What is Functional Fitness?


Functional Fitness exists in the world, but broadly speaking, its definition has not been given much thought beyond the accepted practice of it, and therefore remains unclear beyond the collection of movements which tend to make it up.

We felt that this vagueness carried the potential to scupper the intentions of both those taking part, and of those coaching it.

So, with this in mind we took the time to dig a little deeper into the practice of functional fitness, in order to create clarity and certainty around the delivery of it.

We kicked off by exploring the definition of the operative word…

‘Function’ defined; of or having a special activity, purpose, or task – “a functional role” – related to the individual: In one’s life.

The crux here: ‘related to the individual: In one’s life.’

With this in mind, we concluded that the ‘function’ in functional fitness belongs to the client.

But, what does this mean?

It means that alongside a holistic, full bodied, unspecialised/open approach to the practice of fitness, it is the clients function [inside AND outside of the gym] that inevitably dictates and directs how their expression of it should be designed and played out.

Inclusion of the client [and all that makes them up] in the equation that spits out their fitness experience design, is the only way to ensure that optimal challenge and iterative progression [meaningful experience] is achieved.

This is the differentiator between most fixed, generalised fitness practices – despite the movements that make them up – and Functional Fitness as we see it.

Understanding the Concept of Functional Fitness

With that as our working definition of Functional Fitness, the definition of success [or goal] of the thing is to honour the individual in the broader sense. To consider their multiple goals both inside and outside the gym, by exploring full ranges and directions of movements and patterns that lead to the upgrade in function as a whole, rather than focussing on a specialism and its parts.

‘Health’ is a major player in the goals and function of most of our clients. There are elements of fitness that support and facilitate health, and there are those that do not.

Movement quality, strength, and aerobic capacity are the 3 pillars of physical expression which support upgrades in health. Worded differently, movement quality, strength and aerobic capacity are the underpinnings of functional fitness.

What sits within these buckets as opportunities for physical expression, and what should we be including as the basis of our functional fitness coaching offerings?

Functional Patterns

Squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, twist and locomotion are the patterns we use to navigate ourselves physically through life on a daily basis – our functional patterns if you like.

We tend to explore those patterns unconsciously through all the planes of motion – not just pointing forwards.

It would make sense then for these multiple planes and patterns to form the ‘function’ of our fitness expression.

I don’t use the word ‘form’ lightly. FORM is the title of our strength pillar of physical challenge. In FORM we aim to build movement quality and strength across the functional patterns and planes of motion.

Multi Joint Exercises

As a nod to the idea that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, we have a principle in our system of ‘Patterns-Parts-Patterns’. This principle directs our thoughts through the whole multi joint pattern first, then into its constituent parts if necessary, but with the intention to ALWAYS come back to the whole on the other side…of course with function in mind.

Core Strength and Stability

At the heart of all functional movement patterns sits the core. Requirements of the core differ depending on the nature of the movement, pattern and plane of motion at play.

Generally speaking if ‘more load’ is the required challenge, then static strength, or stability of the core is most useful as we attempt to resist movement through the spine in order to lift heavy things efficiently.

However, if ‘more athleticism’ is the required challenge, then dynamic strength, or mobility/control through movement is of more use – this tends to relate to most things in life, and so despite what we see and hear in the fitness space around the importance of ‘core stability’, ‘core mobility’ is more functional to most.

As a broad brushed idea, we can suggest that by expressing and progressing the functional patterns correctly, the core will receive all the challenge it needs in order to adapt [get stronger] both statically and dynamically, without the requirement for any focussed ‘core work’.

Here then, ‘core work’ is a derivative from the whole, and would be an expression of an isolated ‘part’, meaning the utility of this challenge in upgrading the whole would be lower than if the core was challenged as an integral part of the complete chain.

Balance, Coordination and Agility

From the core, development of it through optimal challenge and iterative progression of each pattern, will naturally result in upgrades in balance, coordination and agility.

