Functional fitness training has gained immense popularity in recent years… and for good reason too!
It describes exercises and workouts that replicate real-life movements. This means your efforts during a workout are rewarded and felt in daily tasks and activities. From walking to the dog, to going to the shops, to doing a spot of home improvements, functional fitness helps make these seemingly normal activities easier.
You may be wondering how this differs from other types of workouts… doesn’t all exercise help improve daily activities?
Well, in many cases, not to the same degree. For example, when you think about a lot of gym machines and exercises that work muscles in isolation, this isn’t actually how we move and use our muscles in the real-world. In contrast, functional exercises will reflect a more natural way of moving.
As a result, functional fitness is something everyone should be doing, as we can all benefit from the joys of better movement. For those who exercise for a better quality of life, then adding in more functional movements into a workout routine is a must.
Although it has become popular recently, functional fitness is really just a rebirth of a more primal and ancient way to stay fit. Before gyms and fancy fitness equipment, humans would develop strength and athletic fitness by moving in a way that felt natural and useful.
In this article, we outline everything you need to know about functional fitness training. From tips on getting started, to the benefits you’ll gain, to our favourite 15 functional exercises to include in your next workout.
So what are we waiting for… let’s dive in!
What is Functional Fitness Training?
Functional fitness training is a type of exercise regime that incorporates movements that best reflect everyday tasks and activities. The logic is that this helps train and develop muscles in a way that is practical for every day life.
Functional training can include strength, cardio, stretching and all kinds of movements. They can be done at home or in the gym, with or without equipment. More often that not, functional workouts will include a lot of full body movements that rely on multiple muscle groups working together (as is the case for most real-life activities).
The bicep curl is a great exercise but how often do you actually stand straight, holding an object in your hand, and bend your elbow to curl it upwards?
Probably not very often…
However, an exercise like the Farmer’s Walk (gripping a heavy object in each hand while walking) is something that is often seen in every day life. From moving something in the garden, to holding your shopping bags, this type of movement has clear real-world benefit.
Due to the very nature of functional fitness, the best individual movements and exercises are likely to vary from one individual to another. Someone’s lifestyle and requirements will largely shape the best types of movements to include in a “functional” training workout. Past injuries, natural preferences and the like can all influence the most suitable way to proceed with a functional workout… something many in the fitness industry ignore.
Benefits of Functional Fitness Training and Workouts
Functional fitness training builds practical strength, improves cardiovascular health and supports better overall movement. These benefits are why it has become such a popular type of exercise regime in recent years.
And the benefits don’t stop there, with functional workouts offering a whole host of additional benefits, such as:
Complete Body Workout
Functional fitness exercises work multiple muscles and body parts at once. Your muscles need to work harmoniously with each other to achieve results.
This means you end up with complete body workouts where every muscle is targeted at some stage.
Combat Joint Pain
Functional exercises tend to use multiple joints and numerous muscles. Instead of only moving the elbows, for example, a functional exercise might involve the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles. These exercises have also been shown to help joints by building muscles and increasing blood flow throughout the body.
Reduce Risk of Injury
This type of training, properly applied, can make everyday activities easier, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life. This makes it a key component for both beginners and professional athletes (and everyone in between) as part of a training routine.
Functional fitness exercises are low impact. This means there is minimal stress on muscles and joints, again, helping reduce the risk of injury.
Along with releasing important endorphins, exercise helps anyone live more comfortably in addition to building energy and strength for daily activities. This reduces the chance and impact of injury.
Combat Muscular Imbalance
Isolating specific muscles during exercise, sport or everyday life (e.g. sitting at a desk all day) can lead to muscular imbalances and bad posture.
Functional fitness exercises help combat this and builds muscle and strength in “practical” way and develops muscles appropriate to their requirements for daily life.
Functional fitness workouts help promote lead muscle development. Powerlifting and bodybuilding can often focus on mass as opposed to lean muscle development.
Lean muscle offers all the benefits of being strong and powerful, but also means you can stay supple and nimble as well as not carrying as much weight.
Lean muscle is a key component of overall good health.
Flexibility and mobility are incredibly important. As we get older, out flexibility can feel limited, so doing exercises and workouts that help improve flexibility means you’ll find everyday movements a lot easier.
Improves Balance and Posture
Sitting at a desk all day or driving can often lead to common conditions like lower-back pain, so having an exercise routine that combats these type of problems is highly recommended.
Poor balance can impact general exercise and everyday life.
Better movement is incredibly empowering.
Exercises and workouts that promote enhanced movement will ensure you feel like you can tackle anything. From running long distances to simply getting out of bed in the morning, having a body that is prepared and ready for all types of movement is very useful.
Getting Started with Functional Fitness Workouts
When selecting a functional fitness class or exercise, you should take account of your own level of fitness and your age. Gym and community programmes usually cater for different age groups and levels of fitness and therefore you should look around to see what’s on offer.
The good news is that functional fitness training can, not only, be done in a gym or a community hall, but in your own home as well. However, if you are doing the exercises in a gym you will be able to use some of the weights and a balance ball to enhance the exercises, as well as benefiting from having a well-qualified instructor on hand to help.
If, nevertheless, it is difficult for you to get out to a gym, a kitchen chair is sufficient equipment to get you started.
