the joy of strength training


May 18th, 2009 at 5:14 pm

What is functional fitness?

 Many people including myself and many readers of this site would say we do ‘functional fitness’. We use the phrase almost without thinking, but most people have never heard of it and it must sound very odd.

This thought struck me as I was watching a climbing film, Alistair Lee’s Onsight where one interviewee comments that when you try to explain headpointing (practising a route on a top rope before leading it) to anyone who doesn’t climb, they don’t understand the point of it at all. It’s the same with functional fitness. I mean, since when has fitness not been functional?

Unfunctional fitness

“Veronica and I are trying this new fad called uh, jogging. I believe it’s jogging or yogging. It might be a soft j, I’m not sure, but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.” – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy

Somewhere down the line, the view was formed that a lot of so-called fitness activity was actually unfunctional. It may have looked like fitness and sounded like fitness and perhaps some fitness was gained as a by-product, but the overriding aim and ambition was to look good naked.

Shiny new contraptions were invented to assist in this goal, as well as accessories, pharmaceutical products and supplements. Perfection could only be attained with the right gear.

Now, I’d like to look good naked as much as the next person so I am not questioning the validity of this ambition. But could you argue that in the modern world, all you need fitness for is to look good and stay healthy, since work, rest and play can all be carried out with the minimum of physical effort? Is that the modern function of fitness?

Physical culture

eugene sandowThis became the philosophy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the popularity of ‘physical culture’ was at its height.

Eugen Sandow, both poster boy and mastermind of physical culture, wanted to show that an attractive and healthy body was within reach for anybody who was prepared to follow a simple exercise regime.

Physical culture acknowledged that exercise could actually have good looks as an end. Lifting weights would not only make you strong, it would make you beautiful.

We got to the point where, like pop, fitness ate itself. It has certainly become an end in itself. So instead of needing to be fit for something, you can now just be fit. Fit for anything – and nothing.

Modern life is now so geared towards our own convenience, where we have so little need to lift, carry, walk, run or climb that we are obliged to make deliberate efforts to set time aside for fitness because we are just not getting this effect from normal life. So the culture has arisen where fitness is pursued in a gym environment for 30-45 minutes three times a week. It is no longer just part of daily life. For many people it has even superceded sports.

Functional fitness

ross enamait with a sledgehammerFunctional fitness is about linking fitness to real functions once more. It is designed to reflect movements and functions found in daily life – sled pulling, wood chopping, rope climbing and so on.

I have heard people say, “What’s the point of that? I’ll never have any need to chop wood or pull a sled!”

But the great thing about functional fitness is that you use ordinary objects found around the home or the garage. You don’t need expensive equipment or posh gyms to get fit. A sledgehammer is not only much cheaper than a cable machine, but you might actually be able to use it for other tasks as well. Smashing your old furniture up, for example.

Functional fitness is a simpler approach to fitness. The point is to get fit, not to spend lots of money on machines and supplements. Functional fitness practitioners appreciate simple and versatile equipment like the skipping rope, gymnastic rings or kettlebell. In fact many people get a lot of pleasure from making their own kit.

There is a feeling of self sufficiency that comes from making things or using objects imaginatively that improves your mental wellbeing as well as your physical health (and your financial health, come to that). We may not ever really expect to be dropped in the jungle and have to fight our way out, but it is comforting to think that we are capable enough to have a decent chance.

Functional fitness also takes a holistic view of fitness itself. Fitness encompasses strength, speed, endurance and agility. It includes short, sharp efforts as well as lengthy ones. Most people end up with a bias in one particular direction according to their own preference and build, but functional fitness aficionados make an effort to cover all areas and work on their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

You will often find functional fitness practitioners training outside or in a fairly basic indoor environment. Simple and functional environments are appreciated as much as simple and functional equipment.


