Functional Fitness Is the Most Practical Form of Exercise You Can Do — Here’s How

Deadlifts, push-ups and lunges are among the best functional fitness exercises.
Image Credit: Fly View Productions/E+/GettyImages

Movements like climbing stairs, carting a trash can out to the curb and squatting down to load the washing machine may seem like second nature.

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But as you age, grow more sedentary or change your lifestyle, those seemingly simplistic tasks can feel as difficult as scaling a mountain or pushing an Olympic bobsled.

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Enter: functional fitness, a training style meant to help you move easily and live pain-free.

Here, pro trainers break down the key elements of the fitness approach, why it's so beneficial and how you can start incorporating functional fitness into your routine with a six-move workout.

What Is Functional Fitness?

Simply put, functional fitness is a type of training that preps your body for the movements you perform in your everyday life, says Tina Tang, CPT, a NCSF-certified personal trainer and strength coach.

In a functional workout, you might practice movement patterns such as squatting, hinging, pulling, pushing and carrying — which translate to real-life actions like standing up from a chair, bending over and picking up your cat, pushing your kid's stroller down the street and lugging heavy grocery bags to your car.

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"Functional training really refers to doing exercises to help you make everyday life easier or everyday activities stronger," she says. "So for a someone who wants to be able to pick up their grandchild, functional training would be squatting with a biceps curl, for instance."

Functional fitness can also be training specific to an activity, according to Steve Stonehouse, CPT, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of training at Body Fit Training.

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Say you're traveling to Hawaii next month and you have a few kayaking excursions on your itinerary. You might adjust your workout routine to include more pushing and pulling movements so your body can tackle those outings with ease, he explains.

What's considered a "functional" fitness program is specific to the individual. Someone who works as a package delivery person may prioritize more pulling, lifting and carrying movements than an elementary school teacher who squats down to interact with small children all day.

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As a whole, though, the focus is on exercises that allow you to move better and without pain, Stonehouse says.

Functional Fitness vs. Strength Training

When training for functional fitness, strength work will most definitely be included in your program. But instead of planning your workouts around muscle groups, you'll base them on specific movement patterns, Stonehouse says.

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That means you might walk into the gym with the goal of performing squatting exercises (think: sumo squats, split squats) rather than targeting your glutes and quads.

The exercises in functional fitness workouts may also be performed for time (say, 30 to 60 seconds) rather than reps, Stonehouse says. After all, building muscular endurance — a muscle's ability to produce and maintain force for long durations — is just as important for your daily functioning as muscular strength. (Activities like mowing the lawn and climbing up your apartment's five flights of stairs call on muscular endurance.)

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Though it's not a hard-and-fast rule, "if you're doing muscle-specific stuff, you probably want to be in the rep-counting game," Stonehouse says. "And if you're doing functional stuff — you're not training for anything [specific], you're just wanting to be a more dynamic human and live longer and move better — you're typically going to want to do your work for time."

A functional fitness routine may incorporate the same pieces of equipment as a straight-up strength workout, including kettlebells, dumbbells and barbells. You'll also utilize tools like your own body weight, resistance bands and sandbags, according to the experts. Still, "it's not so much about the tool as it is about what your body's doing," Tang says.

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With generic strength training, you might perform three sets of 10 reps of squats on a Smith machine. The exercise exhausts your muscles' strength, but the bar has a predetermined path of motion, so your body doesn't need to work harder to provide stability, Stonehouse says.

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On the flip side, your functional fitness workout might feature three sets of 10 reps of walking lunges with a sandbag on your back. The exercise not only tests your muscles' strength, but it also challenges your balance, stability, coordination and flexibility, he explains.

Benefits of Functional Fitness

1. It Makes Daily Activities Easier, Especially as You Age

Regardless of your overall fitness goals, engaging in some functional training is worthwhile, according to the experts. It gives you the strength to put your carry-on in a plane's overhead compartment, open a heavy door and pick hefty moving boxes up off the ground.

