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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.

Handsome shirtless muscular man doing abdominal exercise while fit sporty woman doing box jump exercise

The Benefits of Functional Strength

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 Training

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.

Squats

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:

  1. Begin by standing tall, with your shoulder about shoulder-width apart. Your toes should point slightly out, and your arms will start out by your sides.
  2. Initiate the movement by hinging at the hips, keeping your chest up and your back straight. As you begin squatting down, reach out in front of you with your arms.
  3. Bend your knees to get you closer to the ground. Continue until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Reverse the movement to go back into the starting position.

Burpees

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:

  1. Standing up straight, quickly go down into a squat position by hinging your hips and knees. Lower yourself down and plant your hands on the ground so that they’re just outside of your feet.
  2. Shifting your weight onto your hands, kick your legs back and enter a push-up position.
  3. Complete one push-up.
  4. Jump your feet back to their starting position and explosively stand up. As you stand up, jump into the air and immediately enter a squat position as you land once again.

Pull-ups

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:

  1. Standing in front of a pull-up bar, jump up and grab onto it with your palms facing away from you. Hang off of the bar with your arms extended, but your shoulders should be pulled back in order to protect them.
  2. With your core engaged, pull yourself up so that your shin comes just above the bar.
  3. Slowly reverse the movement to maximize your  time under tension, and continue until your arms are fully extended again. This is one rep.

Dips

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:

  1. Stand between two parallel bars that are preferably just outside of shoulder-width distance from one another.
  2. Grab onto each bar, your body weight resting on your palms.
  3. Straighten your arms so that you lift off from the ground. If you need to, bend your knees so that your feet don’t touch the floor.
  4. Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself down, continuing until your upper arm is parallel to the bar.
  5. Press back up to the starting position with one explosive movement. Leaning further forward will place the tension on your chest, whereas keeping your body more upright will place more of the focus on your triceps.

Push-ups

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:

  1. Get on the ground with your toes and hands supporting your body weight.
  2. Your hands should be planted directly under your shoulders about shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Ensure that your core is engaged and your back is flat throughout the entire movement.
  3. Slowly bend your elbows, lowering yourself closer to the ground. Continue until your elbows are at least a 90-degree angle and your face is almost touching the floor.
  4. Pause in this position before extending your arms and pressing back up to the starting position.

Deadlifts

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:

  1. With a weighted barbell in front of your, position yourself so that the bar crosses your midfoot as you look down. Unlike the squat, the deadlift relies on hinging your hips and bending knees simultaneously, while also keeping your chest up and back straight.
  2. Grab onto the bar as you reach it, and engage your muscles to put tension throughout your body.
  3. Drive through your feet and explosively lift the weight up, pushing out your hips and locking your knees at the top.
  4. Reverse the movement and continue for a few more reps.

Rows

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:

  1. Holding a pair of dumbbells, keep a slight bend in your knees as you hinge at your waist backward. Continue until your torso is between 45-degrees and parallel to the ground. The dumbbells should hang down below you with your arms extended.
  2. Initiate the movement by pulling the dumbbells up towards your waist, squeezing together your shoulder blades and back muscles.
  3. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly lowering them back down.

Step-up

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:

  1. Begin with a box or platform that’s at least 8-inches high.
  2. Stand facing it and step up with your right foot.
  3. Press through the heel to straighten the right leg, bringing the back leg up onto the platform.
  4. Continue by bending the right knee and stepping back off the box with your left foot.
  5. Bring the right leg down to stand beside your left leg.
  6. Switch sides as you continue the reps.

Farmers Carry 

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:

  1. Begin with a weight in each hand. Stand tall with your shoulder blades pulled down and back. Your core should also be engaged throughout the entire exercise.
  2. Step forward with one of your feet and continue walking. Maintain the same posture you had at the very beginning.
  3. You can either continue walking for a set amount of time or a set distance.

Overhead Press

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:

  1. Stand tall with your feet at a shoulder-width distance from one another. Your back should be kept straight. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with the dumbbells up towards your shoulders.
  2. Breathe out as you press the dumbbells upward in a controlled manner. Try to keep their paths as straight and symmetrical as possible.
  3. Once you get to the top of the movement, pause for a count before slowly bringing the weights back down to your shoulders.
Attractive sports people dumbbell lunges in gym

    Lunge

    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:

    1. Begin by splitting your stance—one of your feet should be about 2 to 3 feet in front of your back foot. Keep your hands by your hips, your back straight, and your core engaged.
    2. Bend both of your knees and continue down until the back knee is almost touching the floor. At this point, your front thigh should be parallel to the floor.
    3. Pause at the bottom of the movement before pushing through your feet back into the starting position.

    Kettlebell Swing

    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:

    1. With a kettlebell on the floor in front of you, plant your feet wider than hip-width apart, toes angled slightly out. Bend your knees slightly but rely mostly on the hip hinge to squat down. Maintain a flat back as you do so, and grasp the kettlebell handle.  
    2. To initiate the swing, you’ll want to explosively squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to get into an upright position. As you do this, the kettlebell should swing up to around the height of your shoulders.
    3. As the weight swings back down, allow it to swing between your legs as you push your hips back again.

    A Final Note on Functional Fitness

    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.