Healthy Living YMCA Health and Fitness

How to make your workout functional

Remember how easy it was to run, jump, and climb when you were a kid? It would be nice to stay that spry and limber forever, but the reality is, most of us need to do some basic training to maintain the musculature, flexibility, and agility required to do those same movements as adults.

That’s where functional fitness comes in. These exercises are designed to develop your muscles in a way that makes it easier and safer to do the stuff you need to do every day, like reaching for something on the top shelf of your closet, carrying groceries, or playing with your kids.

What’s the difference?

Functional exercises serve different purposes than the ones you might be used to doing at the gym. Many old-school workouts isolate individual muscles, working them separately from each other to build their tone and definition. Bicep curls are just one example: although they’ll undeniably make your biceps bigger, a curl isn’t a movement you’re likely to need in your day-to-day life. By contrast, functional exercises focus on compound movements: exercises that use more than one joint and muscle together. This type of movement is better for promoting the strength, stamina, and stability you need to do practical activities — like gardening or carrying a backpack full of heavy stuff — without injuring yourself.

What is a functional exercise?

Squats are health educators’ go-to example of a functional exercise. You actually do squats all the time: when you sit down and get up from a chair, or bend down to pick something up, you’re using all the muscles and performing the range of motions needed to do a squat. Sometimes, squats can look intimidating, especially if you’ve seen people doing them with a lot of weight. But even just squatting your own body weight for plenty of reps will fatigue and therefore build the muscles you rely on to get you through your day.

How can I try it?  

The West End YMCA just opened a dedicated training space for functional workouts. It features an exciting new piece of equipment: the Octagon HTS 90, which combines a whole bunch of exercise options in one compact corner. You can use it for dips, pull-ups, core training, TRX workouts, boxing, and more. The new functional studio also has an Assault AirBike Elite: a stationary bike you can use for high-intensity interval training. Unlike traditional bikes, there’s no external resistance; the faster you move, the more resistance is created. The LCD display lets you track your heart rate, calories burned, watts generated, and distance travelled. Plus, the new Matrix S Drive lets you replicate sled pushes and parachute sprints without needing tons of open space. Combine the Matrix with the AirBike and you’ve got a great interval training circuit!

Most other YMCAs across the GTA have the same or similar resources, or they’ve got functional spaces of their own in the works. But really, one of the best things about functional fitness is that you don’t actually need any equipment. Movements like squats can be done without any weight, as can lunges and burpees. Any of these movements can be incorporated into a “portable” exercise routine that you can do anywhere (which makes them functional in the different sense that they can fit into even the busiest of schedules).

If you don’t know where to start, take advantage of the expertise of a personal trainer, who can introduce you to some functional exercises you can add to your fitness program. Or try one of our group fitness classes, like Bootcamp, that feature functional movements.