But it's particularly valuable for folks over 50 years old, when joints are stiffening, balance is declining and muscle mass is naturally atrophying, Tang says.

By practicing squats, lunges and the like, older individuals may feel more confident and capable of walking up and down the stairs or sitting on the toilet without crashing down, she says.

"As people get older, if they fall and break a bone, it [may be] because they've got a lack of reaction time or coordination or strength to grab something real quick and catch themselves," she says. "You kind of have to train it as you get older because you just naturally lose it. So functional fitness is important for everyone — but [particularly] for those who are getting older — to just be able to have a higher quality of life."

2. It Challenges Your Core

One surprising benefit of functional fitness: It trains your core without you even realizing it. By working with tools that allow for dynamic motion like sandbags, dumbbells and bands — rather than weight machines with set paths of motion — your body is able to move in any direction.

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That that means you'll need to activate your stabilizing muscles, namely your core, to stay upright and maintain good form, Stonehouse explains.

Consider the example of the walking lunge with a sandbag on your back. If you're not intentionally bracing your core during the balance-heavy exercise — you're just mindlessly lunging — there's a good chance you'll topple over as you step forward.

3. It Trains Your Body in Multiple Planes of Motion

When programmed well, a functional fitness routine will challenge your body in every direction of movement — side to side, rotational and backward and forward (the latter of which most workout regimens overemphasize).

"Life happens in all three planes of motion, so it's really important that we train in all three planes of motion," Stonehouse says.

Consider this: If the subway you're riding comes to a sudden halt, you'll likely step one leg out to the side or behind you to keep your balance. Practicing lateral and reverse lunges will ensure you're physically prepared when that moment comes.

4. It Gives Your Mind a Boost

"I really do believe that when you do hard things [such as a tough workout], more than just your muscles benefit," Stonehouse says. "I think your mind really benefits from it. You're regularly showing yourself that you can overcome and you can do hard things."

In fact, studies have shown that exercise enhances mood and self-esteem and decreases stress tendencies, and people who exercise regularly have a better frame of mind, according to a January 2023 review in ‌Cureus‌.

"Why else should someone think about fitting some functional fitness training into their lifestyle? Of course, you're going to get stronger and move better and live longer — all those great things that everybody knows. But I think you're going to be a lot happier, too," Stonehouse says.

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A Sample Functional Fitness Workout

To get a taste of functional fitness, try this six-exercise workout created by Tang.

Grab a pair of light to medium weights, depending on your fitness level, and perform three rounds of the first superset, taking a 60- to 90-second break in between rounds. Then, repeat the process with supersets 2 and 3. (FYI: A superset is when you perform two back-to-back movements with little rest in between.)

While Tang recommends performing 10 reps per set of each exercise, you can also work for time; consider 30- to 45-second intervals and work your way up from there.

Superset 1

1. Push-Up

This functional fitness exercise builds strength in, you guessed it, the pushing movement pattern. If you can't do a full push-up on the floor, try performing the exercise against a wall or on your knees.

Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees, hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
  2. Step your feet back and straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your palms and toes.
  3. Your body should make a straight line from head to hips to heels, and your hands should be directly under your shoulders or slightly wider apart.
  4. Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body to the floor.
  5. Make sure to keep your body in one straight line from the neck through the spine to the hips and down to the heels.
  6. Press into your palms and push the floor away from you to come back up to a high plank, still keeping your body in one straight line.
  7. Repeat.

2. Forward Lunge

As you age, it can become difficult to lower down onto one knee (e.g., when you're playing with your grandchildren) and stand back up again. The forward lunge will help you build strength in the movement pattern.

Note: In your typical training routine, remember to practice a variety of lunges, including lateral, reverse and curtsey versions. You can also test your body in the transverse (aka rotational) plane of motion by twisting your torso toward the front knee at the bottom of your forward lunge.

Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your toes pointing forward, and your arms hanging at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Draw your shoulders down and back away from your ears and engage your core. On an inhale, step your right foot forward about 2 feet, keeping it aligned with your right hip.
  3. Then, slowly bend your right knee to lower your body to the floor. Pause when your right knee forms a 90-degree angle and your right thigh is parallel to the floor.
  4. On an exhale, press through your entire right foot to straighten your right leg and return to standing, your right foot returning to the floor next to your left foot.
  5. Repeat on the opposite leg.
  6. Continuing to alternate legs for all reps.

Tip

You can perform a forward lunge without dumbbells to make the move easier.

Superset 2

1. Bent-Over Row

Training the bent-over row, a pulling-focused functional exercise, will give you the strength necessary to open a heavy shop door or move your couch across the living room. To make this exercise harder, you can do a single-arm row.

Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your toes pointed forward, and your arms hanging at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your legs.
  2. Engage your core and draw your shoulders down and back.
  3. Then, bend your knees slightly and hinge at your hips until your torso is leaning forward about 45 degrees. Allow your hands to hang below your shoulders. Your back should be flat, neck neutral, and palms facing toward one another.
  4. On an exhale, engage your lats and drive your elbows up toward the ceiling behind you until they're in line with your ribcage. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides and back flat throughout the movement.
  5. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly straighten your arms to lower the dumbbells to the floor and return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat.

2. Deadlift

You may not realize it, but you perform a deadlift every time you bend over to pick up a dog toy or a bulky laundry basket off the floor. If you're new to the deadlift, you can perform the move without weights to get the hang of the movement.

Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your toes pointed slightly out to the sides and your arms hanging in front of your thighs. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing toward you.
  2. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core and lats. Keep your arms straight.
  3. On an inhale, slowly send your hips back and bend your knees slightly to lower the dumbbells to the floor.
  4. Continue pushing your hips back until the dumbbells are as close to the floor as possible or you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Keep your neck neutral and gaze forward throughout the movement.
  5. On an exhale, push through your feet and drive your hips forward to return to standing, making sure to keep your chest raised throughout the movement.
  6. Repeat.

Superset 3

1. Overhead Press

Practicing an overhead press will get your upper-body muscles ready to put a heavy box of holiday decorations back onto your closet's top shelf.

Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and arms hanging at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Bend your elbows to curl the dumbbells up. Extend your elbows out to the sides, slightly in front of your body. Your palms should be facing away from you.
  3. Brace your core, gaze forward and keep a neutral spine.
  4. On an exhale, press both dumbbells up toward the ceiling. Your arms should be slightly in front of your body, not in perfect alignment with your shoulders. Continue pressing until your arms are straight but not locked.
  5. On an inhale, slowly bend your elbows to lower your arms back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat.

2. Single-Arm Racked Squat

This functional exercise mimics real-life movements like dropping down to look at your cupcakes through the oven window or to pull a weed from your garden bed, especially when you're carrying a bowl of batter or freshly picked veggies in one hand.

To make the move easier, you can squat onto a chair or box. To make the move harder, consider combining the squat and press into a thruster.

Sets 3
Reps 5
  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward, and the end of one dumbbell resting on the top of your right shoulder.
  2. Extend your left arm out to the side at chest height.
  3. Engage your core, then on an inhale, sit back into your hips and bend your knees to lower body until thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can comfortably go). Keep your chest up and prevent your back from rounding.
  4. On an exhale, press through your feet to straighten your legs and return to standing.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Perform 5 reps with the dumbbell in your right hand, then 5 reps with the dumbbell in your left hand.

Is Functional Fitness Right For You?

A functional fitness routine can benefit practically everyone, as its goal is to help you feel and move at your best in your everyday life. Still, older individuals who are noticing that day-to-day movements or tasks are becoming more difficult may want to prioritize functional exercises, Tang says.

The same goes for people who are in a more sedentary stage of life due to age, a career change, kids, or an injury, Stonehouse adds.

"Certainly older people and anybody in the middle that, due to circumstances, are moving less — they need to add [functional fitness] in," Stonehouse says. "If you don't use it, you lose it."

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