However, it can be easy for a coach or fitness practice to get stuck in a particular area of exploration. Therefore, in order for these three attributes to be challenged and therefore refined, intentional inclusion of patterns across all planes of motion, and at varying speeds [when earned], is required.

From the core, development of it through optimal challenge and iterative progression of each pattern, will naturally result in upgrades in balance, coordination and agility.

However, it can be easy for a coach or fitness practice to get stuck in a particular area of exploration. Therefore, in order for these three attributes to be challenged and therefore refined, intentional inclusion of patterns across all planes of motion, and at varying speeds [when earned], is required.


For any of this work to stick, the individual needs to be capable of adaptation. This doesn’t just mean carrying out the physical [expressing], rather, adaptation only occurs once the expression has been recovered from.

Continual positive adaptation of this nature over time leads to greater opportunities or options in physical challenge; resulting in greater adaptability physically, and more freedom in movement – the aim of the functional game, right?

Cardiovascular Fitness

As previously mentioned, aerobic capacity is one of the 3 pillars of physical expression which supports upgrades in health. How it is prescribed in order to be of most use to each client should be dictated by the assessment, which provides the insight required to align with the client’s function and goals.

In general terms, the aerobic energy system is an evolutionarily efficient way for humans to produce energy. Developed properly it has many benefits, including upgrades to the cardiovascular system, lungs, and muscles in support of longevity.

Repeatable cardiovascular fitness is also a powerful way for individuals to develop patience and the skill of pacing, or FLOW in our language. 

With increased blood flow and therefore oxygen delivery to the brain, it also provides the foundation skill acquisition and refinement of movement quality – arguably making development of FLOW the vehicle for all gains leading to upgrades in health and function.

Benefits of Functional Fitness

Increased muscle strength, endurance, balance, coordination and agility

Through exploring all functional patterns and planes of movement, types and progression of muscle contraction, and development of aerobic endurance, upgrades across all 3 pillars of functional fitness will be the outcome over time, IF supported by solid lifestyle behaviours and nourishment outside the gym.

Preventing injuries and promoting longevity

Holding the function of the individual at the heart of all coaching decisions and prescriptions, leads to the creation of optimal challenge and iterative progression in their training and lifestyle behaviours. This then leads to increased vitality day-to-day, and therefore promotion of pain [injury] free function and longevity as a result of increased resilience over time.

Designing a Functional Fitness Routine

[Coaching] “Mastery is simplicity”

Whilst mastery of our craft may seem like a distant vision for most of us, holding this principle at the forefront of everything we do will help to sense-check our decisions; especially in program design; keeping us on the path towards mastery over time.

The PFCA’s 4i’s is the system that sits at the heart of our Functional Fitness Coach education, and is designed to take the complexities of the client as inputs to produce simplicity of design as the output.

With the client’s function dictating the function in functional fitness, it is critical for any functional fitness program to consider everything that makes the client up. The outcome is that everything in the program has a place and rationale for being there – it creates optimal challenge, which carries meaning, which drives consistency.

With all that in mind, if you’re writing a program for yourself, consider your own values and priorities in this thing; what is the next step of challenge for you? Where will that lead? How will you progress over time? All good questions when thinking beyond the next training session.

Here are some specifics to consider…

Cardiovascular Endurance Exercises

The first principle of aerobic activity is that it should be maintainable and repeatable – keep this in mind when designing your piece and setting your pace.

The 2nd principle is ‘Pacing is a skill’. What does that mean? It means that in order to carry out aerobic work effectively – for it to FLOW – we must learn how to pace.

Generally speaking aerobic progressions should start long and slow, before moving towards shorter and faster – feeling and learning your maintainable and repeatable paces as you go.

A big mistake many make when designing aerobic conditioning pieces is they lose focus on the intended outcome. They forget that success here is increased aerobic capacity, and include movements and loads that are too heavy or unrefined, which leads to an unintended stimulus.

Keep loads relatively light and movements relatively simple, whilst focussing on the cyclical and repeatable nature of the piece.