“Gym Jones is private and isolated from the modern fitness ideal precisely because we believe that attitude to be poison. We believe that a proper training facility is separated from the complacency of the general public, and has its own set of rules and values. We believe that nothing of value may be acquired by simply going through the motions; real fitness is earned.” – Gym Jones

There are people in the world whose jobs involve functions that could be classed under ‘fitness’ – soldiers or firefighters, for example. But many people are simply pursuing fitness for its own sake. And if we’re honest, to be better than other people. Underlying a lot of so-called functional fitness is simple elitism.

Personally I’m all for elitism. I like being fitter/cleverer/healthier than the majority of the population. But let’s call it what it is. In this spirit, I appreciate the honesty of Crossfit’s “forging elite fitness” tag or Testosterone Nation’s strap line of “unapologetic muscle building elitists”. Even the quasi-cultish mystique surrounding Gym Jones could be forgiven on the basis that it is more interested in being true to its values than in being loved.

Many of the functional fitness methods or schools are elitist in outlook. It is an acknowledgement that fitness is more than simply staving off obesity and incapacity for as long as possible. It is about being as good as you can be or as good as your motivation can make you.

There are times when functional fitness, like many interesting concepts, disappears up its own backside. There is an awful lot of gumph spoken about hunting and gathering and being ‘ready for anything’.

I used to be sceptical of this ‘ready for anything’ attitude. It seemed faintly ridiculous for middle-aged suburban men and women to be training as if for battle on the off chance that guerilla war is going to break out in Maidenhead. And if a meteorite does hit the earth wiping out all supermarkets, our survival is going to be more about bushcraft knowledge and a high degree of efficiency than supreme physical fitness (more Ray Mears than Bear Grylls, if you know what I mean).

“Like it or not, we are the product of a very long process of adaptation to a harsh physical existence, and the past couple centuries of comparative ease and plenty are not enough time to change our genome. We humans are at our best when our existence mirrors, or at least simulates, the one we are still genetically adapted to live. And that is the purpose of exercise.” – Mark Rippetoe

But like anything, it is a matter of degree. Some people train to be able to kick a football around with their kids, others want to complete a mountain marathon. Ultimately it is about finding out just how capable you are, and the harder you push the more you adapt.

So functional fitness is the practise of all-round training using basic equipment in an unfussy environment, preferably outdoors. If you are lucky enough to have some real wood to chop or a genuine reason for pulling a sled, lucky you. If not, you may have to make one up.

What are your thoughts on functional fitness? Is the ‘functional’ redundant? Would you call yourself a functional fitness practitioner?

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  • 1

    Just spotted a fine article on SquatRx which touches on similar issues. Boris discusses the role of GPP and the ‘ready for anything’ argument.

    gubernatrix on May 19th, 2009
  • 2

    Great Article, I do think that functional fitness is Great as well as body weight fitness. I started doing body weight fitness and love it, it was a common occurrence for me to get injured with in a month of working out at the gym, but since I started doing body weight workouts the injuries no longer happen and I don’t feel awkward doing the exercises, I look forward to doing Cross-fit once my 8 wk plan is over.

    Thanks for your articles

    Henry on May 19th, 2009
  • 3

    Cheers Henry, glad you are making so much progress with bodyweight training.

    gubernatrix on May 19th, 2009
  • 4

    My definition is of functional fitness is quite simple. Fit enough to do a good job. More than that and it is for fun. But then I chop my own firewood already to heat our home during winter 🙂

    Talking about being ready for anything.. Is the sky going to fall down tomorrow? Ray Mears rules but..

    Rolfe on May 19th, 2009
  • 5

    @ Rolfe: When you say “a good job” do you mean what you do for a living? Or do you mean life in general?

    gubernatrix on May 20th, 2009
  • 6

    I mean fit enough to do a good job either at work, at home or whatever you do in your off hours. If it is worth doing, I want to do it well. Spending the required 10.000 hours to do it perfectly or on an olympic level is just for fun. Building fitness to survive a mugging or armageddon is not well thought through in my opinion.
    Fitness is requred to measure up even if I sit in a chair the whole day using my head. I can concentrate harder when I am fit than when I am unfit.

