ROOTED IN REAL LIFE
Despite its rather unsexy, utilitarian name, functional training is one of the hottest buzzwords rocking the fitness world. And Reynolds’ experience captures the discipline in its purest form—performing movements grounded in everyday activities such as standing up from a low-slung sofa, placing luggage overhead on a plane or, yes, bending to retrieve babies from the floor.
“Functional fitness involves moving many joints and muscles at one time in postures that correlate to real life,” explains Michele S. Olson, PhD, a Pilates instructor and exercise instructor at Auburn University at Montgomery in Montgomery, AL. “The muscles and joints are trained in a coordinated fashion that reflects the multidimensional way in which we commonly move.”
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Building on those basics, a new generation of functional-fitness workouts has elevated it so much that it’s ranked as one of the top workout trends of 2016, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Today’s trendier functional training can typically be found in boutique gyms kitted out with equipment like kettlebells, battle ropes and power sleds, where the intensity is amped up with added cardio and go-as-hard-as-you- can circuits. The hip environments—which often revolve around a prominent swath of Astroturf, pulsing music and the promise of fat-torching as well as better life function, are drawing thousands of new followers interested in smarter, more efficient training.
“Functional-movement training is not just about looking hot or losing weight,” says Reynolds. “It’s about assessing your whole kinetic chain and providing exercises that are selective.”
FROM REHAB TO RIPPED
While some of the current cutting-edge programs can look more like boot camp than rehab, functional fitness actually originated with physical therapists. “The concept of using exercise to improve daily function as opposed to focusing purely on aesthetics came from the physical rehabilitation community,” explains Brynn Putnam, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, a Pilates devotee and the founder of NYC’s Refine Method.
She points to Gray Cook, a physical therapist and strength coach, as the de facto father of functional fitness. The Virginia¬based Cook, the author of the best-selling Movement: Functional Movement Systems (Lotus Publishing, 2011), created the Functional Movement Screen—the gold standard of evaluations used by coaches and gyms to assess clients’ particular weaknesses, such as joint restrictions or asymmetry in the body.
Functional fitness possesses a back-to-basics appeal. Instead of working out on one-size-fits- all gym machines, there’s a shift to simply using one’s own body weight and cueing exercises in real-life language that’s refreshing.
From the sports world, Mike Boyle, a renowned strength coach who has worked with the Boston Red Sox and numerous Olympians, is a prime mover as well. “He shifted the conversation in the athletic training field from isolating specific muscles to building functional movement patterns,” says Putnam.
To wit, a gymnastic move that involves power, legs, core and arms requires that you train those joints and muscles together, not in an isolated way, explains Olson. “Doing bicep curls, back rows, ab crunches those don’t replicate a total-body movement pattern that occurs in the sport—or for the rest of us, does not replicate movement required in everyday life.”
As Putnam explains, there’s been a shift from the concept of spot toning and workouts with light weights (think the Lotte Berk technique) toward athletic, functional¬training workouts that are high intensity, and incorporate weight and intervals.
While some would argue that Pilates is actually its own form of functional fitness—and indeed some standing work on the Reformer does fall into the functional category Olson points out that many moves in Pilates are performed supine (on your back), prone (on your stomach) or side-lying. “Unlike daily life, in which we are on our feet and squat down and lift items with many muscle groups and joints firing all at once, Pilates is more muscle-
“My clients love it because they’ve lost many inches and pounds. They also quickly notice muscle definition, increased flexibility and increased energy,” says Tyra Lovato.
specific,” Olson adds. “Think of the Series of Five and how the focus is primarily on the abdominal region.” Functional fitness is more macro—comprising many multidimensional movements that mimic real life.
A CORNUCOPIA OF CHOICE
Functional workouts are kind of like artisanal pickles—there’s an overwhelming variety to choose from.
On the high-intensity end of the spectrum, there’s NYC’s popular Exceed Physical Culture, a workout playground featuring a full complement of toys—from climbing ropes and monkey bars to BOSU balls and a weighted sled. The small-group-training format combines full-body cardio and strength in classes that leave you drenched in sweat and your muscles shaking.
Slightly gentler is Putnam’s brainchild, the Refine Method, which the Harvard grad developed after exhaustive research into exercise science. “We’re not about training harder,” she says. “We’re about training smarter.” Her 50-minute workout includes everyday moves like squatting, pushing, pulling and hinging in carefully curated sequences involving mat exercises, a resistance pulley system and cardio spurts.
Meanwhile, other functional-fitness classes are cropping up at classic facilities like the Metropolitan Minneapolis YMCA, which offers a Functional Fitness class that uses weights, stability balls, BOSU balls, risers, steps and bands to “undo what occurs during the aging process and daily life,” according to the class description.
At the upscale Equinox clubs, a Fully Loaded class promises to help students “break out of linear workouts with flowing, multi¬directional movements.”
THE BIG DRAW
Beyond making people more effective in everyday activities, functional-fitness enthusiasts rave about their ability to get super fit within a fraction of the time they’d spend working out in other ways.