Strength and Resistance Training

There is a line of progression in resistance training that must be followed in order to fulfil your maximum potential of its expression at some point down the line. The line of progression is the strength continuum:

Motor Control [movement quality]

Muscle Endurance [movement quality + volume]

Strength Endurance [movement quality + volume + density]

Absolute Strength [movement quality + intensity]

The strength continuum continues beyond this point, but for most, a lifetime of solid resistance work can be found in these first 4 steps.

You’ll notice that movement quality is constant across the progression – this should be your metric of success as you build volume and/or intensity. If movement quality breaks down, this would suggest the challenge is currently beyond you – wind it back a little to find the sweet spot in order for you to build on over time.

Core and Balance Exercises

As mentioned above, if movement quality is championed across all movement patterns and planes of motion, then ‘core’, balance and coordination will be developed as an integral part of the whole.

There may be rationale in isolating these pieces in a rehabilitation setting or for particular client priorities, but for general training, if considered and designed well, there should be no reason to focus on these elements especially.


So, let’s bring it all back around.

The ‘function’ in functional fitness belongs to the client.

There are patterns, movements and planes of motion that exist, but what, why and how they are implemented into a program design should be dictated by the client – the ‘who’ – which immediately renders them ‘functional’.

Whether it’s a squat, a lunge, a bend, a push, a pull, a twist or movement through locomotion, we should have a reason and a function for its place in the plan.

Functional fitness has become a buzz phrase, ironically resulting in the practice of it as a whole generally being less functional than I’d guess it is/was intended. In order to coach or express functional fitness, we must first consider the client.

If you’re a Personal Trainer or Coach and want to explore improving your knowledge in functional fitness, then be sure to check out our Functional Fitness Coaching Course.

Or maybe if you’re not already Personal Trainer and you’re looking for a career change into personal training; be sure to check out our Level 3 Personal Trainer Course.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How often should I perform cardiovascular endurance exercises?

We would encourage everyone to move their body daily. Let’s say on average 3 resistance sessions a week is ‘functional’, then every other day is up for grabs for aerobic activities.

The mind shift here – not all aerobic activities need to [shouldn’t] take place in the gym – a hike, walk or bike in nature are ideal aerobic modalities for general health and fitness outside of the gym.

Can I do strength training every day?

The answer here would depend on your experience, competence and resources.

With the beginner requiring regular touch points on all movement patterns, full body resistance sessions are solid beginner protocol. With this in mind, it makes sense to have a day between strength sessions – this is where aerobic activities or active recovery would be plugged in.

For intermediate and advanced protocols, we can select movements and intensities across the week to enable recovery whilst having consecutive days of strength training.

Of course this will be dependent on the client’s resources – time, energy, etc, and also their ability to recover, which must be factored into shaping the week of program design.

Are core stability exercises necessary for beginners?

No. See above for rationale.

Can I improve flexibility through static stretching alone?

Perhaps. But its lasting impact will vary based on many things.

Exploring and challenging your full ranges of motion across all movement patterns – building strength – will likely result in more functional increases in flexibility, or mobility.

How do agility drills enhance functional fitness?

If your function requires increased levels of agility, then the same principles apply. Agility should be earned and improved over time, with a graded approach to its expression, built on a basis of movement quality across all patterns and planes of motion.

Can I target specific muscle groups with functional exercises?

As with everything we’ve tabled above; first we must define the function, in order to measure any particular movement as more or less functional.

Generally speaking, movements more functional to most will be multi joint in nature, rather than isolated and single joint and therefore targeting particular muscle groups.

Is it necessary to consult a fitness professional for functional fitness workouts?

Not necessary, but we’d suggest the outcomes of your training would be upgraded with the guidance of a professional fitness professional, especially if that fitness professional is part of the PFCA collective.

Can functional fitness help improve sports performance?

If your function is to perform in a sport setting, then by its very essence, functional fitness should support your sporting performance. As always, the devil is in the detail – aligning both the individual and the demands of the sport comes with challenges of course, which is where the guidance of a pro PFCA coach will be invaluable.