    On the topic of working in a office: Lately a co-worker and I have begun taking two 5 minute trips a day to a chinning bar we found in a workshop. If the girls can take breaks to smoke, we can take two short breaks to get the blood flowing and clear our heads 🙂

    Rolfe on May 21st, 2009
  • 7

    Hey, great minds! In my last job I got the guys to put up a chinning bar in the workshop which I used to use – although rather sporadically depending on how bored I was! We even had a pull up leader board for a while.

    gubernatrix on May 21st, 2009
  • 8

    “a leftfield take on the relationship between fitness and physical attractiveness?” Does that make me a maverick or a nutjob? I’m game for either.

    The elitist approach of many training camps seems to be breeding dissension and the breakdown of communication between tribes. Although a bit cultish in their own right, CrossFit does make their program easily available to anyone who wants it. So despite ‘forging elite fitness’ they have an open book as to what they do and how they do it. This flies in the face of the marketing genius behind Gym Jones, which thrives on mystery and mystique.

    No matter what, the information isn’t really new. It is simply the organization and packaging of the ideas the has any originality to it.

    Since I’m rambling here, can fitness be defined in any way other than ‘functional?’ If training isn’t to increase the ability of the body, than it simply isn’t fitness.

    Chip Conrad on May 21st, 2009
  • 9

    Good points Chip. I suppose that would make ‘functional’ redundant. I still sense that there is a difference between the approach taken by tribes such as Crossfit and Gym Jones, and the approach taken by people involved in sports, for example. But maybe this is more the general vs specific argument. I associate ‘functional fitness’ with a generalised, bit-of-everything approach which (in my experience) doesn’t work if you pursue particular sports.

    gubernatrix on May 22nd, 2009
  • 10

    You bring up an important issue. Specialty athletes are rarely healthy athletes. Training completely specifically does not create wellness. This was evident to many of the Iron Curtain countries, who implemented large amounts of what today is known as cross-training into their programs. Many of their weightlifting teams would take part in running, calisthenics and team sports to round out their abilities.

    We can take some time for specificity and for general fitness, but a streamlined focus on one thing is might not even be ‘functional’ for that one thing, since injury, overtraining or simple burnout could occur and sideline someone quickly.

    I remember Mel Siff once saying that even Bodybuilding training was ‘functional’ for bodybuilders, but that’s unfortunately all you could be at that point.

    Chip Conrad on May 22nd, 2009
  • 11

    Functional fitness can also be described in terms of just being able to pick up your toddler, carry the groceries into the house or take the dogs for a decent walk. It’s important to everyone’s quality of life! 🙂

    Shauna Weiss on May 22nd, 2009
  • 12

    Functional training used to be called practice. Then people tried dressing it in order to sell it.

    You get good at what you practice. If you don’t practice it, you won’t be good at it.

    The functional think that because they train in unique way, they’re better prepared for the random physical challenges that life MAY throw at them, compared with someone who trains as as bodybuilder or who only does cardio.

    If you look at the way most of these people train, it’s very varied i.e. crossfit.

    The way I see it, they’re practicing a wider variety of skills adn activities on a regular basis, and so, shock, horror, as a result, they’re better at a wider variety of skills and activities than someone who doesn’t practice them at all or only practices a few of them.

    That’s all this functional training is. Practicing a load of different stuff – i.e. circuit training, sprinting, distance running, gymnastic style movements, 1 rep maxes, olympic lifting, body weight moves etc.

    To be honest, functional training is simply practicing whatever you want to be more functional at.

    But the way some people talk about functional training you’d think it was magic. It’s not, it’s just covering mas many bases as possible. Simple really.

    It makes me smile when people talk about bodybuilder style training not being functional.