Tyra Lovato, a Pilates mat instructor based in Riverside, CA, who teaches a fusion of functional fitness and the method, says, “My clients love it because they’ve lost many inches and pounds. They also quickly notice muscle definition, increased flexibility and increased energy.”
Functional training is also a godsend for those who want to sharpen their sports skills. Pilates instructor Heather Culton, who teaches functional movement at NYC’s Fitness Cell, has clients who are “developing their range of motion for their golf game and increasing their core strength for an extra edge as a surfer,” she says.
If you’re over 50, adding functional movement can also help turn back the clock. A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that older adults who engaged in functional training versus traditional exercise like walking and aerobic dance showed dramatic improvement in physical performance in as little as four weeks— including a 43 percent increase in shoulder flexibility and 13 percent increase in overall agility/dynamic balance.
Moreover, anyone who’s recovering from injury or illness will likely benefit from functional training as an adjunct to physical therapy (with doc’s approval, of course). “I work with a number of older people with physical conditions such as arthritis or Parkinson’s, and they see great improvement,” says Culton.
Functional fitness also possesses a back- to-basics appeal. Instead of working out on one-size-fits-all gym machines, there’s a shift to simply using one’s own body weight and cueing exercises in real-life language that’s refreshing.
As Jillian Potashnick, a PMA-certified instructor in Las Vegas who teaches a hybrid lovato photo by steve urteaga; potashnik photo by rebecca seibel of Pilates and functional movement at her 1109 Studio, puts it, “In the beginning, I didn’t know it was called functional fitness. I just knew that hearing, ‘keep your knees behind your toes while doing a squat’ became more relatable when I thought about actually squatting over a public toilet seat.”
Besides burning extra calories and fast¬tracking weight loss, functional fitness can lead to big payoffs for Pilates practitioners looking to improve their performance. While “Pilates increases endurance and coordination, functional fitness intentionally builds muscle mass by using heavy loads and challenging stability with the same respect for alignment and integrity of movement,” says Reynolds. For example, Reynolds cites her struggles with lunging exercises on the Chair and the Reformer following her pregnancy. “I was wobbly, and I couldn’t master the equipment, which was moving underneath my feet,” she recalls. “In functional-training sessions outside of the studio, I did lunges with the ActivMotion Bar and carrying sandbags, and found that carrying heavier, unstable loads with my upper body while my feet were on a non-moving surface quickly restored my hip extensor strength and balance. After a couple of functional-training sessions, all of my Pilates lunges were a piece of cake.”
Adds Olson, “If you’ve been doing functional fitness, you’ll have more strength in the arms, abs and legs when you perform on the Pilates machines.”
“Being a Pilates practitioner allows me a deeper understanding of how the body works,” explains Culton. “The flexibility that is gained by Pilates allows a greater range of motion for any kind of strength training, and a healthy balance of the small and large muscle groups.”
Adds Potashnick, “If you practice Pilates, you’ll have less chance of injury, better fluidity and total-body awareness in space when taking up functional training.”
While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for how to balance your Pilates schedule with functional training, Culton suggests adding functional fitness workouts at least once a week, but possibly two or three times, stressing that “it’s important to build in rest days, which will aid recovery and ultimately result in more progress.”
IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?
Because functional fitness is tailored to the individual, all fitness levels are welcome. But in sessions with high-intensity intervals, you’ll feel your heart pounding and may struggle for breath. “It’s important to maintain good form to avoid injury and speak with your instructor about your limitations due to age, injury or
other physical conditions,” Lovato says. “At first, take the modifications for beginning levels and listen to your body.”
Wear the same clothes as you wear for Pilates, since as Lovato points out, a well- fitted outfit makes it easier for the instructor to observe form and make appropriate adjustments. But women will need a supportive sports bra for the higher-intensity movements, and everyone should invest in good cross-training sneakers, she adds.
FINDING FUNCTION AT YOUR JUNCTION
The term “functional training” can be amorphous and is used by many people to refer simply to a set of exercises using nontraditional fitness equipment, such as wobble boards, suspension straps or resistance bands, notes Putnam. “The key is to find a program that is individualized, integrated and results-oriented.”
“Look for a place that offers a functional¬movement screen (see page 77),” insists Reynolds. “Not everybody has the same problem with their elbow. You want to know they’re going to be working on your specific issues and not just screwing around.” Ideally, you would then follow the appraisal with trainer- designed exercises that are customized to your particular needs.
If classes are your jam, “choose ones that offer bodyweight exercise, kettlebells or total¬body-strength moves,” suggests Olson. Some common functional moves include the wood chop, uni-plank lift and lunge with overhead press. As for video or streaming options, there isn’t the usual plethora available—in part because functional training is so customized. But Lovato suggests searching the new workouts on Beachbody on Demand or Nike+ Training Club, “an app which is very well done—and free!” she says.
Above all, remember to embrace the oft-quoted wisdom of Functional Movement Systems founder Gray Cook: “First move well, then move often.” Sound familiar?
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