Most people I know workout to lose weight or look good. But, that’s not the only reason you should be physically active.
For me, functional training exercises are one of the most important things to include in any workout program. That’s because they translate directly into what you do in your everyday routines.
Why functional training?
Functional training or functional fitness is about focusing on exercises that mimic the things you do in daily life.
This includes things like walking up stairs, lifting objects from the ground and carrying bags for a short distance.
By performing exercises that train the proper muscles to help you do the things you regularly do, you’ll be able to do them more efficiently. More importantly, they help you avoid nasty injuries.
Remember the last time you tweaked your back picking up a heavy item from the ground. Or, when you pulled a hamstring trying to chase after something.
You can avoid all that by including these movements in your workouts.
What’s great about functional exercises is that they work multiple muscles and joints. In doing so, these muscles learn to work together.
As a result, you not only get stronger, you’ll also build stamina, balance, and coordination.
In this article, we break up the different exercises into three groups.
- Lower body functional exercises
- Upper body functional exercises
- Core functional exercises.
Try incorporating them into your regular workouts, and you’ll quickly notice that doing regular chores will become much easier.
Best Lower Body Functional Exercises
- Primary Muscles: Quadriceps, Glutes, Core
- Secondary Muscles: Hamstrings
We love this exercise because it mimics sitting and standing up from your chair. Done correctly and regularly, it will help prevent knee or back pain when doing so.
Squats are a compound exercise. They work out the entire lower body, particularly the thighs, hips, quads, and glutes.
It is also great for strengthening your bones and ligaments.
With squats you have an option of doing:
- Bodyweight squats: No equipment needed.
- Dumbbell squats: You can hold the dumbbells on your sides. Or, you can keep them in front of your shoulders facing one another. The latter lets you rest one side of each dumbbell against your clavicle so you can focus your energy on your legs.
- Back squat: Place the barbell on the back.
- Front squat: Rest the barbell on your front shoulders.
How to Perform Squats
- Stand tall with your legs shoulder-width apart. Get the weight to its position if you’re using one. Where you position the weight will depend on whether you’re using dumbbells or a barbell. See above for the variations.
- Next, imagine sitting down on a chair. Use this motion to descend into the squat.
- Start by hinging your hips as if to sit back.
- Go down as far as you’re comfortable. Going to parallel, or where your thighs are parallel to the ground is a good target to shoot for. If you’re flexible, you can go all the way down till your butt is close to the ground.
- Sitting back instead of initiating the descent with your knees prevents your body (and knees) from going forward. Doing so helps avoid putting stress on your knees.
- When you reach parallel, push the floor using your heels to explode back up to your starting position.
- Do this 15-20 times.
- Primary Muscles: Lower back, Hamstrings
- Secondary Muscles: Quadriceps, Glutes, Forearms
Another functional movement we use every day is that of the deadlift. This exercise simulated picking up heavy objects from the floor.
It works all our body parts from your legs to your arms. Plus, it strengthens your hips and lower back in the process.
We love that deadlifts work your posterior chain. This prevents lower back pain. It is important to use proper form and technique with this exercise though.
How to Perform Deadlifts
- Position your barbell or dumbbells in front of you.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Stay close to the bar where half of your foot is right under it.
- Grab the bar without bending your legs. Use a shoulder with grip with your arms straight above the bar vertically.
- Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar.
- Bring your chest up to straighten your back
- Push through the floor with your heels and bring the bar up to your hips.
- Lower the bar back to the floor.
3. Single Leg Deadlifts
- Primary Muscles: Hamstrings, Glutes
- Secondary Muscles: Lower back
Single leg deadlifts are an excellent way for learning how to hinge your hips. In addition to balance and coordination, it also improves hip mobility.
This exercise teaches you how to pick light objects up from the floor without straining your back. It keeps you from bending over.
We love that they force you to work one leg at a time. This ensures that both your legs get the same amount of work. Doing so reduces muscular imbalances between your strong and weak sides.
Single leg deadlifts take a bit of practice to learn. That’s because they require balance as you lower yourself.
When starting out, an excellent way to learn the movement is to use a chair or pole. You can hold on to it for balance as you learn the move. This ensures that you have proper technique.
Options: As with the other exercise in our list, you have a few options you can do.
