On an early Sunday morning, the blaring horns from the “Rocky Theme” echo off the gym walls at Function and Fitness in La Crescenta. My workout buddies and I stop chatting as our effervescent coach Jessica Rose hollers a long “Woooohooo,” while raising her arms and racing around the room. Grab your water bottles, folks. The Sunday sweat session has officially begun.
Class participants of all ages, sizes and athletic abilities gather around Coach Jess as she demonstrates the morning’s exercises. There are side lunges. Kettlebell swings. Squatting with sand bags. Chest presses with the TRX Suspension Trainer. The dreaded burpee. We hear a rendition of her silly “Hinge Song” reminding us about proper form. Demonstrating a plank pose, she admonishes us that, “Even though we are on Honolulu Avenue, this is no time to do the hula. Keep those hips up!”
Finally armed with our workout regimen, Coach Jess leads us in a warm-up before beginning a 45-minute routine specifically crafted to target common movements and muscle groups that assist us in our daily lives. It’s sweaty, exhausting, challenging and, yes, I’ll admit it, fun.
The motto “Train Movements, Not Muscles” is displayed on the wall, a subtle reminder that this place — like a growing number of fitness facilities — embraces a functional fitness training concept that doesn’t promise you six-pack abs or deeply chiseled biceps. Your reward is being able to easily master a flight of steps, effortlessly squat down to pick up a dropped iPhone and comfortably place your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin.
Indeed, functional fitness has hit the mainstream. Self magazine calls it one of the “Ten Biggest Fitness Trends of 2018,” but many coaches, devotees and others in the fitness industry say this workout method has been around for years — there’s just a new light shining on it.
Maybe the heightened attention comes from aging Baby Boomers who want to stay in shape but don’t strive to be super hard-core athletes. According to the Mayo Clinic, “This type of training, properly applied, can make everyday activities easier, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life…. [It can help] older adults improve balance, agility and muscle strength, and reduce the risk of falls.”
According to Christine Clark, owner of Function and Fitness, there are six main functional movements that are usually incorporated into her facility’s workouts: squats, lunges, rotations, hip hinging, pushing and pressing. “What we do is teach basic patterns of movements because every day we push, every day we pull, every day we lunge, hinge and squat. Our hope is that you take the stuff you learn here and apply it outside — at work, at home, the store, wherever — so you can stay healthy and safe.” Clark explains that the idea is to prevent the type of injuries most people suffer, usually from doing something as mundane as putting groceries in the car. “People typically throw out their backs because they haven’t strengthened those rotational movements,” she adds.
Today, all of Clark’s exercise classes are led by coaches who supervise the carefully programmed weekly small and large group sessions that build upon the prior week.
Clark started her fitness career as an instructor at a big-box gym and then met clients in rental spaces until she opened up this workout facility in 2014. At fitness conferences, she sees new expensive equipment for sale and crazy workout techniques. “But you won’t see any of them the next year because they didn’t catch on. You know what works? Good old-fashioned dumbbells, kettlebells and resistance training.”
Indeed, the power of functional training is vital as we age, contends Tom Strafaci, owner of Functional Fitness, which has locations in Monrovia and Arcadia. Most of Strafaci’s clients are older — and many come to the facility “fearful of movement,” he says. “Often simple things, like climbing stairways, getting into a car or using the toilet can be difficult for older people,” he says. Strafaci and his coaching staff train one-on-one for a more personalized exercise session. They know their clients’ backstories; many have diabetes or knee replacements or a history of heart attacks and strokes.
“Sometimes a good workout that day doesn’t mean sweating like crazy,” he says of his individualized approach. “Maybe it’s a series of eye drills to help with balance because that function is way off that day. We meet clients where they are at that moment. Our goal is to train clients so they can maintain their independence.”
With more than 34 years in the world of fitness (including a previous career as a physical therapist), Strafaci has seen many fads come and go, but he’s excited about one of the industry’s newest trends. “It’s not a piece of equipment,” he explains. “It’s better-educated trainers who have college degrees and know what is really important. We now better understand the body and how it moves and ages — and we know how best to keep it working.”
Enter a cozy workout space on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock and you will see the customary weight rack, stability balls and balance boards — as well as numerous oversized hooks placed on walls at different heights. This is where class participants attach the resistance tubing that is a hallmark of The Dynamic Advantage boutique fitness center. The mini watering-hose-like tubing comes in six colors indicating levels of resistance from three to 90 pounds which, when combined with other functional movements, can challenge pros as well as novices.
One afternoon, Coach Marlene Maroun-Flowers leads a small group through a series of fast-paced but carefully timed exercise sets. After warming up and working with hand weights, participants fasten colored tubing at various heights for specific exercises with whimsical names like “the power bar” or “coffee cup row.” “Bow down and keep your chest up high!” exclaims Coach Marlene.
The tubing is “versatile, safe, efficient and effective. It allows people to train in a way that gives them a multitude of options without a lot of excessive gear,” says Brandon Flowers, who owns the studio with fitness partner Rick Caputo. The duo has been training clients since the 1990s; they capitalized on their love of fitness when both were laid off from their corporate gigs — Caputo in aerospace and Flowers from insurance. After receiving certification, the two trained clients in their homes and rented spaces before opening a studio in Eagle Rock in 2001; they moved to their current location in 2012.
Understanding and strengthening the biomechanics of movement is at the heart of the workouts. The two stress the concept of micro-progressions — that is, encouraging clients to intensify their workouts at a slow but steady pace. “What we do here is focus on correct movements that strengthen muscle, posture and balance,” says Caputo.
A client’s age and ability may influence the intensity of the move but, as Flowers says, “No matter what condition you have — injury, illness — your elbow is your elbow. Your knee is your knee. They all do the same function. At the beginning, we give clients the proper dosage of exercise and they slowly creep up with ability and confidence.”
Dynamic Advantage opened with only one workout session a week; now 24 sessions are offered at their main location, and other weekly classes are held at the Cancer Support Community Pasadena and onsite at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The mix of exercises is excellent and uses the whole body,” says Mike Kleine, an acquisition advisor at JPL who has been participating in the Dynamic Advantage sessions at the space-research facility for nine years.
An avid fitness nut, Kleine says functional training complements his other activities — Pilates, cycling, skiing, hiking, kayaking and running. People often mistake him for a much younger man (he’s 69), and he credits that to spending more time moving. “I don’t take the shuttle around the JPL campus, I walk,” he says. Like many, Kleine wants his fitness to propel him into the future. “I’ve seen so many young vibrant people bent over, heavy with weight and with poor posture. It’s painful to see,” he adds. “When I’m older, I want to hike the landscape, not see it from a tour bus.”
Flowers says that’s the highest compliment he or anyone in the fitness industry can hear from clients who embrace functional fitness. “We have a lot of people who are in their 70s and 80s and who travel a lot — and they are able to do that because of their fitness levels,” he says. “They are out there living their lives and that is huge. We keep telling everyone that the road to fitness really has no finish line. You are on
it for life.”