Functional fitness is designed to build all aspects of physical fitness

12 Functional Training Exercises You Need to Try

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

When you think of strength training, do you visualize benches loaded with barbells and hear the clanging of metal on metal? While that is what a "workout" means to many people, it's not the only way to get stronger. Those who want to win the Arnold Classic will use heavy barbells to develop a bodybuilding physique. But maybe your goal is to carry 10 bags of groceries at the same time or mow your yard without getting winded.

For that, you need a functional training routine (which can include barbells, light dumbbells, or no weights at all!). Functional strength training isn't just something a fitness influencer made up or a passing trend. It's a practical approach to strength training that's fun, engaging and sustainable in your everyday life.

And, if you are looking for more of a challenge, rest assured that functional training routines can be as intense as you want them to be—in fact, they are a staple in CrossFit studios across the world!

What are functional fitness workouts?

Perhaps the best way of defining functional fitness is "training that is meant to increase performance in functional tasks, such as activities of daily living or tests related to athletic performance." To increase performance in activities of daily life, you have to train for activities of daily living (ADLs).

I use the word "perhaps" in this definition, however, because experts have long debated what it means to engage in "functional fitness" and how it's different from traditional training—and to date, there is no universally accepted definition. Indeed, the term itself makes you wonder: Are any exercises not functional? And, it's true! Even single-joint isolation movements serve a purpose and help build muscle strength and endurance.

However, one thing that's distinct about functional fitness and its associated workouts is that they are designed to build all aspects of physical fitness, including cardiorespiratory health, muscular endurance, muscular strength, body composition, flexibility and neuromotor fitness. To thrive in your ADLs, all of these elements need to be on point.

5 benefits of functional fitness

Without a doubt, you can achieve a healthy bodyweight and a lean, well-defined figure with functional fitness training. More importantly, though, functional strength training can support your overall cardiorespiratory fitness and balance, and make day-to-day tasks feel easier and, in some cases, effortless. Here are five well-documented benefits:

  1. Increases overall fitness

    – The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults 18 to 64 years old engage in muscle-strengthening activities and workouts at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups two or more days a week. They also suggest adults 65 years and older partake in balance and strength activities three or more days a week.
  2. Research has shown that regular functional training can improve fitness. One study specifically evaluated the effects of high-intensity functional training (HIFT). The results showed the HIFT program effectively promoted overall cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular fitness without negatively impacting the muscles.

  3. Promotes weight loss

    – Compound exercises offer a greater caloric burn than isolated movements, simply because they recruit more muscles in one shot. Increase the intensity of those compound exercises with an explosive tempo, and the effects are multiplied. The increased calorie burn helps you achieve a total calorie deficit, which is the formula for weight loss.
  4. Supports form

    – The main goal of functional training is to improve performance of ADLs. You improve performance through repetitive full-body conditioning. In time, your body learns proper mechanics and naturally moves more efficiently—benefiting your form when engaging in daily activities.
  5. Benefits mobility

    – As we covered, functional training moves the body through various planes of motions and utilizes multiple muscles at one time. And by training each of these movements, muscles can keep functioning as they were designed.
  6. Functional training is especially impactful for older adults. A group of men and women with an average age of 74 performed a functional exercise circuit three times per week for 12 consecutive weeks. Afterward, the participants exhibited significant improvements in several functional fitness tests, including get-up-and-go and sit-and-reach. This goes to show functional training not only keeps your heart and lungs strong but keeps the whole kinetic chain moving smoothly.

  7. Builds confidence

    – The same study also found that the functional exercise program enhanced vitality. In other words, in a matter of 12 weeks participants' perceived health had improved. And when your body is strong and mobile, you feel more confident to conquer the world.

What kind of movements are involved in functional fitness?

Functional training workouts incorporate seven basic movement patterns, which are usually combined together into compound exercises, in order to engage multiple muscle groups and multiple joints at one time:

  1. Squat
  2. Hinge
  3. Lunge
  4. Push
  5. Pull
  6. Rotate
  7. Gait

In addition to these movement patterns, functional exercises work the body through multiple planes of motion, including transverse (rotation), frontal (side-to-side) and sagittal (forward and backward). Why? As you go about your day, your body naturally shifts through all planes of motion and recruits various muscles simultaneously.

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The 12 best functional fitness exercises

The following exercises all include the seven basic movements above, alone and in combination with each other.

1. Squat

Whether you realize it or not, you perform a squat several times per day: when you sit at your desk, when you go to the bathroom and when you get down low to talk to your child at eye level.

Start with bodyweight only and focus on mechanics. Your feet should be firmly on the floor with your core engaged throughout the entire movement. Also, don't forget to breathe. Inhale as you lower into the squat and exhale as you stand up. Syncing your breath helps keep the core activated and tells your mind to come out of the squat.

