March 26, 2021 10 min read
All too often we get caught up in the idea of looking like a bulky meathead or trying for a new PR in one of our big lifts. That’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong with these goals, but we should keep in mind that fitness isn’t all about looking the best and being the strongest.
Our bodies are used for a lot more than attracting mates and lifting weights. What about tying your shoes? Opening a door? Stepping up on a platform?
All of these relatively simple movements that we do on a day-to-day basis are the real foundations of what we do—not raising a bar above our chest. And this is why it pays to give these functional movements some love and attention as well.
As we suggested above, functional strength is all about building up the muscles and movements that you need in your everyday life.
Even the most committed gym-rats spend a lot more time outside of the gym than inside of it, and it makes sense that getting good at day-to-day tasks can reduce your chances of injury and make life easier in general. The types of exercises you do for functional fitness attempt to mimic these natural movement patterns. The squat is a good example since you’re always getting into some sort of squat throughout the day—whether that’s to tie your shoes or get in the car.
Training up these movements is also good for avoiding injuries that can happen in the day-to-day. Injuries are “not good” for gains, to say the least, and avoiding them is the best favor you can do for your progress.
Functional strength training is especially great for aging since that’s when you start to lose a lot of your strength and become more prone to injury. Although the young tigers out there don’t have to worry about it as much, keeping your body a well-oiled machine into your later years will pay you back in dividends when it comes to health and comfort.
That doesn’t mean functional strength training doesn’t have a place in everyone else’s routine, however. It’s still a great aspect to keep in mind to ensure that you’re doing what you can to avoid injuries and maintain functional fitness.
When it comes to traditional strength training exercises, they usually target a specific muscle or muscle group. For example, the pecs, biceps, or triceps. In terms of conventional training, the goal is usually aesthetics, strength, or training for a specific sport.
With functional exercises, there is a greater emphasis on complex movements that use a wider variety of your muscles—even those that you might never see because they don’t “pop.” That’s not to say that you won’t look good after functional fitness training, but it won’t be the same as a hypertrophy routine.
While bodyweight can be a big part of functional fitness, equipment such as dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells can be extremely useful as well.
There are several foundational functional movements that it’s a good idea to become familiar with. They are:
And here are some of the best exercises you can do to get the most out of your body and out of everyday life:
With its similarity to the squat, it’s not difficult to see how the lunge would be a very functional exercise.
Every time you go down to tie your shoe or pick up something off the ground, chances are you’re getting into some sort of lunge. The primary muscles worked with lunges are the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. However, several other muscle groups have to work together in order to keep you stable—especially if you opt for a variation of the lunge.
Varying your lunges is important as well since that will introduce a host of new movements into your training program, which is the whole point of functional exercise. For example, walking lunges test your balance and coordination, while side lunges can improve your balance, stability, and strength. If you want to activate your core and glutes more, then adding a twist to this movement will help you do that.
This is how you do the conventional, stationary lunge.
Begin by standing with your feet at about hip-width apart, toes pointing forward, and chest held high. Before starting, make sure that your core is engaged.
Starting with the right leg, take one big step forward and shift your weight so that your front heel hits the ground. Once you take this step, you’ll want to lower your body far enough so that your right thigh is parallel to the ground while your right shin is vertical. Try to get the back knee as close to the ground as possible.
Reverse the movement by driving through the front heel and pressing yourself back into the standing position. Switch legs and continue.
There is nothing quite as fundamental and “real” as picking up something heavy and putting it down again. And that’s basically the deadlift in a nutshell.
Deadlifts come in all different shapes and sizes, but the basic movement is the same. It’ll provide really good development for your posterior chain while also engaging pretty much every muscle group in your body. It’s an excellent movement to incorporate into your routine if you’re looking for any chinks in your muscle-armor, so to speak.
While the deadlift sounds like a pretty simple movement, there’s a lot that goes into it if you’re looking to reap the most benefits. Having proper form will ensure that you’re avoiding injuries while also activating all of the correct muscles.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes either pointing slightly out or straight ahead. The bar should be close to your shins. Engaging the core, squat down by bending the knees and keeping your back straight. Once lowered, grab the bar with an overhand grip just outside of the knees.
Squeeze the bar and push upwards with your legs, hinging at the knees and then the hips. Your legs and shoulders should move up together while the hips act as a sort of balancing point. The bar will almost graze the shins as you bring it up. As you reach the top of the movement, bring your shoulder blades back without leaning back, and lockout your knees.
Reverse the movement and lower the bar to the ground, maintaining a straight back throughout the entire lift.
One of the best strength exercises for building functional fitness is the squat. Much like the deadlift, it engages pretty much every single major muscle group in your body and highlights the lower body muscles. Furthermore, it’ll also build core strength, which is necessary for any pushing, lifting, and pulling movements in your day-to-day.
But unlike the deadlift, squats can be effective as a bodyweight movement as well—no need for a heavy barbell.
However, getting the most out of the squat requires paying good attention to form and engaging the correct muscles.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes turned slightly, then brace your core muscles.
To begin, you’ll want to hinge at the hips first while maintaining a straight back. Once your hips are hinged, bend at the knees to get down into the squat position. Your thighs should be either parallel or very close to parallel with the floor, and your torso may start rounding forward.
