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Training With a Purpose: Making Muscles Work Together

By Miranda Mirsec

Functional fitness and functional exercise training are commonly used buzz words among fitness professionals. But what do these words really mean, and how can you make them work for you?

WHAT

"Functional fitness" is the level of fitness necessary for a person to take care of personal, household, social and daily living needs. Functional fitness focuses on improving your ability to perform daily living activities, such as walking, lifting, standing and carrying.

This level of function is about maximizing the efficiency of the body's physiological system. Therefore, "functional exercise" focuses on building or training a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine.

WHO

This concept is ideal for anyone who has experienced changes in gait, balance, coordination, and in some cases, levels of fatigue and/or reduced strength (for example, people afflicted with multiple sclerosis - MS). Functional exercise requires more energy for the body to compensate for areas of dysfunction.

Woman doing handstand. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark HOW

Conventional weight training isolates muscles groups, but it doesn't teach the muscle groups you're isolating or targeting to work with others. The key to functional exercise is integration. It's about teaching all the muscles to work together for a specific purpose, rather than isolating them to work independently.

Woman sitting on exercise ball. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Integration particularly is important for people living with a debilitating disease. As illness affects particular parts of the body, other areas compensate for the weakness. Without teaching the muscles how to work in unison, over time, strong muscles get stronger and the weak ones stay weak. However, functional exercise teaches isolated muscles how to work together.

To get started with functional fitness, you might want to forget about the weights entirely at first. Taking the focus off the machine or weight allows individuals to concentrate on the movement itself - helping to build stability and strength in the muscles, allowing them to work together effectively,  as they were designed to do.

The first step should be to teach your body to control/balance its own weight. Start with simple movements, such as one-legged squats and other balance exercises. Be sure to switch sides during each maneuver to promote balance and muscle integration on either side of your body.

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