In today’s fitness and sports industry, the term “functional fitness” is the hottest new catch phrase. From kettbell training, to CrossFit, to TRX, and even here at SPARC , this coined term  is used to describe particular exercises or programs. But what is “functional” fitness? Do we understand it or do we overuse the term? If the term is over used than I’m at fault more than anyone. The title of my Masters Thesis was “The Effect of Functional Exercise Training on Physical Function Assessed using the Functional Movement Screen in Middle-Aged Postmenopausal Women.” Yes, the word function / functional is in there 3 times!

So what is it? The definition of functional is having a special activity, purpose, or task; relating to the way in which something works or operates. The definition of the word is exactly the goal of functional training for sport and life. We want any exercise or series of exercises to replicate movement(s) executed in sports and every day life. For example, if you go to the gym 3 days per week and do the same single joint exercises (ex. bicep curls, leg extension, tricep extension, etc.), you’ll probably get stronger at those particular movements but will you be able to transfer that fitness to lift a couch, run up a flight of stairs, or get up from the ground without support? But what about a Turkish Get-up, Farmers Carry, or loaded step-up? These are total body exercises that require mobility, stability, tension, eccentric, isometric and concentric contraction throughout the entire movement. Don’t get me wrong, isolated movements have their place too (particularly for rehab and prehab).

Why the advent of “functional” fitness? The harsh truth…as we age, we get fat, and we sit too much. 40 years ago we didn’t sit as much, we didn’t eat as much, and kids played outside more. The aging process is associated with decreased levels of physical activity and adverse changes in body composition, including reductions in muscle mass, increased total fat mass, and increased central adiposity (stomach fat), contributing to decreased muscle capacity (i.e. muscle strength, power, etc.) and quality (i.e. capacity relative to lean mass) and physical functional ability [1-5]. The reduction in physical functional ability is positively correlated with increased physical pain and reduction in quality of life [3].

In the U.S., with the currently high prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity, creates a complex challenge for longevity and disability prevention. Recent data indicates that late-life disability is increasing among younger generations moving into older adulthood compared to previous generations [6, 7]. 2 cross-sectional waves (1988-1994 and 1999-2004) of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that activities of daily living disability, instrumental activities of daily living disability, and impaired mobility increased significantly among respondents aged 60 to 69 years in the more recent survey period compared to the previous [7]. In addition, when comparing the latter to the previous wave, respondents age 70 to 79 years, reported a significant increase in instrumental activities of daily disability, while respondents age 80 years and older reported a non-significant decrease in instrumental activities of daily living disability, exhibiting that younger cohorts are becoming less functional [7].

We want to change these statistics. We want people to feel safe and strong picking up their children, grand children, or a bag of groceries. Can we exactly replicate in the gym what is going to happen out in the real world? No, but with “functional” training, we can better prepare individuals for the challenges it may present and help them to continue doing the things they enjoy longer and with less pain.


By: Lauren Higgins, M.S., CSCS, FMS

SPARC Sports Performance Coordinator



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  2. Kamel HK. Sarcopenia and Aging. Nutrition Reviews. 2003;61(5):157. PubMed PMID: 9846166.
  3. He XZ, Baker DW. Body mass index, physical activity, and the risk of decline in overall health and physical functioning in late middle age. American Journal of Public Health. 2004;94(9):1567-73.
  4. Prevalence of physical activity, including lifestyle activities among adults-United States, 2000-2001. MMWR Morbidity and mortality weekly report. 2003;52(32):764-9. Epub 2003/08/15. PubMed PMID: 12917582.
  5. O’Brien AE, Evans EM. Physical Activity, Adiposity, and Muscle Quality: Impacts on Physical Function in Bmi and Age- Matched Older Men and Women. Journal of Aging & Physical Activity. 2012;20:pS182-pS3. PubMed PMID: 000307433500313.
  6. Lakdawalla DN, Bhattacharya J, Goldman DP. Are the young becoming more disabled? Health Affairs (Project Hope). 2004;23(1):168-76. PubMed PMID: 15002639.
  7. Seeman TE, Merkin SS, Crimmins EM, Karlamangla AS. Disability Trends Among Older Americans: National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 1988–1994 and 1999–2004. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(1):100-7. PubMed PMID: 47519619.