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Functional Exercise - what is it?

Functional exercise is basically exercise which helps the body to carry out everyday tasks, such as sitting down/standing up, picking heavy items off the floor or getting in and out of a chair. So for example, squats will help strengthen the muscles which will assist you in sitting and lifting. The movement patterns your body uses to get things done are lunge, squat, push, pull, twist, hinge and walk and the exercises base themselves in these movements.

Some of the best exercises for functional training are what are known as 'compound exercises'. These are ones which work more than one muscle group at a time. A squat is a great example of a compound exercise because with one move you are working your glutes, hamstrings, core and quad muscles. Lunges are also an excellent compound move. Whereas if you compare this to a bicep curl, you are only working the one muscle, your bicep, which in daily life, it's unlikely you will use that in isolation in lifting items in the house or at work. Of course it is important to also strengthen the biceps as these are used in lifting, however you could combine a bicep curl with a squat or lunge to work more muscles in one go and to replicate lifting in real life.

Another main aim of functional training is to try to prevent injury. For example with lifting, most of us know that we should lift in the "correct" way, we should be bending our legs and keeping chest upright so that we do not injure our backs. This incorporates a squat or deadlift position and therefore if we incorporate these into our exercise regimes then we are training those muscles so they will be ready to perform these lifting tasks in daily life. For example lifting boxes or even our toddlers from the ground!

So what would be some good functional training exercises I could do you may ask. Well firstly check with your doctor before starting any new exercise plan if you are unsure if this is suitable for you. Secondly either bodyweight only or freeweights (at a weight suitable for you) can be used. Using gym machines aren't the best for functional training as they do no imitate the moves you would carry out at home, eg the machines only work in a specific, rigid way, whereas in actual life you move in different motions and planes. It is important to also incorporate exercises to help with stability/balance, core, strength and flexibility as well as power.

As mentioned above, squats are great and if you add some weights, eg a dumbbell in each hand, this will replicate you picking up bags in a supermarket for example.

Press ups are good for developing the upper body and core areas.

Bent over rows and deadlifts are a good addition.

Lateral lunges, these can help prepare your body for work such as hoovering/vacuuming for example.

Sit ups - we use our core a lot in daily life, a lot of the time when we do not even realise, therefore keeping our core strong is important. Equally important in turn is keeping our back strong to counterbalance this.

Of course if you are carrying out functional exercise as part of physio training (where the origins of the training lie) then you should of course follow the exercises given to you by your physio expert as they are likely to be providing more isolated exercises relevant to the area of your body you are training/strengthening. My above explanation is a more overall view from the point of a fitness trainer and not a physio.

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