Want huge deltoids and ripped abs to show off at the beach? Sure. But realistically, maybe you’re more interested in pursuing a fitness routine that supports your daily life: carrying groceries up the stairs and keeping up with the kids or grandkids. If so, you’re a good candidate for what’s referred to in the fitness world as “functional fitness.” It has become something of a buzzword at the moment.
“Functional fitness at its core means training the body in the context of how the body is used in daily life,” says Jessica Matthews, a senior adviser for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “It focuses on integrated, multi-joint exercises instead of a more isolated approach,” adds Matthews, who is also an assistant professor of exercise science at San Diego Miramar College.
Multi-joint means that instead of, for example, just doing a bicep curl (which moves only the elbow), you would do a bicep curl and a lunge (which engages multiple joints: elbow, hip, knee, ankle) at the same time.
How does this particular exercise translate into daily life?
Well, let’s take groceries: You are not likely to sit with your elbows at 90 degrees (single-joint) with grocery bags hanging from each hand. But you are probably pretty likely to walk up some stairs (hip, knee, ankle) while carrying the bags (elbow) into the kitchen.
While in the kitchen, you are probably likely to squat to place the bags on the floor and then, as you stand up, rotate and reach your arms up to place a heavy item (five-pound bag of flour?) on a high shelf. Looks a lot like a squat with an overhead press with a rotation, doesn’t it?
But we are getting way ahead of ourselves. Because before we move into squats and lunges with presses and rotations, we need to make sure the foundation is there, says Carmen Martin-Day, a local personal trainer with certifications in post-rehabilitation and corrective exercise, whose focus for the past 17 years has been functional fitness.
So, what constitutes “the foundation”?
“The core, the hips and the muscles around the scapula,” Martin-Day says. “We work on those first to make sure the client has enough strength and mobility to progress.”
Martin-Day, for example, might work with new clients on exercises — such as pelvic tilts, “Superman” back extensions, supported squats and planks on the knees — twice a week for several weeks to make sure they have enough mobility and strength to move on to more challenging drills without risking injury.
Beyond building strength and mobility, her goal in this foundational phase is to create body awareness.
“I want them to be able to feel what muscles they are working,” she says. This also ensures good form, another key to injury prevention.
It can be a slow and steady process, but one that pays off big, says Lynn Hart, 62, a client of Martin-Day’s.
“I started with Carmen about two years ago because I wanted to continue to stay active,” says Hart, a District resident who hikes and kayaks frequently.
Today, she says, she is stronger than ever. “I can do push-ups. Carmen even has me doing push-ups with one hand on a ball.”
Hart, who labels herself a “natural klutz,” can now also balance steadily on one leg (her 3-year-old grandchild calls her “the stork” during their games of “start-and-stop music”).
But all that is just bragging rights.
The big changes to her daily life? No lower-back pain — something Hart had been battling for years; the ability to lift heavy things such as a cast-iron skillet with one hand; and perhaps the biggest accomplishment: “I can lift my 33-pound kayak and put it on the roof of my fairly large SUV and take it down to the Anacostia all by myself,” Hart says. “In the past I couldn’t have done that. The training really has freed me up.”
Same story for Richard Roth, 67, of Greenbelt, who started training with Martin-Day about a year ago. He had been diagnosed with a back condition that caused numbness in the legs, he was hunched over and he couldn’t lift his left arm above shoulder height because of arthritis.
Now he, too, can do push-ups. But more importantly:
“I have good range of motion in my left shoulder, and I can walk and stand up straight,” Roth says.
He also has noticed a change in his stamina and ability to balance. “I can stand on one leg when I put my pants on in the morning . . . and I can cut the lawn continuously for an hour and a half without having to sit down.”
All daily-life improvements.
But it sounds like all this is targeted to an older clientele?
“Most of my clients are between 50 and 70, but functional training can be tailored to anyone,” Martin-Day says.
“You just scale the drills to fit,” Matthews says. “For a professional athlete the exercises would be skill-based and emphasize things like speed and power.”
In other words, where beginner clients in their 70s might do a supported squat, a serious athlete might do a power slam combined with a jump squat.
“Functional fitness looks at primary movement patterns” — whether they involve putting on your shirt in the morning or throwing a 100-mile fastball in an MLB game — “and how to best support those movement patterns.”
Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.
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