What is Functional Fitness?

    The fitness industry, like most others, is not immune to fads. The 50’s and 60’s were the days of Nautilus and machine style workouts, oh and the hula-hoop too. Then the 70’s offered a major shift. The roller-skates and aerobics classes in the early 70’s gave way to biggest shift in the industry’s history later in the decade: bodybuilding. This carried through the 80’s and gave birth to things like Gold’s Gym, Muscle Beach, and your very first “health clubs.” The 90’s shifted this and brought the gym to your home with Bowflex and Total Gym. Little did we know, that in the 00’s just when we thought that the home gym and P90X was the future, some dude named Greg Glassman started this thing called Crossfit and created the second biggest shift in the fitness industry.

    So right now you might be thinking, “thanks for the history lesson Jared, but what’s your point?” But I just want you to be aware that these fitness fads usually don’t last. Except for two: the bodybuilding craze from the 70’s and the functional fitness craze of the past 10-15 years. You could even make the argument that Crossfit’s popularity stems from bodybuilding (just take a look at the physique of the Games competitors and you’ll know what I mean) but that’s a story for another day. So here’s what I’m getting at: What exactly is “functional fitness,” are we doing it right, and can we improve it?

    Let me start by explaining what I think of when I hear functional fitness: healthy joints, improved tissue quality, movements through full ROM, increased strength output, and the ability to exercise over the course of not just a few years, but decades. Notice I didn’t mention anything about a Fran time, 1RM squat, bicep circumference, or perfect snatch form. Some gyms, Crossfit or not, actually have true functional fitness goals in mind. And unfortunately, there are others that only care about testing numbers. I think it is pretty obvious which gyms cater to which goal after spending a couple hours at the location.

    I think that with the growth of Crossfit and the increased popularity of the Crossfit Games, some gyms have forgotten the basics that Glassman had envisioned from the beginning. Gym owners and coaches have become so infatuated with kipping muscle-ups and 1RM snatches that they have forgotten to build up from the bottom. And the people that suffer are the people that pay the bills at the gym: the general population. A great Crossfit gym should start from the very basics and use movement progressions to keep clients healthy while also improving their movement and strength. So have we been doing it right? Some people certainly have, and I think those are the highly successful gyms with 300+ happy and healthy members. Others, not so much.

    Aerobic capacity and anaerobic development are keys to success in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If you think that I’m full of shit, find an Adonis-looking S.O.B. who can’t walk up 2 flights of stairs without being out of breath, and then try to tell me how “fit” they are and that aerobic capacity isn’t important in a healthy lifestyle. Those guys exist; they’re called bodybuilders and weightlifters. They are great at their respective sport, but lack in other areas.

    Another part of functional fitness is body control and awareness. On the front end, if you have poor body control then complex movements can become very dangerous. On the back end, what good is having big muscles if you move like a baby deer? A great way to improve your body control is through basic gymnastic movements. I’m talking hollow holds, kettlebell windmills, and L- Sits. Not muscle-ups, maltese, and ring dips.

    So how can we make Crossfit’s functional fitness better? We start by improving body control and awareness. Luckily, when at this beginning stage it is also very easy to also focus on aerobic development. Because even if you can’t control your body in space, you can still ride a bike or pull a rower for 30 minutes. From here with proper progressions, strength training, and increased body control, you can ensure that you are set up for success for the rest of your life.

    Often times today you hear people use the terms Crossfit and functional fitness interchangeably. So is Crossfit functional fitness? Yes, some of it can be depending on the coaching and programming. But is functional fitness Crossfit? No, there are many other modalities to successfully achieve functional fitness outside of Crossfit. A good Crossfit program is just one of those modalities.


UPDATE: I have recently come across what I think might be the most comprehensive set of instructions on how to perfect a kipping pull-up. Both the author and myself believe that you should be able to perform a strict pull-up before ever attempting the kipping version, but when you are ready to step to that level, you can find the link to the website by clicking here