    Ignoring the fact that the bodybuilder may be training 4 or 5 days a week with high volume and using a fair few isolation exercises, the functional people forget that many bodybuilders perform squats, deadlifts and standing presses with a barbell and are amazingly strong in these movements. Those are fairly functional movements are they not?

    Gary on May 23rd, 2009
  • 13

    Well argued, Gary. The bodybuilding lads at my gym are definitely strong and would have no problems lifting heavier weights that most guys if that’s what life required.

    gubernatrix on May 26th, 2009
  • 14

    to be politically correct: functional fitness is totally different for everyone and your current level of fitness. i think as long as youre sweating hard, get sore the next day and work your muscles (anaerobically and aerobically) equally without injury youre probably doing something that will have some functional benefit

    theoddbod on May 27th, 2009
  • 15

    I agree with oddbod – functionailty differs from one person to the next. To my mind that makes the concept of ‘functional fitness’ very hard to define, and hard to defend.

    With that wide, undefined variety of aims/goals/needs in mind I find it hard to understand when people say “such and such and exercise isn’t functional.” Functional for what? Bicep curls might be functional for someone, somewhere! Pro arm-wrestlers, maybe.

    It’s been mentioned above that the idea of just getting outdoors, getting some exercise and making yourself healthier is to be encouraged. I think that’s the key point people should be pressing: it’s not how you get your exercise, or to what end, but that you’re getting it at all.

    Ross on June 12th, 2009
  • 16

    @ Ross: I like your point about ‘hard to define and hard to defend’ as this is one of the issues I was grappling with when trying to answer the question myself.

    gubernatrix on June 12th, 2009
  • 17

    In my view the term Functional fitness and the meaning of functional fitness are slightly different. As someone had mentioned Functional fitness is fitness for the functions of the body (if you are a couch potato and very over weight you could argue you are functionally fit for the function you aim to perform). I think the term Functional Fitness is now seen as an approach by many people in the industry towards what is probably more accuratley termed as General Physical Preparedeness (GPP). Func Fitness seems a bit more accesable than GPP for some reason.

    My other thought on this was that it is training for fitness sake (as in the 10 areas if fitness) and not in the BB approach training the body for aesthetics/sports.

    I disagree with the view that it is just “practice”. Practice is the act of repetition in order to master something – i would argue that Func Fitness or GPP are the exact opposite, not repeating the same movements.

    Just my 2pw

    FKPimp on June 12th, 2009
  • 18

    @ FKPimp: good point! I think that’s where I’m coming from also. The word ‘functional’ isn’t helpful because anything can be functional in the right context. And yet what people call ‘functional fitness’ is something they want to differentiate from other types of fitness.

    gubernatrix on June 12th, 2009
  • 19

    I just found you while searching for a dumbbell snatch tutorial, great work.

    To me functional refers to fitness useful outside of the gym. Other exercise is still good, but developing the strength, coordination, and balance for non-sporting but physically demanding moments is the point of functional training.

    Steven on June 13th, 2009
  • 20

    Thank you Steven and cheers for your contribution to the debate.

    gubernatrix on June 13th, 2009
  • 21

    Cheers to you too!

    I used my business website in the comment form, but my blog is perhaps more interesting:

    As a massage therapist, my perspective comes from dealing with pain and injury more than athletic goals. I’m fairly fanatical about posture too.

    Does your name signify helmswoman, or the cardinal? 😉

    Steven on June 13th, 2009
  • 22

    Nice blog! My posture is terrible and I spend too much time in front of the computer.

    Gubernatrix – nice shout, most people don’t get that it’s Latin. It is the ‘helmswoman’ meaning but I prefer the later meaning of ‘she that directs or points the way’. Would have been Hodegetria in Greek but I decided to go Roman, plus I’m not a virgin icon!

    gubernatrix on June 13th, 2009
  • 23

    Sorry Gubes if I ramble on here!!! I hope it will make sense?

