An insight into functional fitness

Words & Photos: Aileen Swanepoel

One of the latest buzzwords you’ll find in gyms these days is functional fitness. So what does it mean? Aileen Swanepoel describes what it is and what it takes to be a functional fitness athlete.

Functional fitness training offers high-intensity workouts that are constantly varied with functional movement. It focuses on building a body capable of doing real-life activities, in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealised posture created by a gym machine. Functional exercise is about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently.

The what and why

The development of overall fitness means developing strength, endurance, flexibility, and fitness. Functional fitness is a very effective way to get fit and anyone can do it. Other benefits include becoming stronger and more muscular, and your body will get leaner. And what's so great about it is that you can train at your own level and pace, increasing the intensity as you go along.

Below are the five pillars of functional fitness training:

1. Balance – It balances strengths and weaknesses by training passionately and holistically.
2. Consistency – Functional fitness athletes weave together work, family, and challenging workout schedules. We constantly invest to go further.
3. Endurance – An athlete’s training should reflect the sport and functional fitness athletes are the ultimate test of endurance. If you want to be successful, you will be successful.
4. Adaptability – A functional fitness athlete must set goals and be adaptable. Listening to your body is key to preventing burnout or injury.
5. Recovery – Successful training includes various levels of intensity, from high intensity to rest and recovery. It’s the valleys that make the peaks possible, and both are essential to real progress.


So let's start with the basics. Overall fitness is made up of five main components, so to assess your level of fitness, look at all five components together:

1. Cardio respiratory endurance (cardio respiratory fitness) is the ability of the body's circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel during sustained physical activity. To improve your cardio respiratory endurance, try activities that keep your heart rate elevated at a safe level for a sustained length of time, such as walking, swimming or bicycling. The activity you choose does not have to be strenuous to improve your cardio respiratory endurance. Start slowly with an activity you enjoy and gradually work up to a more intense pace.
2. Muscular strength is the ability of the muscle to exert force during an activity. The key to making your muscles stronger is working them against resistance, whether from weights or gravity. If you want to gain muscle strength, try exercises such as lifting weights, rapidly taking the stairs, pull ups, air squats, and using a medicine ball.
3. Muscular endurance is the ability of the muscle to continue to perform without fatigue. To improve your muscle endurance, try cardio respiratory activities, such as walking, jogging, bicycling or dancing.
4. Body composition refers to the relative amount of muscle, fat, bone, and other vital parts of the body. A person's total body weight (what you see on the bathroom scale) may not change over time, as the bathroom scale does not assess how much of the body weight is fat and how much is lean mass (muscle, bone, tendons, and ligaments). Body composition is important to consider for health and managing your weight!
5. Flexibility is the range of motion around a joint. Good flexibility in the joints help prevent injuries through all stages of life. If you want to improve your flexibility, try activities that lengthen the muscles such as swimming or a basic stretching programme.


Caution is to be taken when starting functional fitness, as the body needs to become used to the multi-jointed movements and intensity. So it's very important to listen to your body and train at your own level and pace. In a group situation, don’t try to compete with the strongest and fastest person in the class. If you haven't trained in a while, a good way to start is to include pilates as it will help the body to become mobile and develop strength - strength precedes power.

To become a functional fitness athlete, it is essential to follow a scientifically developed training programme that aids in developing explosive muscle tissue to perform at high-intensity levels, as well as muscle tissue that endures under extreme stress situations. It is crucial to develop an explosive muscle that will endure and work under resistance and is not just a good-looking muscle.

Your training routine will include a cardio workout and resistance training (combat conditioning) for muscle development and toning. Some of the exercises you will be exposed to are pull-ups, tractor tyre flicks, sledgehammer hitting, rope climbing, kettle bell training, box jumps, sprawl jumps, skipping, push-ups, lunges, and squats.


Resistance/conditioning exercises are for healthy men and women. Children can do them too, as well as people in their 40s, 50s and over, as long as their health is good and they have no orthopaedic problems. Beginner students start with very light resistance and progressively add more resistance over time as their bodies and skills develop.

Cardio fitness training combines high-intensity aerobic and anaerobic exercises, such as long and short sprints. Anything that pushes the heart rate up is considered cardio.

The following is the type of cardio training you will expose your body to during your functional fitness routine:

Aerobic/cardio training
The purpose of aerobic/cardio training is to improve the efficiency of the oxygen delivery system and efficiency with which the muscles produce energy. The benefits gained from aerobic/cardio training are enormous and include weight loss, increased life expectancy, and an enhanced feeling of well-being. To improve your level of aerobic/cardio fitness, you should gradually exercise for longer periods and maintain a steady increase in the intensity of exercise (progressive resistance training). The best way to make exercise more intense is to cover a given distance over shorter periods of time or to 'handicap' yourself by wearing wrist or ankle weights while you perform the exercise.

Isokinetic exertion
Exercise in which muscles contract at constant speed against varying degrees of resistance. To cool down, reduce the exercise you’re doing to a slow pace.

Isotonic exertion
Working muscles in a particular part of the body contract at varying speeds against a constant resistance. Lifting weights and sit-ups are both examples of this.

Anaerobic exertion
This is exercise of high intensity and usually brief duration, such as sprinting. This exercise tends to foster muscle development.

Isometric exertion
Muscles are made to work against a static resistance so that they expend energy, but do not produce movement. An example is pressing your hands palm-to-palm. This builds up muscle strength.


The duration of a full training session averages between 60-90 minutes and is divided so that the session commences with some warm up and stretching exercises, together with conditioning exercises such as Hindu squats, Hindu push-ups and bridges, and basic stretching at the end. You should train four days on and three days off for optimal recovery.

Warm up/cool down

The warm up is the most essential part of your workout routine. The main reason for the warm up is to prevent injury. The warm up also increases body temperature and heart rate, encodes proper technique, increases strength, improves endurance, increases flexibility, and activates nervous system. The warm up order: stationary, movement drills, ground activation, sprints and or body weight work. So why do we include sprints in the warm up? Sprints are a fundamental human movement and work every muscle in the body, as well as help develop power.

The when

The time required to achieve functional fitness depends on the amount of training time you put in every week. You need to be committed to improve your health and to the scheduled classes. As your condition improves, you need to push yourself harder, not less. The more you put into your training, the more benefits you will receive.

Many people often say they first want to get fit before they start training as a Functional Fitness athlete - then you’ll be waiting forever. The main thing is that you BEGIN. •


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