- Bodyweight: This is an excellent place to start. You don’t need weights of any sort.
- Dumbbells: Dumbbells add more resistance. Plus you can hold them in different ways.
- Two dumbbells at a time in front of you
- Use one dumbbell on the side of the leg you’re lifting.
- Use one dumbbell on the side of the leg you’re standing on.
- Barbell: This allows you to load the exercise with more weight. Here, you’ll keep the bar in front of you.
4. Glute Bridge or Hip Thrust
- Primary Muscles: Glutes
- Secondary Muscles: Hamstrings, Lower back
The glute bridge and hip thrust are two of the most effective posterior chain exercises. They’re similar to the deadlift to that regard. They do differ in that they focus more on the glutes.
Both exercises strengthen and tighten the glutes. In the process, they work your lower back and abs as well. This makes them essential for good posture as well as preventing back pain.
If your glutes are weak, it causes your pelvis to tilt forward. This, in turn, puts stress on your lower back. This position also causes your tummy to stick out (even if there is little to no fat in that area). Probably not something you want.
The two exercises are very close to one another. But, they do differ in the position of your back. Thus, the angle of your body and how the muscles are worked.
The video below explains each of the exercises, including their differences. It also shows you step by step how to perform the glute bridge and hip thrust.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat or Lunge
- Primary Muscles: Quadriceps,
- Secondary Muscles: Glutes, Hamstrings
In the same way, need to practice the squat to strengthen our lower body, we need to make sure that both legs are evenly capable.
Having one leg much stronger than the other means your body rely on it more. This is just how our bodies work. It finds the easiest way to get work done. And, using the stronger muscles is the most efficient way of doing so.
As a result, having one dominant side likely means you’ll lean towards that side more. This will cause your hips to tilt towards that side. Doing so places stress on the stabilizers around your hips as well as your lower back, eventually leading to hip, leg or back pain.
Here’s a step by step instructional video on how to perform the Bulgarian split squat.
As always, you’ll have the option of using:
- Bodyweight. No equipment, no weights. Just your body as resistance.
- Dumbbells: You can position them on both sides. Or, you can use a heavier weight and hold it with two hands just under your chin.
- Barbell: On your back.
Something very similar to the split squat is the lunge. They primarily work the same body parts. But, they do have their differences.
- Bulgarian Split Squats: Lets you focus more on the quads. It also stretches your hips and thighs (on the back leg). You’re able to load more weight for strength and muscle building purposes.
- Lunges: Are more versatile. There are lots of variations you can use.
As such, you can interchange these two exercises.
Between the two, lunges are more functional than split squats. That’s because, in real life, you’re going to be moving and not just in one position all the time.
When it comes to lunges, there are a few variations you can do. These are
- Forward lunge: By taking a step forward.
- Reverse lunge: Takes a step back. It puts less stress on your knees.
Side or Lateral lunge: Also called the Cossack squat. It is great for the hips and stretching the inside of your thigh.
- Diagonal lunges: You can do this forward and back as well as to the right and left sides.
- Curtsy lunge: This is a lunge with a twist. It is similar to a reverse lunge, but you’ll rotate your hips as you go back. They look similar to when you’re doing a curtsy which is where they get their name from.
- Lunge jump: If you want to add some explosive exercises to your workouts.
Of course, you can also mix them.
- Walking Lunge: These are a combination of forward lunges. You can do them for distance (10 or 20 feet and back is a good start). Or, do them for time (20-30 seconds).
- Star lunge: Doing lunges in a star pattern. This starts with a forward lunge, then diagonal and side lunge before the reverse lunge and so on till you make a star formation.
As always you can use bodyweight, barbell or dumbbell. Some people also like using a weight plate.
6. Step Ups
- Primary Muscles: Quadriceps
- Secondary Muscles: Glutes
Step ups are exactly how we climb up stairs. They’re also an excellent way to practice going up inclines or steep steps.
The exercise works your thigh muscles as well as your glutes. It also works the sections around your knees. This not only strengthens them but also improves their stability.
Performing the Step Up
- Stand in front of a bench or elevated platform. Make sure the object is heavy, stable and sturdy. It has to hold your weight and not wobble when you get on it.
- Place your right foot on the object.
- Push through your heels to bring your entire body up the platform.
