February 12, 2022 10 min read
It’s a common misconception that working out translates perfectly to real-world strength. In many circumstances it does, but how often do you find yourself in the exact same position as a bench press requires?
That’s where functional fitness comes in.
Organizing your workouts in such a way is a strategy for improving the movements and activities you do in your day-to-day life. If you’ve ever had too much trouble carrying groceries, shoveling, or picking something up, these are the workouts for you.
The benefit of this type of training is that it’s “functional,” but what exactly does that mean? For one, it means strengthening those muscles that you use the most in your daily activities. This can be anything from pushing shopping carts, pulling open doors, or reaching to high shelves.
Along with this strength comes additional balance and stability that’s required for these common movements. These benefits come together to also decrease your risk of injury while going about your everyday activities. But you could argue that these benefits are almost indistinguishable from regular weight training, so how do they differ?
Functional fitness exercises come down to movements that use either your body weight or free weights. While machines are useful in working certain muscle groups, there are very few real-life activities where your body is locked into a single plane of motion without the need for stabilizing muscles. These types of exercise can be useful for bodybuilding and other fitness goals, but they don’t mesh well with everyday life.
For example, even something like the bicep curl isn’t going to have a great bang for your buck when it comes to functional strength. This also means that functional movements are all compound exercises. By utilizing different muscle groups together, you improve the way they work together and their efficiency. These movement patterns build your overall strength that’s more useful in everyday life. Although the emphasis is on quality of life improvements, you’ll also increase your fitness level and build strength.
When it comes to functional fitness, the squat is almost unparalleled in its functionality. It’s even named after a movement we do on a daily basis—squatting. As a compound exercise, the squat will work plenty of muscle groups in your lower body and posterior chain. Your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles will all have to be properly engaged for you to pull this exercise off correctly.
Including this lift into your workout routine is also going to make a variety of daily actions easier. Anything that requires squatting down or bending over will see improvement with enough squat training. And if you don’t have a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbells handy, a bodyweight squat will work in a pinch.
Here’s how to perform the bodyweight squat:
Burpees as a gym class classic that engage dozens of muscle groups all across your body. This makes burpees a great way to not only strengthen your whole body, but it will also provide a good cardio workout. Burpees are functional because your body gets practice performing a movement that’s very complex, requiring very different parts of your body to work together. If you do them at a fast enough pace, burpees are also terrific at improving your endurance and burning fat.
Here’s how to perform a burpee:
Pull-ups are one of the more difficult bodyweight exercises you can perform, and they’re also incredibly useful for strengthening your traps, lats, and rhomboids.
Your arms will also be challenged since you’ll need to have a strong enough grip to be able to hold onto the bar. This is one of the best ways to gas out your entire body, and they require almost no equipment as an added benefit. There are also a lot of different variations that will add some variety to your pull-up workouts.
Here’s how to perform a pull-up:
Just like pull-ups, dips are one of the best bodyweight exercises for building upper body mass and strength. And again, they also require minimal equipment that most people can put together at home.
The dip primarily works the chest, triceps, shoulders, and abdominals.
By angling your body either forward or backward, you can also place a different emphasis on either the chest or the triceps. For functional fitness, the triceps are particularly important for any pushing actions that you do in your daily life.
Here’s how to perform a dip:
Whenever upper body strength is measured between people, the push-up is one of the simplest and best ways to do so. Requiring no equipment, this exercise is one of the best and easiest ways to develop your upper bodyand help you with every day pressing actions such as pushing shopping carts or opening doors. However, push-ups work in a different plane that adds some variety to dips.
Here’s how to perform push-ups:
Much like the squat, there’s a lot that can be said about deadlifts. Called the “king of lifts,” there are few exercises that measure up to the almighty deadlift.
The deadlift is lifting at its most basic form which is to say, picking something heavy up and then putting it back down. In terms of functional fitness, that description covers a ton of different activities that we do on a day-to-day basis—literally whenever we pick something up. Good deadlift form won’t just strengthen your muscles, but it will also help you avoid lower back injuries as you incorporate proper technique into other aspects of your life.
Here’s how to perform a deadlift:
Another pulling exercise, rows provide an exceptional upper body workout that will build a broad and strong back. Rows also have the added benefit of improving and maintaining good posture, especially if you’re hunched over a desk for most of the day.
This exercise comes in a ton of different flavors and variations, and it’s a good idea to experiment to find out what works best for you. Here we’ll take a look at the dumbbell bent-over row which offers a greater range of motion over the barbell row.
Here’s how to perform a dumbbell row:
Slightly shifting gears from the upper body to the lower, step-ups are a fantastic way to develop the quads, glute, and hamstrings. Developing the quads will improve knee health, and the glutes and hamstrings are necessary for things like walking up stairs.
Functionally speaking, step-ups will also improve your stabilization and balance, working each of your legs separately. If you add a dumbbell or kettlebell into the mix, your body will also have to work to control the weight as your body moves (proprioception).
Here’s how to perform a step-up:
Another full-body movement, the farmer’s carry is going to engage your triceps, biceps, forearms, upper back, shoulders, traps, quads, calves, hamstrings, calves, and abdominal muscles.
And although it might sound like you need to be a farmer for the functional benefits to become apparent, this exercise is one of the best for improving everyone’s functional fitness.
If you’ve ever tried your best to make just one trip from the car to your kitchen with your groceries, you’ll already be familiar with the general requirements of a farmer's carry.
Here’s how to perform a farmer's carry:
The overhead press is most often thought of as a shoulder exercise, but it also hits the lower back, the abdominals, and the muscles around your shoulder blades.
While it’s recommended you begin with the sitting version, the standing overhead press will also challenge your hamstrings, glutes, and quads in order to maintain stability. Although this exercise may not sound as “compound” as others on this list, it’s an extremely functional movement. Lifting something up over your head—whether luggage on a plane or putting something on a high shelf—is a movement that comes up a lot in our daily lives.
Here’s how to perform an overhead press:
The lunge is a compound exercise that primarily targets lower body muscles. These muscles include the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves. The lunge is a functional movement because it also stretches your hip flexors, which can become tight after long periods of sitting down.
Your core is also used for stability and the exercise mimics everyday actions, such as picking things up off the ground.
There are also many different variations of the lunge that challenge your body in different ways. For example, lateral lunging stretches your hip flexors from a different angle.
Here’s how to perform a lunge:
The kettlebell swing is a unique exercise because it relies on momentum to carry us through the movement—something that we’re often told is the enemy of good form. But by relying on momentum, our muscles need to maintain control of the movement while keeping a good posture throughout.
The kettlebell swing primarily hits the posterior chain, such as the glutes and hamstrings.
Your hips, core, and the stabilizing muscles of your back and shoulders are also engaged. Because of the necessary power and strength, this movement is also great at ramping up your heart rate for a cardio workout. In developing coordination and stability, your functional fitness will also improve.
Here’s how to perform a kb swing:
Functional fitness is an overarching term that includes many different methods of working out that aren’t necessarily outlined above. For example, CrossFit draws a lot from functional fitness and the emphasis on Olympic lifts also provides a lot of functional benefits. These tend to be more high intensity. There are also classes (such as F45) where you can be led by a personal trainer in group training.
Not only will this ensure that you’re doing the movements correctly, but it will also be a motivating factor. But regardless of how you go about functional training, the basics are all going to come down to the same thing.
The right workouts, good nutrition, and enough rest are going to pave your way to success—whether that’s going for a new deadlift PR, or simply carrying your groceries.