Let’s begin by talking about how to approach a fitness training program. There are a few key principles to keep in mind:
- Learn the basic exercises first. There is a reason these exercises are given the role of foundational exercises, because they are the movements that mimic how we functionally utilize our bodies. By mastering these exercises first, you provide yourself with a strong muscular foundation to continue building upon.
- Start with basic body weight exercises. It is important to be able to manipulate your own body weight through a reasonable range of motion prior to adding any additional resistance. One of the best ways to ruin a fitness program is to begin at a level your body is not ready for. In some cases, such as upper body strength, some people may not be able to move their own body weight when first starting, which is when modifications to the exercise, resistance bands, negative training, machines, etc., will come into play.
- Progress from simple to complex. This concept is quite straightforward, don’t progress to the next level until you have mastered the prior level. For example, if you have never completed a regular body weight squat, it would be unwise to start on an unstable surface to perform the squat. You want to begin by learning to squat with no added resistance on a stable surface. Once this has been mastered, then it is time to progress to added resistance or unstable surfaces.
For body-weight training, use the following training progression:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 8 repetitions
- Week 2: 3 sets of 10 repetitions
- Week 3: 3 sets of 12 repetitions
- Week 4: Progress to next exercise difficultly level utilizing the same three week progression detailed above.
- Note: If you do not want to progress by increasing the repetitions, you may also add external resistance such as weight or resistance bands.
- When adding resistance, use small weight increments, adding no more then 5 lbs per week to an exercise or begin with the lightest resistance band. Most fitness facilities provide weights in 2.5 lb increments to allow for reasonable weight increases.
As a general rule, don’t advance to the next level of an exercise until the previous levels exercise looks good. What I mean by this is the exercise should appear smooth and athletic during execution. The exercise should look effortless before moving up to the next level. If you are struggling to master a particular exercise, you should go back to the previous level and work towards mastery at that level. Allowing your ego to advance you beyond what your body is ready for is a recipe for injury and frustration which may cause you to quit exercising all together.
I recommend keeping a fitness journal to help you keep track of your progress. Your fitness journal may include, but is not limited to the following:
- Start and finish time of entire workout
- All exercises, sets, and reps of the planned workout
- Writing down what you have planned prior to the workout is crucial for monitoring your progress. You may not complete the entire planned workout, which will give you a better idea of how to plan your next workout. Conversely, you may have planned a workout that was easier then you expected, so you now know to increase the intensity for your next workout.
- Time it took to complete the warm-up, workout, and cool-down, respectively
- Energy levels throughout the workout
- Resistance level/weight used for each exercise
- For example, you have planned a set of push-ups with a resistance band. You used the lightest resistance band, and found the exercise to be smooth and athletic, indicating that you need to move to a higher resistance band the next time you complete this exercise.
- Amount of repetitions you were able to complete per exercise
- For example, you planned 3 sets of body weight (BW) squats with 12 repetitions each set. On your third set, you are unable to complete all 15, indicating that you are not yet ready to advance to the next level of that exercise and should stay with the 3 sets of 12 for your next workout with BW squats.
- Any technique problems or successes with exercises
- For example, you are completing a single leg dead lift and are still finding your balance wobbly. Make a note next to the exercise. This will allow you to monitor this particular exercise to evaluate progress. Once the wobble subsides and the exercise is smooth and athletic, you can advance to adding resistance, or an unstable surface.
- Problem areas of the body
- For example, perhaps you start a workout with extremely tight hamstrings, make a note of this as well as how they feel post workout)
There are a variety of fitness tracking journals available, both free and for purchase. It is not necessary to pay for any fitness journal. Literally all you need is a spiral notebook and you have a journal. If you prefer a fancier method, there are several fitness tracking apps available as well as online printable templates. I have created a simple printable fitness tracking journal template for your convenience.
Functional Training Equipment
While it is not necessary to have additional training equipment, it can be useful to help improve your fitness level as well as providing modification options for exercises and stretches. The following list of tools are great to include in your program if possible and as an additional benefit, they do not take up much space so are perfect for limited space situations:
- Stability Balls: This tool is excellent for the introduction of instability into your fitness training program. The stability ball helps build better balance which activates more muscles. They come in a variety of diameters, which allows for a variety of exercise benefits.
- Agility Ladders: The agility ladder provides you with a dynamic warm-up that can emphasize any number of components. It can be used to develop balance, foot speed, coordination, or eccentric strength. The agility ladder provides benefits to both the muscular system and the neuromuscular system while increasing muscle temperatures.
- Resistance Bands: Resistance bands are elastic bands used for strength training and stretching exercises. These bands come in a variety of resistance strength and will often come in a package with 4 – 5 different resistance levels to work with. Resistance bands can not only offer increased resistance for exercises, but can also be used to modify exercises such as pull-ups or chin-ups allowing you to decrease the amount of weight being pulled, helping to build the necessary muscles to perform the exercise without modification.
- Yoga Blocks: Yoga blocks are a great addition to any fitness equipment. They are typically made of hard foam or rubber, and are used to help modify stretching poses to help maintain proper body alignment as well as various muscular development exercises. An old book is also suitable for most yoga block activities if looking to save money.
- Sliders: Sliders are a great way to add instability to your workout, which will make your muscles work harder to find balance. These are an excellent tool for core development, leg development, instability training, etc. They are inexpensive, especially if you use furniture gliders which work exactly the same as any fitness brand and is usually less expensive and have sliders that work on hardwood floors as well as carpet. In a pinch, paper plates or frisbees work for sliders as well.
- Medicine Balls: Medicine balls are typically weighted balls generally the size of an average shoulder width. They are used to help with strength, instability, and plyometrics training to name a few. This tool is the best for functionally training the torso as well as rotator cuff injury prevention. They can come in a rubbery option with rebound capability, a harder latex, or a softer larger diameter option. Each type will offer a different fitness benefit.
- Weight Vest: Weight vests are a great tool to add weight while not sacrificing as much of the bodies natural mobility. It is a great way to add extra resistance to body weight exercises such as the squat, push-up, pull-up, etc. As a bonus, most weight vests have removable weights allowing you to adjust the amount of weight utilized, which can also be used on their own as a held weight if you don’t have dumbbells or plates.
- Wrist and Ankle Weights: These tools are excellent for adding leverage resistance to arms and legs during workouts. They are useful because they are wrapped around the wrists and ankles allowing for full use of your appendages during any exercise.
- Foam Rollers: A foam roller is a lightweight, cylindrical tube of compressed foam. It is often used to increase flexibility, reduce soreness, and eliminating muscle knots. Rollers come in a variety of different sizes and degrees of firmness and textures.
Many of the fitness tools listed above can be made with inexpensive materials right at home. For example, I have several agility ladders made with duct tape and paint stirring sticks which I used for many years while teaching middle school physical education. If you are strapped for cash, or don’t want to pay the often ridiculous prices for fitness equipment, take some time and search for diy gym equipment ideas.
Where Do I Begin?
Now that we have talked about the basic concept of functional training, now we can talk about how to create and start your own functional fitness program. Naturally, we will begin with the warm-up, the most important part of the workout.