The unifying aspect to all functional fitness exercises, wherever you do them, is that they are designed to help you with your mobility and balance in your day to day life.
Best Functional Fitness Exercises
Your first step should be to teach your body to control and balance its own weight. This process starts with simple movements, like the one-legged squat, and other balance exercises.
One Legged Squats and Balance
Try standing on one leg on a step-stool that’s perhaps 20cms high, and then lowering the heel of your other foot to the ground, controlling your body weight as you go down and back up. Switch sides during each exercise to promote balance and muscle integration on either side of your body.
Having gained control and balance over your own body weight, you can then start working with added weights. Put a 2.5kg dumbbell on a chair, and then do the same one-legged squat, but this time pick up the dumbbell as you come up.
Next, pick up the same weight from the ground while doing the squat. This teaches the upper body to work with the lower body. The key to functional exercise is integration. It’s about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than in isolation.
Bent Over Row
An example of a functional exercise you can do in the gym, or possibly at home, is the bent-over row. This is not the kind of row you do on a seated machine, but the kind you do leaning over a bench, holding a weight in one hand with your arm hanging straight down, and then pulling the weight up as your elbow points to the ceiling, finishing with your upper arm parallel to the ground.
This is an exercise that will build the muscles of the back, the shoulders, the arms, and because of its nature will really work your whole body. Compare that motion to a gardener bending over and pulling out a stubborn root, a grandparent bending over a cot to pick up a grandchild, or lifting up some heavy object from the ground. Anyone doing a bent-over row will find a carryover in things you do in normal life.
Squats, which form an essential part of functional fitness training, help with getting in and out of a chair or squatting down to lift a bag of groceries from the floor.
Bending and lifting exercises strengthen the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, but also provide plenty of stability in the core, and flexibility in the knees and ankles.
Asian squats in particular are a great squat variation to try.
Another key set of exercises in functional fitness involve a variety of lunging movements and other single-leg movements which bring benefits when walking, climbing or descending stairs, or when you bend and reach forward on one leg to get something from the floor. Single leg movements require combined strength, stability and flexibility with an added element of balance over a changing centre of gravity.
In your workouts you’ll train for pulling movements by developing core stability, strength in your back and shoulders, stability in your shoulder blades and flexibility in your shoulders. These exercises aid activities in daily living including pulling a car door shut, taking items down from a top shelf, or pulling your suitcase off the floor.
Pushing exercises will involve your upper body pushing forward as when opening a shop door, pushing overhead as when putting an object on a high shelf or pushing to the side as when lifting your body from a side-lying position. In your workout you can train for pushing movements with push-ups, overhead presses or side planks.
The thoracic spine, which is located behind your chest, rotates with every step you take and every time you swing a golf club or tennis racket. Each time you reach across your body or twist through the spine, you’re engaging in a rotational movement. This complex movement pattern requires a great deal of core stability and strength to support the spine during the rotational motion.
Wall-Ball Dynamic Squat
Leaning against the balance ball, you flex your knees, trying to achieve a 90° bend before returning to the straight-legged starting position.
Single Leg Balance
You balance on one leg while standing on a balance ball. You repeat this task on both legs, approximately 30 seconds per leg.
Cross-Legged Seated Torso Stretching
You rotate the torso having leant forward.
You perform either a kneeling push-up or a wall push-up.
You cross your arms against your chest and have your knees bent so the feet are flat on the floor. You tuck your chin against the sternal notch and raise your back from the floor as far as possible while, at the same time, contracting your abdominal muscles.
While lying prone, you lift your thighs and chest off the ground and hold this position for 1 second.
You sit with your legs outstretched and your back straight. Alternating between legs, you lean toward your outstretched leg as far as possible. Once you have stretched to a comfortable limit, you pause and hold the stretch for 5–10 seconds before returning to the start position.
Stretch and Balance
You stand with your feet a shoulder’s width apart and arms at the sides of the body and reach overhead with your right arm while simultaneously abducting the left leg so that the foot leaves the floor.
You balance on one leg, flex your knee, reach down, and touch the top of a cone placed on the floor.
You pick up kettle weights, one in each hand, representing approximately 20% of your body weight. With your arms at your sides, you walk around the outside of the exercise circuit and through or around obstacles that included stepping over barriers and walking backward while carrying the weights.
These are only a handful of the exercises that could be incorporated into a functional fitness training programme and others will depend on the facilities available and the profile of the class. Some functional fitness classes held in gyms are intense and ideal for those who are already quite fit, while other classes which cater specifically for an older clientele are much more gentle and less physically demanding.
Functional Fitness Classes and Programs Near You
A number of gyms are now offering functional fitness classes and circuit programs. Personal trainers may also offer one-on-one sessions for this type of exercise routine.
CrossFit and obstacle course races are often the most likely to incorporate lots of functional fitness exercises, but regular gyms are becoming more aware of the benefits of this type of training so often put there own sessions on.
You may be able to create your own functional fitness workout by piecing together specific exercises and doing these 2-3 times a week.
Functional fitness training is an ideal way of preserving your flexibility and strength as you become older. It trains your muscles to work together and focuses on the movements that are involved in many of the every-day activities which can become a challenge as our body ages.
It is never too late to begin and the exercises can help you go through your day without fear of putting your back out or struggling to complete essential tasks.