Form + Function

Tips for making your fitness facility more functionally friendly, and the benefits of doing so. 

In early January, the American College of Sports Medicine announced its 2015 annual fitness trend forecast. Rounding out the top 10 was functional fitness. The exercise format, focused on improving efficiency in completing daily tasks, has been a staple on the list for the past five years.

Many gyms are beginning to realize that functional fitness is not really a trend at all, but rather a popular workout system here to stay. From the big-box gyms to smaller studios, numerous facilities are taking steps to incorporate functional training programming.

Body Space Fitness in New York City offers semi-private and private training, as well as group fitness classes, with a core focus on functional fitness. “We do total-body workouts, so a typical session will include some range of motion work, deep tissue work, dynamic stretches and activation drills,” said Kelvin Gary, the owner and head coach at Body Space Fitness. “Then we move into our core and plyometric work and, depending on what phase in the program the client is in, we will have anywhere from three to four exercises, usually paired with some mobility drill.”

Even though 75 percent of the training sessions at Body Space Fitness are semi-private, with three clients working with one coach, each client has his or her own individualized program.

According to Gary, specialized programming is a key component of a successful functional training program. What functional means for one person will be completely different to someone else.

“I could have a high school basketball player, who [thinks] functioning means getting up and down the court pain free,” said Gary. “But I could have another client who is a mom, schlepping her kids around the city in a stroller who needs to bend down to pick things up without throwing out her back.”

At Body Space Fitness, functional fitness means training each client’s body the way it was designed to work, and the way he or she needs it to work, optimally.

“That is why we will do a lot of compound exercises and very few single-joint exercises, like bicep curls, because there are very few times in life when you do bicep curls by themselves without having some other shoulder movement along with it,” said Gary. “It is training the body to be efficient and strong so then you can go out and apply that strength to whatever life throws at you.”

The classes and training sessions offered at Exceed Physical Culture in New York City also place an emphasis on functional fitness. The club understands that functional training goes beyond a workout in the gym. “The Exceed Workout is a full body, high intensity cardio and strength workout that focuses on burning calories and total-body conditioning,” said Marianna Birbin, the lead instructor at Exceed Physical Culture. “The movements performed in class mimic movement patterns used in your daily life — making you stronger and less injury prone in your other activities. In addition to the usual benefits to a workout routine, clients can expect to move differently through life.”

According to Gary, an excellent functional training program also requires thinking outside the box when it comes to equipment. Forget traditional exercise machines. Instead incorporate fitness tools such as kettlebells, medicine balls, BOSU balls, jump ropes and sandbags.

“I use a lot of bands because the change in variable you get when you pull a band further, there is more resistance,” explained Gary. “If I am trying to get people to change, I can have them use heavier weight, but another way I can progress them is by getting them to use something where the variable changes. I also use a lot of sandbags and dynamic variables — things that are going to get [the] client’s nervous systems more fired up.”

Luckily, the most essential part of a functional training program typically comes at no cost: space. Having enough space to complete various exercises and get people moving is essential.

“If I have an attorney client come in and he has been sitting at a desk all day long, why on earth am I going to have him sit him down on a machine?,” asked Gary. “A lot of gyms will say the shiny equipment is what sells memberships, but at the same time, are you doing the best thing for your client? For us, space is a premium, being able to move around, do box jumps, push a sled. Being able to move freely in space is a big part of our environment and our training model.”

Life Time Fitness has also made creating additional space for functional training a priority. “Over the past few years we have added significant square footage to our functional training area by reducing some doubling up of weight-based machines,” said Natalie Bushaw, the director of public relations for Life Time Fitness.

In addition, Life Time Fitness has added new equipment for members to use on their own, or as part of various training programs, such as Alpha Training. The program focuses on plyometrics, sprints, body weight movements, tire flips, battle ropes and various other exercises to improve functional fitness.

Since the majority of functional training programs center around alternative equipment, encourage your instructors to pursue additional certifications or take various continuing education courses. Exceed Physical Culture works with Strong First to educate and certify instructors on various kettlebell techniques, since they are a staple in class.

As Gary explained, making sure the instructors at Body Space Fitness are dedicated and knowledgeable has been essential to its success. “Clients are putting in our hands their money, their health and their time,” he added. “If we waste it, they are not going to get it back.”

1 Comment

  1. Scott

    September 16, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I am going to refrain from a strong,loud disagreement position and tone of voice and keep this simple. Most of what is discussed in this article about training to become more functional,is basically nonsense,sry to say. When a gym or fitness center reduces or eliminates the use of slow,controlled,full range of motion resistance based movements,using traditional strength machines and free weights,they are not only wasting everyone’s time,they are doing a huge disservice to their membership and practicing fitness counseling that is dangerously wrong. Training for optimal muscle strength is THE MOST important thing a person can do for their health;people do not become more functional without becoming stronger first. Those who want to be fully prepared for performing activities of daily living,should be training the various connective tissues that constitute their entire musculosketal system;this means tendons,ligaments,and all of the components that support muscles and joints;functional training,as it is instructed in most gyms, does not adequately address these points and is even counterproductive.
    Also,functional/core training does not sufficiently overload the bones to help people in their later years,combat osteoporosis and other bone density issues.
    The added lean muscle tissue from proper strength training is also the biggest factor in the burning of calories and weight management.
    Remember the oldest exercise science quote in the books: “if you want to be better prepared for all of the activities in life,FIRST…get stronger.”

    thanks,
    scott,exercise machine design engineer,consultant

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