- Slowly lower yourself back down by taking the step down.
- Repeat the motion with the other leg.
Make sure to keep your chest up and core tight throughout the entire exercise.
Upper Body Functional Exercises
- Primary Muscles: Chest, Triceps
- Secondary Muscles: Core
Among the most basic exercises, push-ups are key to functionality. They teach you to hold a solid position and how to push off the ground or any object.
This exercise works your chest, arms, and shoulder muscles. It is the bodyweight version of the bench press, which we find more functional. That is unless you’re a football player.
How to Do Push Ups
- Get on the floor in a plank position. Extend your arms, so your hands instead of your elbows are what support your upper body.
- Keep your arms shoulder-width apart.
- Lower your upper body as close as possible to the ground. Make sure to keep your core, butt, and legs tight. This ensures that your body is straight throughout the exercise.
- From the bottom position, push yourself back up with your arms.
2. Pull Ups
- Primary Muscles: Lats, Biceps
- Secondary Muscles: Middle Back, Shoulders
Pull-ups are the king of upper body exercises. Some may argue that the bench press is. And, chances are those are all men.
Anyway, pull-ups increase your relative strength. This gives you the ability to carry your weight. It also comes in handy in specific instances when you have to pull yourself up and over something taller than you.
In fact, being able to do this exercise may one day save your life.
How to Perform Pull Ups
- Stand under a high bar. Make sure the bar is capable of holding your weight.
- Grab hold of the bar with both arms and hang from it.
- Engage your upper back and lat muscles.
- Pull yourself up until your chin crosses the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the bottom position.
You can do pull-ups in a variety of ways.
- Change the way you hold the bar. You can use an overhand, neutral or underhand grip. Underhand grip is also called a chin up. It is the easiest among the three.
- Change the distance of your arms. You can position your hands just inside your shoulders, at shoulder width or wide apart.
- The closer your hands are, the easier the exercise. It also moves the target muscles closer to the middle of the back.
- The wider your grip, the harder the pull up. Wide grip pull ups also work the outer back or lats more.
- Primary Muscles: Triceps, Chest
- Secondary Muscles: Shoulders
This exercise is similar to the push-up. But, it puts your body in a more vertical position. As such you’ll be pushing more weight. They’re useful in day to day life as it allows you to push yourself up, whether from a seated position or coming from below.
Dips work your arms, specifically your triceps. They also activate your chest muscles.
One of the more confusing things about this exercise is when does it become a chest dip and when a triceps dip. It’s all in the angle of your hand and body.
The video below explains the nuisances of the chest vs. triceps dip.
How to Perform Dips
- Grab on to two parallel bars. You can also use two chairs. Just position them a few feet apart. Do make sure that the chairs don’t slide away when you start moving.
- Take your feet off the ground and allow your arms to support your weight.
- Slowly lower yourself by bending your arms. Keep your body straight throughout the entire exercise.
4. Inverted Rows
- Primary Muscles: Middle Back, Biceps
- Secondary Muscles: Lats, Shoulders
Inverted rows are similar to pull-ups. But as pull-ups are to dips, inverted rows are to push-ups.
This exercise uses a lower bar compared to the pull-up. As such, your body is at a diagonal angle. This reduces the total amount of resistance. The lower bar also means your feet touch the ground.
Inverted rows work the middle of the back more than the lats, which the pull up does. Additionally, it activates your arms and shoulder muscles as well.
5. Bicep Curls
- Primary Muscles: Biceps
- Secondary Muscles: Forearms, Core
This is every man’s favorite exercise, just ahead of the bench press. The good news is they’re very functional in real life.
Our biceps help up to carry things. Whether it’s a box or a birthday cake, doing curls give us the strength to hold up these objects.
When it comes to curls there are a few ways you can try.
- Barbell curls
- Dumbbell curls (one or two hands at a time).
- Concentration curls
- Preacher curls
- Hammer curls.
6. Overhead Press
- Primary Muscles: Shoulders
- Secondary Muscles: Arms
This is a useful exercise for any time you need to push something overhead. It can be your carry on in the plane, or some furniture on your cabinet top.
Overhead presses work your shoulders. They also engage both your arms and upper chest muscles.
When it comes to overhead presses, you can use a barbell or dumbbells. You’ll have less variation with barbells. But, it lets you load more weight for strength and muscle building purposes.