Beginner: Bodyweight squat
Intermediate: Dumbbell squat, goblet squat or barbell back squat
Advanced: Single-leg pistol squat

Targets: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, adductors, core

2. Thruster

The thruster starts with a squat but finishes with an explosive overhead press. The tempo builds strength and power, which helps you stay agile. This exercise works muscles from head to toe. You can perform thrusters with dumbbells, kettlebells, a medicine ball, a barbell or any other added weight you like.

Beginner: Squat to neutral-grip shoulder press
Intermediate: Dumbbell thruster
Advanced: Barbell thruster/increase weight

Targets: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, core, shoulders, triceps

3. Dumbbell deadlift

Bending over to tie your shoes, emptying the dishwasher or picking up an item you dropped on the floor are all examples of a deadlift. By incorporating weighted deadlifts in your workout routine, you build strength and efficiency for these daily hip hinges.

Beginner: Hip bridge on the ground
Intermediate: Dumbbell or barbell deadlift
Advanced: Increase weight, single-leg deadlift

Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum (QL), trapezius

Pro tip: Deadlifts are more technical than they seem. Without proper form, you will feel more strain in your back than in your glutes and hamstrings. The back muscles (erector spinae, QL and traps) are meant to stabilize during the deadlift—they're not the primary movers. To take the load off your back, keep the weight as close to your body as possible and maintain a neutral spine (flat back). That means no checking yourself in the mirror! As soon as you look up, you break the neutral position at your cervical spine.

4. Kettlebell swing

The same way the thruster is the fast-tempo version of the squat, the kettlebell swing is the explosive variation of a deadlift. The kettlebell swing is a great way to build strength and power in your legs and hip flexors. It's also a low-impact plyometric exercise. Because both feet stay planted on the ground, the kettlebell swing is gentle on joints.

This is another highly technical hinge exercise, which is why core activation is key. When the bell gets to chest height, people often hyperextend (aka arch the back). Record yourself doing the kettlebell swing and watch for an overarched back. To correct it, brace your core to stay stiff and straight as you swing.

Beginner: Kettlebell clean
Intermediate: Kettlebell swing (dead stop or continuous)
Advanced: Increase weight, single-arm kettlebell swing or alternating single-arm swing

Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, quads

5. Walking lunge with rotation

This dynamic unilateral exercise will test your balance. The goal is to stay continuous with the lunges the same way you would take a leisurely, nonstop stroll.

Beginner: Bodyweight alternating reverse lunge or walking lunge with a pause between steps
Intermediate: Walking lunge without rotation
Advanced: Walking lunge with rotation, increase weights

Targets: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, erector spinae, hip flexors

6. Step-up

Step-ups are one of the best training exercises to strengthen glutes. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body and is the main supporter of other muscle groups in your back, hip joint and legs. Needless to say, you should never turn your back on the rear-end muscles.

Beginner: Bodyweight only or lower height of the bench/step
Intermediate: Dumbbell or barbell step-up
Advanced: Step-up with powerful knee drive

Targets: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip adductors, calves

Pro tip: Turn this into a lateral step-up by standing with the bench to the side of you. This slight variation activates the abductors.

7. Decline push-up

As simple as it is, the push-up works a number of muscles from head to toe. Modified versions of the push-up are often used in corrective exercise routines. However, there are many ways to advance the push-up to suit your functional fitness goals. Keep in mind, the decline push-up is already considered an advanced variation.

You perform a decline push-up like you would a push-up—just make sure you have your feet elevated in a high-plank position to start.

Beginner: Knees on the ground
Intermediate: Toes on the ground
Advanced: Decline push-up, handstand push-up, one-arm push-up

Targets: Pectorals, triceps, anterior deltoids, core, hip flexors

8. Pull-up

Even if you aren't a rock climber or Spiderman, pull-ups are still a functional exercise you need to train in your workouts. This exercise helps strengthen so many large muscle groups that the benefits carry over into other movement patterns.

And don't forget to be patient with yourself when it comes to pull-ups. Getting one strict pull-up, let alone several back-to-back, takes time and persistence. Practice pull-ups often and use the modified variations to help you gradually progress.

Beginner: Dead hang, assisted pull-up (machine or bands) or bent-over high row
Intermediate: Strict pull-up
Advanced: Kipping pull-up, weighted pull-up or muscle-up

Targets: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, rhomboids, biceps, core

9. Renegade row

This is an "anti-rotational" movement, which means you have to stabilize your whole body to fight the resistance from one side. Think about your dog pulling on its leash when you go for a walk. Finally, you'll be able to pull back.

This exercise is done in the high-plank position and involves pulling dumbbells back toward your hips and lowered back down to the ground one side at a time.

Beginner: Knees on the ground
Intermediate: Renegade row with dumbbells
Advanced: Increase weight or add a push-up

Targets: Latissimus dorsi, serratus, rhomboids, core, anterior deltoids, triceps

Pro tip: The goal is to minimize any rocking in your hips. If hips are excessively shifting side-to-side, widen your foot stance for more stability. This goes for every exercise: the more ground you have under your feet, the more stable you are.

