Functional fitness: A way of life

HARARE - You can run for days and bench press and deadlift and biceps curl all you want, over and over and over again, but it doesn't guarantee you functional fitness.

Common daily living activities like carrying a box upstairs, changing a tyre, pushing your car out the mud, climbing a tree with your son or loading bricks will still be a difficult physical challenge without having achieved an appropriate capacity for functional fitness.

Training for functional fitness focuses on building a body capable of doing real life activities in real life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealised posture created by a gym machine or a lifting culture.

Functional training has its origins in rehabilitation. Physical and Occupational Therapists often use this approach to retrain patients with movement disorders, with the objective of returning them to optimal or sub-optimal performance levels.

Conventional weight training isolates muscle groups, but it doesn't teach the muscle groups you're isolating to work with others.

The key to functional exercise is integration. It's about teaching all the muscles to operate efficiently together rather than isolating them to work independently.

A functional exercise replicates functional movement, that is, those movements we use to get average things done in our daily lives.

As a strength coach achieving functional competence with your athlete is exciting. It allows for an out the box approach to designing programs and the associated exercises.

Creating sequences of movement patterns or combinations of exercises that replicate/mimic and enhance their sporting performance is an objective.

Anything to improve their sports specific skill or appropriate component of fitness required to play the sport efficiently will create a well rounded athlete.

It is key to note and appreciate that to achieve good levels of functional fitness you need to approach training with a progressive system.

There is a natural continuum and in order to advance to the next stage you need to achieve an appropriate level of competence at your current stage of training.

Primary focus should be on achieving basic balance, mobility and postural control before anything else is attempted.

Once you are competent you have the grounding to learn and develop basic body weight movements inclusive of pushing, pulling, driving (squat and lunge) and rotating.

This builds the strength and ability to begin applying loads to your training and with regards to functional fitness these loads generally take the form of kettlebells, medicine balls, dumbbells, suspension trainers and some cool everyday items such as sledge hammers, tyres and ropes.

Finally, an appropriately developed functional athlete or health minded person has the potential to progress into the more elite level of training.

Performance based training will encourage and stimulate the development of the athlete at the apex of physical preparedness inclusive of plyometrics, complexes, olympic lifting and unique exercise sequences that challenge and stimulate performance.

Be patient, be honest and be appropriate with your progressions through these stages.

Benefits to achieving Functional Fitness:

1. Reduced risk of injury.

2. A body that operates as a unit as opposed to parts.

3. Not only does your body begin to operate with greater efficiency but a byproduct of this type of training is:

   - Looking good

   - Feeling good

4. Enhanced performance as a gym goer and as an athlete.

My dream is to foster a generation of healthy, functionally fit individuals who require limited assistance and enjoy freedom of movement and activity throughout their life.

*Ex-Zimbabwe rugby international Grant Mitchell is High Performance Director at Innovate High Performance Centre in Harare and a top strength and conditioning coach. Twitter: @InnovateHPC, website:

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