Dumbbells give you more workout options. You can do any of the following.
One hand at a time, both hands or alternate your right and left hands.
You can also use three different hand positions.
- pronated (overhand)
- neutral (facing in)
- supinated (underhand)
Best Core Functional Exercises
1. Farmer’s Carry
- Primary Muscles: Core
- Secondary Muscles: Arms, Legs
The farmer’s carry or farmer’s walk is a simple exercise that you don’t see enough people in the gym doing. It is excellent for functional training because we use this posture to carry things daily.
Whether it’s carrying your bag or grocery, you’ll be using the same muscles as you do in the farmer’s walk.
How to Perform the Farmer’s Carry
- Carry two heavy dumbbells of equal weight. Hold them on your sides.
- With your chest up and a neutral spine, walk forward.
- Walk 15 to 20 feet. Then turn around and walk back.
You can do farmer’s carry in a variety of ways.
- Use two dumbbells at the same time.
- One dumbbell at a time. The asymmetry forces your core to work harder. It is probably more functional too because we often carry one bag instead of two at a time.
2. Waiter’s Walks
- Primary Muscles: Shoulders, Core
- Secondary Muscles: Arms, Legs
Similar to how waiters carry drinks and food over their shoulder, this exercise works on your balance as well as shoulder and arm stability.
This exercise packs your shoulder in building stability. Plus, it strengthens your upper back region. Doing this exercise prepares you for the times when you need to hold objects overhead for long periods of time.
If you work in construction or need to lift objects over your head and walk with them, this is perfect training for that.
- Primary Muscles: Core
- Secondary Muscles: Shoulders
Planks are a staple for any core workout routine. They promote core stability as well teach you to hold a strong position for a long period.
This exercise primarily strengthens the core, both front, and back. At the same time, it engages the glutes and hamstrings.
Doing planks on a regular basis help improve and teach you good posture. Also, it promotes better overall balance.
They do take a lot of strength from your abs and shoulders, especially when holding for more than 30 seconds.
How to Do the Plank
- Get into a pushup position on the floor.
- Bend your arms so that your elbows and forearms are on the floor. They, along with your feet,
- will support your entire body.
- Hold this pose for 1-2 minutes. Begin at 30 seconds and work your way yo.
4. Turkish Get Up
- Primary Muscles: Core, Shoulders
- Secondary Muscles: Legs, Arms
This is an intermediate move that puts a lot of different things together. It also requires a good amount of balance along with lower body strength.
As its name suggests, this exercise helps mimic getting up from the ground. It improves the muscles involved in the motion, including your hips, butt, legs, and core.
What we love about it is it works a lot of your muscles. It strengthens your hips, quads, and hamstrings. Plus it improves your lower and upper back as well as shoulder stability.
You can do this exercise without weights. Or, you can use a dumbbell or kettle for more resistance.
5. Bird Dog
- Primary Muscles: Lower Back, Glutes
- Secondary Muscles: Hamstrings, Shoulders
This quadruped exercise may look simple, but it requires some balance and stability. The best part about it is that it helps with lower back pain relieve. And, it strengthens your upper back to reduce the hunchback posture.
Bird dogs are a core exercise that focuses on your core. It improves your abs’ and lower back’s stability. This gives you the ability to stand straight even for long periods of time.
If you like having a nice figure, they come with the bonus of toning your butt and hamstrings as well. Don’t be surprised to feel a fuller, rounder butt after a week of doing this exercise.
- Primary Muscles: Lower Back
- Secondary Muscles: Glutes, Hamstrings, Shoulders
For lower back pain prevention and relief, the superman exercise is something you want to do. It strengthens your lower back as well as your shoulder and scapula region.
This exercise isn’t the easiest thing to do especially when starting out. While it does require coordination, it’s often the strength factor that makes it hard.
If that’s the case, start by separating the leg and arm movements. Here’s how:
- Just do the arm movement (raise them) without the legs.
- Then, just raise your legs while keeping your arms on the floor.
After a while, you’ll get stronger. And, be able to do both simultaneously.
With this exercise, there are a few variations.
- You can alternate opposite arm and leg like in the video.
- Or, you can raise both arms and both legs at the same time.
The latter is harder to do.