Fitness Express Manhattan, a women-only circuit facility in New York City, has added functional training to its circuit these days. Members warm up on cardio equipment and then hit an eight-station circuit. In between each of the resistance training machines, women perform functional training exercises, such as swinging hula hoops around their hips, hopping through an agility ladder and balancing on stability balls.

“It's like an obstacle course in a way because every single station is different and works different muscles,” says Sylvia Clement, a certified personal trainer and the owner of the 1,675-square-foot, 215-member club that opened in October 2004. “It makes it more fun, so they don't get bored.”

With the increasing popularity of functional fitness in facilities today, it's no surprise that some express circuit club owners are adding this type of exercise into their circuits. However, because express circuit facilities often follow a strict recipe in terms of equipment and programming, traditional health clubs have an even greater opportunity to leverage this functional training trend, says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

Many multipurpose club owners have incorporated functional training into their offerings, but some are incorporating it into their circuit workouts, too. In fact, some clubs even offer circuits built completely around this type of strength training.

For the last eight years, Fitness Quest 10, a health and human performance company in San Diego, has offered a 60-minute class called TD Functional Fitness that includes a dynamic 10-minute warm-up, 45 to 50 minutes of circuit training and a few minutes of stretching. Each class has about 10 to 16 participants who split off into small groups and then go through the six-station circuit, which blends traditional resistive and functional training exercises. Participants — who range from executives to moms to even an NFL linebacker — pay between $15 and $20 per class or $150 for a month of unlimited classes, says owner Todd Durkin.

“The class has been a mainstay for many of my clients for two to three times a week for years,” he says. “People really like it because it's a physically challenging and intense class.”

The challenge and intensity of functional training can help stave off boredom, which can make it a great tool for boosting retention, says Jay Dawes, director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, CO. Exercisers, for the most part, don't want to do the same exercise regimen day in and day out. By adding variety to their circuits, club owners can keep members interested.

“You still have to meet the client's goals, but if you can disguise work with play, they will work harder and have a lot more fun doing it,” he says. “It's a great retention tool for the club owner because it makes exercise more fun.”

Functional Questions

Despite the retention benefits and the growing popularity of adding functional training to circuits, some researchers question the effectiveness and safety of functional training exercises. Many exercises on weight machines could be considered functional training exercises because they strengthen the muscles used for daily activities, says Wayne Wescott, fitness research director for the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. Also, more can go wrong during a functional training exercise than when working out on a weight machine, he says, noting that recent research studies have shown that functional training exercises aren't nearly as effective as standard strength training exercises for the abdominals and back (see sidebar on page 74 for more information about these studies). For these reasons, he advises that trainers concentrate on showing members how to properly perform functional training exercises and that functional training should complement rather than replace traditional strength conditioning.

Dawes agrees, although he isn't as cautionary about functional training because he says he hasn't seen any research indicating it is not safe.

“A blend of resistance and functional training gives exercisers the best of both worlds,” he says.

Functional training challenges members on a different dimension than standard resistance training by training the body to perform different movements rather than isolating different muscle groups, says Kevin Steele, a principal for Communication Consultants in Malibu, CA.

“You can lay down on a bench press and bench Olympic weights or do curls all day long, but there's not a lot of direct carryover into daily life,” he says.

Dollars and Sense

Despite any reservations about functional training, adding it to a club's group fitness schedule and personal training repertoire can create new fee-based revenue opportunities. Some club owners charge their members an additional $15 per month for a group fitness class in which a trainer leads about a dozen members through a functional circuit.

“It can be a profitable enterprise, but you have to be committed to it,” Steele says. “You have to be serious about functional training and have the space and instructors that are well trained and highly motivated.”

This approach has worked well for the Spectrum Club in Pacific Palisades, CA. When Gretchen Ritter, fitness manager and head of personal training continuing education, arrived at the club three years ago, she inherited about 15 personal trainers who generated $50,000 a month in personal training. Through a focus on functional training, her club tripled the number of trainers and its personal training revenue, she says.

