I often use the term "functional" when describing exercises or workouts that support activities of daily living. It has been a part of my vernacular since functional training modalities became mainstream during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Not everyone understands what fitness professionals mean by "functional," so today I want to clarify.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word "functional" in three ways, but the second definition is maybe the most applicable in a fitness context. The definition reads, "Used to contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole." Synonyms are active, alive, going, live and a few others.
Having prescribed thousands of functional exercises over the years, I recognize the difference between a functional exercise and a nonfunctional one. It's easy, really. I just think about the value of the exercise in the real world. Will the movement "contribute to the development of a larger whole" in terms of movement efficiency? That is the type of question that allows me to categorize an exercise as functional or nonfunctional.
For example, a single arm bicep curl is nonfunctional — by any definition. Flexing the elbow joint does nothing to improve one's mobility, flexibility or movement efficiency throughout a given day. Conversely, a walking lunge is functional because it directly relates to more efficient movement day in and day out. See the difference?
As I near my 45th birthday, I think about how my workout focus has evolved in terms of functionality. In my 20s, my workouts consisted of nonfunctional strength training designed to pack on muscle. In my 30s, I reduced resistance levels, sprinkled in more cardio training and added many functional movements. These days, my strength training is more endurance-based than anything, and my goal is maintaining flexibility and mobility.
So, I challenge everyone to personalize their own training program to match their functional needs. Don't sit on a bench and perform single arm curls if your goal is to move better. Insert exercises that challenge your balance, coordination, flexibility and functional strength. I'm confident that those workouts will produce delightful results in terms of everyday movement efficiency.
This week's exercise certainly meets the criteria for functional training. The Plank to Scorpion Reach challenges the core, upper body and hips to work in unison for maximum mobility.
1. Get in the "up" phase of a pushup with arms and legs fully extended.
2. Kick your right foot up to the sky and allow your torso to dip down toward the floor. As you perform these movements simultaneously, your foot should actually reach pretty high and fairly far forward.
3. Pause briefly when you reach the end of your range of motion, then reverse the entire movement to go back into the plank position with both feet on the floor.
4. Switch legs and repeat.
5. Continue alternating legs for two sets of 12 repetitions.
I love this exercise because it allows one to ease into it. Those new to fitness can perform a mini version by getting into the plank and lifting one leg off the floor. As one's fitness level and flexibility improve, the movement can be increased incrementally.
This variation on the plank is a fantastic example of functional training at work and represents the type of exercise that many should consider for exercise programs targeting maximum movement efficiency. Enjoy!
Matt Parrott is glad to hear from readers. Send him questions or share a story about your pandemic workouts at email@example.com