Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Functional fitness training was high on the list of the top 10 global fitness trends for 2018 — and it looks set to stay there over the next few years.

Functional fitness training is not new, it is not rocket science nor is it a passing fad.

London-based SA personal trainer Morné Welgemoed is a big fan of functional training and incorporates it regularly into fitness programmes for his clients.

He qualified as a master personal trainer in 1999 under the late Peter Loots, who is acknowledged as one of the early pioneers of personal training in SA. “Functional training was all the rage in London in the early 2000s,” Welgemoed says.

Its popularity has since spread across the globe and shows no sign of slowing down. Welgemoed says functional training has proved its worth over the years for elite athletes as well as couch-potato types.

“As a physical fitness concept, functional training is still misunderstood,” he says. It simply means a form of exercise that trains people’s muscles to help them do everyday activities safely and efficiently, he adds.

People ranging from firefighters, to parents constantly picking up and carrying toddlers, or stressed-out corporate executives will benefit from doing functional exercises that support their day-to-day actions.

All exercise should be functional and serve specific goals and needs. That’s common sense. Exercise is essential for overall health, which in turn maintains or improves quality of life. Welgemoed says this is at the core of functional fitness.

It’s about training muscles to work the way they do in everyday tasks, say the other experts. In that way, functional exercises “prepare your body to perform well in a variety of common situations”.

In essence, functional training refers mostly to full-body exercises that train  muscles to work together, Welgemoed says. It uses muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time as it simulates common movements people might do frequently at home, at work, or while playing sports.

One example of a functional exercise is a squat. It trains the muscles used to sit down, stand up or pick up objects from a low height.

Functional fitness exercises also emphasise “core stability”, Welgemoed says. A person’s core is the central group of muscles, including the abdomen and lower back, responsible for posture and limb movement.

Functional training is often paired with some type of work with a Swiss ball (also known as a fitness, stability or balance ball) or  Bosu ball, Welgemoed says.

Despite its name, the Swiss ball was the brainchild of Italian plastics manufacturer Aquilino Cosani in the early 1960s. He created a large inflatable ball to assist with gymnastic exercise.

US trainer David Weck invented the Bosu ball in 1999. It consists of an inflated rubber hemisphere attached to a rigid platform and looks like a Swiss ball cut in half, say users. It can be used both sides up, hence the name Bosu. It is most commonly used for balance training, lunges, squats and split squats.

Other devices commonly used in functional training include kettle bells and weights.

Functional training may include high-intensity interval training, another enduring fitness trend. It has many benefits but also risks, depending on the individual’s health and exercise history, Welgemoed says.

Functional training also differs for men and women. Welgemoed includes more strength training for women as they have less muscle mass than men. “Females generally have better results with volume training and shorter rest periods, although this may also work well for males,” he says.

All exercise programmes for children should also be “functional training all the way and purposeful to their main goal”, Welgemoed says. This will build the best base for their health and specific sports disciplines.

The benefits of functional training are many and varied. They include improved balance, posture, co-ordination and aerobic fitness.

“To be physically healthy and well-rounded, we all need a relative amount of mobility, flexibility, strength, power and cardiovascular fitness,” Welgemoed says.

And like any exercise regimen, functional training is not without the risk of injury. There should be no extreme functional training and people should always check on their trainer’s qualifications.

“Start small, stay sensible and safe,” Welgemoed advises.

US professional bodybuilder and eight-time Mr Olympia champion Lee Haney has similar sentiments. He is quoted as saying: “Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate. The world wasn’t formed in a day, and neither were we. Set small goals and build upon them.”