10. Pallof press

The Pallof press should be a standard piece of any core workout. This is another anti-rotational movement, which is especially helpful at building core stability. Core stability carries over into nearly every other exercise or form of movement. It's also an effective training tool for improving posture.

You perform this exercise by looping a resistance band at chest height at a stable anchor point. Stand perpendicular to that point so that there's tension in the band while holding the free end of the band close to your chest. You then straighten out your arms and fight the pull. Reset by bringing the bands back to your chest.

Beginner: Half-kneeling Pallof press
Intermediate: Standing Pallof press with cables
Advanced: Pallof press with overhead press

Targets: Core (obliques, transverse abdominals, rectus abdominis), shoulder stabilizers, glutes

11. Bear plank crawl

As an adult, you probably don't spend much time on your hands and knees crawling. Every once in a while, though, you might find yourself on the floor looking for a toy that slid under the couch. Enter the bear plank crawl. This exercise also requires coordination, which will force you to make that mind-muscle connection.

For this exercise, start in a tabletop position with hands directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips. Tuck your toes and lift your knees about an inch or two off the ground. Engage the core muscles by pulling your belly button to your spine. Keeping your gaze in front of you, step your right hand and left foot forward at the same time. Switch sides for distance, time or rep count.

Try to perform the bear plank crawl on a non-skid surface or wear gloves to help prevent slipping during the workout.

Beginner: Bird dog
Intermediate: Bear plank crawl or bear plank arm and leg lift hold
Advanced: Lateral bear plank crawl, weighted bear plank crawl

Targets: Core, shoulders, quads, hamstrings, calves

12. Reverse woodchopper

Ever hoisted your carry-on bag up into the overhead compartment? That's a reverse woodchopper. Ever played tennis, golf or baseball? That's a woodchopper. This compound movement strengthens the muscles you use to rotate your torso and hips, giving you a more powerful swing.

Standing with feet hip-width apart, hold your chosen weight with both hands, bend knees and reach the weight to the outside of your right thigh. Twist from the torso and pivot your feet as you pull the weight across your body to the left shoulder. Keep arms straight but not locked up as you rotate and reach up. Twist back to center and lower the weight to reset. Repeat on both sides.

Beginner: Half-kneeling woodchopper
Intermediate: Cable woodchopper
Advanced: Dumbbell/medicine ball woodchopper or increase weights

Targets: Transverse abdominals, obliques, erector spinae, hip flexors, deltoids

Should I combine functional fitness with weightlifting?

You certainly can combine them. Functional fitness workouts and exercises can be mixed with single-joint movements and fixed-motion machine exercises, as part of a "traditional strength training" routine. For example, you may prefer to have a split routine, which includes working different muscle groups on different days. Or you might want to add a functional training circuit at the beginning of your strength workout to warm up your muscles and central nervous system to lift heavy weights.

You can also develop a complete workout using only functional exercises. Typically, a circuit is the simplest type of programming. You select 5-10 compound exercises and cycle through them one-by-one, rest for a couple minutes to let muscles recover between cycles, and try to complete two to five cycles.

How to make functional fitness more challenging

If you're looking for more of a challenge, you might want to try an at-home CrossFit workout. While CrossFit is not purely a functional training workout, it is a style of training that incorporates functional movements at a high intensity. The intensity is what makes CrossFit's functional training component a more challenging fitness program.

Of course, CrossFit isn't the only high-intensity functional training plan. Programs like P90X®, Insanity® and Orangetheory Fitness® also utilize high-volume and high-intensity functional exercises. If plotting your own functional workout seems too overwhelming, these pre-designed training programs take the load off.

How to decide if functional training is right for you

Functional training can be adapted to all fitness levels. You can modify or progress any functional exercise to meet you where you are currently. For instance, a squat can be performed with only your bodyweight or it can be advanced to a weighted single-leg variation. The deciding factor is really your overall health and fitness goal.

Whether you have practical needs like building strength, working on balance, flexibility, and range of motion, or perhaps more personal goals like keeping up with your children, grandchildren or pets. Even if you're looking towards bigger goals like traveling or sightseeing with fewer breaks, if any of these resonate with you, then you would benefit from functional training workouts.

It is important to know your body and limits before you start. Mayo Clinic recommends anyone over 40 who hasn't exercised in a while or those who are pregnant to check with their doctor before undergoing a new exercise program. Get a complete physical exam and have a conversation about what kind of exercise program best supports your unique body.

And remember, no matter how good your fitness routine is, you always want to maintain your gains with the right lifestyle choices—including your nutrition. Nutrients like HMB for maintaining muscle function and supporting muscle growth, along with vitamin D3 for muscle health and healthy bone density, can help maximize your functional fitness routine.

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.


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