Pause at the bottom of the squat before pressing up through your mid-foot, reversing the movement by first straightening your knees and then hinging the hips. Once you’re at the top again, lock out your knees and brace your core and glutes.
When it comes to bodyweight exercises, the pull-up is one of the top dogs. Although it looks simple enough, the pull-up is a challenging exercise that many people find very challenging—for good reason.
It’s a classic way to test upper body strength and it’s one of the few bodyweight exercises that emphasize both the biceps and the back muscles. While the bench press is the focus when it comes to testing the upper body for many people, the pull-up is a better indicator of a holistic, functional upper body strength.
Along with the lats, rhomboids, and traps in the back, your arms will also be challenged along with your core for stabilization. It’s an extremely well-rounded exercise that’ll bestow a well-rounded physique and strength.
Begin by grabbing a pull-up bar with your hands at about shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing away from you—otherwise, it would be a chin-up. Your arms should be fully extended, but your shoulders should be pulled back slightly to unnecessary stress.
Along with your shoulders, your core stabilizers should also be braced. Then, pull yourself up, focusing on engaging the muscles in your upper body. Get your chin above the bar and pause for a moment before bringing yourself back down.
Make sure you’re not dropping down. Not only will this put stress on your shoulders, but you also won’t be getting as much out of the exercise as you could. Also, ensure that your arms are fully extended before pulling yourself up again.
If the pull-up is still out of reach for you, inverted rows are a great way to build your foundational strength up. But not only is it a great steppingstone for lower fitness levels, it’s also very useful for balancing out chest development while being easier on the joints.
For more advanced lifters, the inverted row is a good choice to add some volume onto back training. It helps that it’s very scalable for how much effort you’re willing to put in. By varying the angles of your knees or the height of the bar, you’re able to choose how much of your body weight you’re lifting.
You’ll want to position yourself underneath a barbell that’s sitting in a squat rack or Smith machine. If you want to focus on the lats, aim for the bar to be right over the lower pecs. If you want to train your upper back, have the bar be directly over your upper pecs.
Grip the bar with an overhand grip and bring back your shoulder blades. By driving the elbows towards the ground, you’ll want to lead with the chest as you come to the top of the exercise. Bring your chest up as close as you can to the bar and pause for a count before slowly lowering yourself back down.
Another gym-class classic, the push-up is a gold standard for testing upper body strength with just bodyweight. It helps that you can do it absolutely everywhere and anytime, making this a very accessible functional exercise to add to your roster.
The main muscles worked with the push-up are the deltoids, triceps, biceps, pecs, and the erector spinae of the back. Done correctly, your core and glutes should also be engaged in order to maintain stability. This makes the push-up a great full-body workout that hits a variety of muscle groups and helps them work together better.
Bring yourself down to the floor, with your hands about shoulder-width apart and hands slightly angled out. Your legs should be together and extended behind you, with your elbows locked out and arms extended as well.
We’ve all seen bad push-up form, and the key is to keep your body in a perfectly straight line from head to ankle. Any sagging or arching will take away from the exercise and make it that much less effective. Engaging the core and glutes will help with this.
Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself down until your almost touching the floor, or at least until your elbows make a 90-degree angle. At the bottom of the push-up, pause for a moment before pushing through your hands and bringing yourself up to the top, with elbows locked out.
The kettlebell swing is a very functional movement that trains up your explosive strength. Along with developing strength, it’s a great exercise if you’re looking to shed a few extra pounds. Add this as a finisher to your workouts if you want to get more out of your gym sessions.
The kettlebell swing is great for maintaining healthy shoulders, especially if you sit at a desk all day. Furthermore, your glutes, endurance, and hip flexibility will also see improvements.
However, it is easy to do incorrectly, which is why paying attention to form is important.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell in between them, slightly in front of you. Most of your squat will come from hinging at the hips, but you do want to give your knees a slight bend. Keep your core engaged throughout the exercise.
Grasping the kettlebell, bring it behind your legs in order to create some momentum. Then, drive the hips forward while straightening the back. This should send the kettlebell up to about shoulder level, before coming back down between your legs.
The key with the kettlebell swing is to have most of the power come from glutes and hamstrings, rather than the upper body.
You won’t want to overestimate how much weight you can use during this exercise, since it’s relatively unforgiving. The renegade row is a great way to develop your entire upper body while also effectively working the core as it tries to keep you in position.
This is also a great movement to use for mediating any muscle imbalances. Since you’ll be working each side independently, you’ll soon realize which side of your body has been lagging behind.
Grab a pair of dumbbells that are lighter than you’re used to, especially if you’re just starting out. Holding onto them, get into the push-up position with hands beneath your shoulders and legs straight out behind you.
Raise one of the dumbbells up, rowing it up until the upper arm is just above your torso. Pause at the top before slowly lowering the dumbbell back to the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.
Incorporating these exercises into your exercise program will set you up for much more than just the beach and the weight room. These are the movements that’ll help you maintain holistic fitness that’ll last you your entire life, helping you get more out of it and stay limber and lean for longer.
Of course, any health routine only relies on the exercises to get you about 30% of the way there. Most of the work—at least the self-control work—is going to come down to what you put on your dinner plate.
Eat plenty of leafy greens, lean meats, healthy fats, and carbs, and you’ll be well on your way to gains that not only look good but also stand up to the test of time. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the path towards functional strength.