    What’s Functional fitness? Well it’s another one of those questions that are all about personal targets and perceptions. Also functional fitness is another statement that has been banded about just like core stability training, circuit training, bums n tums, etc etc, another way of attracting people to class so that they spend money.

    But what is functional?

    Is it the ability to run – jump – push – pull – lift etc, all movements that are required for daily life of course, BUT, the requirements to do this are individual to all of us, life, job, family, sport, your own goals will all have an impact on where you choose to be on the performance ladder.

    The question of what is Functional fitness will never be answered due to the fact that everyone will argue their corner. Bodybuilders – Crossfit – Gym Jones – Globo gyms etc, including me, my idea of functional fitness is not in agreement with everyone else. Take the afore mentioned:

    Bodybuilding: Is it functional? Yes of course if you are a bodybuilder it allows you to do what you choose to do in your sport and life, so in it’s own world is it functional? Yes, but it is also highly specific.

    Crossfit: Is it functional? Yes. in the world of CF and short duration anerobic work situations 100%, but by the very nature of having specific WOD’s and timings and required weights etc it has become specific in its own world. But functional to ALL aspects of life/sport? NO.

    We could go on and talk about functional training, movements etc but you will never reach an answer, as no matter what people say, it will always come down to each individuals targets/task etc. So even if you train in a purley GPP arena, for all contingencies, doesn’t that mean that you are training specifically for multiple tasks? I think so.

    Functional training is what best mimicks, adapts and allows the improved performance of your chosen goals. No matter what they are.

    They are just words, two words strung together to give it a name, nothing more.

    The importance for me is about improved PERFORMANCE in whatever the task maybe and if a bicep curl gave me that in a task that I was required to do, would that not make a bicep curl functional? For me the answer is yes.

    Mark on June 14th, 2009
  • 24

    As Mark says- function is specific to the task in which improved performance is required.

    The periodisation model developed by Bompa and other Soviet coaches advocates a period of GPP or all round non specific training in the non competitive phases or “off seasons”- the athlete then moves on the SSP sport specific preparation which can be deemed “functional” to improve performance for the particular sport/discipline then onto the “season” or competitive phase where maintaining performance is key.
    As you know these phases can be split into smaller microcycles for specific goals again- e.g. improved plantar flexion, increased lactate threshold tolerance or whatever.

    The confusion- I believe- has arisen from the mis-labelling of the GPP phase as “functional fitness” where really SSP is the “functional phase”. The relevant difference being the individual’s “Sport”- which can be anything from military/first response through to maybe just general health or changing nappies…regardless of this though- for any training to be functional or improve their performance in any desired area- they must be doing SSP- it’s just that their “sport” is known by a different name and the parameters of that “sport” govern what is functional within it.

    Sounds like semantics…but you get where I’m going?

    Ben on June 14th, 2009
  • 25

    Terrible posture? Horrors!!!

    Rectitudo Omnimodo! (that’s from the dictionary, not from my education.)

    As I am following your exercise advice, perhaps you will
    adopt some of my de-computerfying stretch advice on the
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    Steven on June 14th, 2009
  • 26

    @ Mark: you make a lot of sense! I was particularly struck by the point that training in a GPP arena for all contingencies is itself a specific type of training. I am also with you on the importance of performance and I think this is a good way to think about training. Too many times we become fixated by the process not the outcome. People get very attached to particular schools or methods and forget constantly to examine whether performance has improved.

    @ Ben: I do indeed get where you are going and you lay it out well. That’s a very interesting insight, that it is the sports-specific training and not the GPP that is the ‘functional’ part of the training.

    It’s also interesting that you are a Crossfit affiliate: how do you reconcile this view with the concept of Crossfit as completely generalist and non-sports specific? It sounds like you are agreeing with Mark that all training with a particular aim in mind is necessarily ‘sport-specific’ (although I’m not sure I agree with your characterisation of nappy changing as a sport. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids….)

    @ Steven: I’ll definitely look at your posture and stretching advice!

    gubernatrix on June 14th, 2009
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