However, the increased revenue came after some initial costs. Not only did the fitness floor undergo a major facelift when Ritter joined the club, but the club owner also invested about $5,000 in functional training accessories, such as foam rollers, medicine balls, resistance bands, agility ladders, airex pads and gliders. In addition, the club purchased about $15,000 in cable-pulling equipment.

Each day, the club offers at least two or three functional training classes, such as Core Strength, Functional Training, Core Circuit, Cardio Interval Training or Boot Camp. In the free classes, instructors use their clients' body weight to teach balance and enhance the experience with medicine balls and bands.

The club's primary demographic is Baby Boomers, and functional training is relatively new to them, she says. The club's members aren't looking to win a beauty contest or a bodybuilding competition — they want to live life free of pain, she says.

“We touched a lot of members who didn't think they needed a trainer,” she says. “Members are savvy and know they need it to feel better and to be able to do things they are still doing at age 70. It's not a hard sell.”

Setting Aside Space

Club operators can increase their revenue and retention rates through functional training, but if they expand a traditional compact circuit to include functional training, they may run into space constraints. Steele urges club owners to design their circuits in a way that doesn't affect traffic flow during peak times or distract other health club members.

Ritter agrees, saying it's important for trainers to have enough space for functional training exercises.

“Most of the time for functional training, you're in a relatively unbalanced environment,” she says. “You have to be careful that you're not in a crowded place where you can stumble or lose balance.”

If clubs opt to just have a straight functional training circuit, however, they will need less space than a traditional strength training circuit, Dawes says. Sometimes, unused spaces such as racquetball courts can be converted into space for a functional training circuit class.

“With functional training exercises, you can get a lot of bang for your buck in a small amount of space,” he says.

Sometimes, a renovation project can give a health club the opportunity to devote more space to functional training. When the 65,000-square-foot Memorial Athletic Club and Aquatic Center in Houston went through a makeover, the club added a separate studio for functional training. This room is open to all members at no additional charge, but it is most popular with the trainers and their clients, says Jeff Biehl, fitness director. During peak hours, up to seven personal trainers can work with their clients in the room at one time.

The club has 25 trainers on staff and brings in about $35,000 per month for personal training. To get more members interested in personal training and functional exercises, Biehl designs a functional training workout every month for the members. The workout, called the MAC Circuit Express, is available in the club and online. By focusing on functional training in the club's circuit, trainers have helped their clients to move better, shed pounds and lose inches, he says.

Although the jury may still be out on functional fitness's effectiveness, more club owners are adding functional training to their strength training mix. As more club members find success in reaching their goals with circuits that include functional training, thereby increasing revenue and retention rates in clubs, functional fitness may turn out to be a trend with staying power.

Four Tips for Safely Integrating Functional Training into Your Club

  1. Assign supervision

    Some clubs are making functional training accessories, such as medicine balls and stability balls, available to all of their health club members, but Wayne Wescott, fitness research director for the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA, urges club owners to make sure that their employees are carefully monitoring members as they use this equipment.

  2. Offer private and group sessions

    Before accepting your members in a high-intensity interval class, require that they sign up for a few private personal-training sessions to learn the basics of resistance and functional training.

  3. Hire postural specialists for trainers

    By having a deep knowledge about the alignment of the spine, these trainers can help to safely and effectively integrate functional training into your club.

  4. Use the principle of progression

    Trainers should work with their clients to manage different variables, such as momentum, inertia, speed and movement during functional training exercises.

Research on Functional Training

  • A January 2008 study by researchers at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, questioned the role of stability ball exercises in strength and conditioning exercises because they found that the balls may not provide a sufficient stimulus for increasing muscle strength or hypertrophy. In a separate study, researchers from the university did not observe any discernable benefit of performing a resistance exercise in an unstable condition.

  • Australian researchers found that individuals performing upright, resisted and dynamic exercises could achieve high trunk-muscle activation. For that reason, exercisers may not need to add instability devices to augment core-stability training, researchers say.

  • Canadian researchers tested the effectiveness of Swiss ball training and found that this type of equipment may permit a strength-training adaptation of the limbs if instability is moderate, allowing the production of overload forces.

Source: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research