Functional Training – 11 exercise moves

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What Is Functional Fitness

Functional exercises are those that mimic things we do every day in our regular lives.

Functional activities involve:  

  • Pushing
  • Pulling
  • Lifting
  • Balancing
  • Reaching
  • Carrying

By training the body’s ability to use multiple muscle groups together in a cohesive and effective manner, we can become much stronger and improve how we move and perform in our daily lives.

Benefits Of Functional Exercises

Think about all you do in just one day, pick up your kids off the floor, vacuum, reach for something on a high shelf, carry groceries, pick up a laundry basket, dart after the kids or climb stairs at the office etc. etc..

All of these things involve functional fitness, or the body’s ability to use various muscle groups together and use them effectively.

Sure spending hours on a treadmill supports heart health and calorie burning, but how useful is it in supporting your multi-joint and multi-muscle engaging activities in everyday life?

Athletes use functional training because they can work those exact movements that they use in their sport, like the golfer who uses the medicine ball twist to train trunk rotation.

Like athletes, every human engages in various types of movements in their daily lives, and when our muscles lack the skill of working together effectively it is a recipe for disaster.


Functional exercises mimic our natural movements, and work multiple joint and muscle groups together, so that various everyday movement is perfected and you are made stronger in carrying them out.

Most all we do in a day involves the use of more than one muscle group at once, like reaching or bending and darting, so it make sense to work out your body to enable it to perform such actions without injury or pain.

Balance is an issue that matters to everyone, but becomes more important as we age, so we can avoid falls, and injuries that come with them.

Functional fitness training makes you more functional in the “real world,” and goes beyond simply coping, but allows you to excel at real life activities. On top of that, this type of training makes you stronger overall as it builds full-body strength quickly and quiet efficiently.

Functional Moves Versus Exercise Machines

One of the greatest drawbacks to weight machines at the gym is that unlike functional moves, they do not train balance, core stabilization, or stability, all of which are necessary in your daily movements and life activities.

This is why a person can push a large amount of weight on any of the various weight machines in the gym, but cannot do a back squat with weight, balance on one leg or wind up wrenching their back when they pick up a heavy suitcase off the floor. Exercise machines are not built to translate movement to real life.

Weight Machines:

  • Typically work on one single muscle
  • Provide support so there is no need to use any stabilizing muscles through the movement
  • Force the body to move on a single plane and in a set way
  • Ideal for strengthening one particular muscle, such as the calves, or the shoulders and others

Conversely, functional moves:

  • Actually train various muscle groups and joints to work together
  • Strengthen multiple muscles at once
  • Challenge balance by moving in all three dimensions
  • Provide no external or artificial support facilitating the training of core strength and stabilization
  • Develop strength and stamina for all of life’s activities
  • Promote balance and flexibility
  • Facilitate body awareness throughout various types of movements

Assessing Your Real Life Weaknesses

Consider how you move in your daily life, and ask yourself these critical questions:

  • What are your weaknesses?
  • In what situations have you suffered injuries?
  • What movements do you typically avoid, i.e.: bending down to a low cupboard
  • What movements do you find difficult?
  • Are you comfortable getting down on the floor to play with the kids?
  • Do you sit most of the day?
  • Do you experience morning muscle stiffness?
  • Do you have back issues?
  • Do your joints ache without a medical explanation?
  • Do you dread carrying groceries into the house?
  • Do you avoid stairs, especially when carrying a load?
  • Is tying your shoelaces your worst nightmare?
  • Do you need help when reaching into a high cabinet?
  • Can you stand on one foot without falling over?
  • Do some sexual positions cause you pain?

This assessment will help you realize your shortcomings, and help you identify the best functional movements to improve your functioning in your daily life.

11 Exercise Moves That Mimic Life

The Deadlift

Purpose: Strengthen all pulling muscles, train multiple muscles groups to work together, hip extension, overall, lower body strength and some core stabilization

Area/Muscles Worked:  Main muscles worked are the hamstring, other muscles include the glutes, lower back, and calves

Real Life Application: The deadlift works muscles engaged when pulling, and bending, for example picking something up from the floor, like your kids, groceries, a box, moving furniture, and having phenomenal lower body strength like stronger legs for walking.

Easier Substitute Moves: Dumbbell Deadlift or Kettlebell Swing

Why Deadlift?

If there is one exercise that has evoked as much fear as it does amazement, it would be the deadlift. There is no other exercise that is as simple as (correctly) bending at the hip and picking up a load, yet brutally efficient in drastically improving strength, endurance, and overall muscle stimulation. It also does all of this extremely fast as it is just so highly effective.

It Improves Functional Fitness – The deadlift is one of the few exercises that should be a staple in every person’s workout regimen, given the fact they are in good health. Many exercises may only translate well towards the purpose of building muscle of aesthetics in bodybuilding, but the deadlift does that and improve your day-to-day functionality. Think of it making it more “natural” for you to be able to walk, bend, and lift heavy objects- that’s functional.

Massive Post-Workout Hormonal Surge – Hormones rule everything, including how fast you recover, if you build muscle and overall health. Following a session of deadlifting, the body releases tons of testosterone, growth hormone, and endorphins to name a few.

These hormones help to improve your mood (endorphins), boost recovery and deliver anti-aging benefits (growth hormone) and initiate muscle synthesis after a traumatic workout (testosterone). At the end of it all, these hormones are the mediators for building a better body and mind.

Improved Physical Well Being – The deadlift has the potential to add pounds of muscle all over the body, due to the fact that it stimulates muscles from the entire body. Stronger and bigger muscles make movement easier and can directly improve your body composition (by making your body burn more fat). In addition, the deadlift can help improve poor posture through spinal flexion and extension by correcting the posture upon rising.

How To Do A Deadlift

If you step foot into a gym and see someone doing the deadlift, chances are it is not the way it should be done. The deadlift takes practice to master, as many people have been “detrained” from correct posture and movement and needs to relearn it.

Luckily, with just an empty bar there’s plenty of time to learn the movement- do not load up on weight until you have truly mastered the form.

Here’s how it should be setup:

  1. When performing the exercise for the first time, it may be a better idea to rest the empty bar on an elevated surface above ground. This allows you to get the motion right, without overextending possibly stiff hamstrings
  2. From rest (standing) bend over at the hips, as you would if about to sit in a chair. Keep your feet about 4 inches apart, pointing naturally forward and slightly outward.
  3. Grasp the barbell using a staggered grip- one hand palm facing down, the other palm facing up. Grab the bar at a distance just outside shoulder width, or where your arms would naturally fall at rest on your body.
  4. Slowly, raise the bar up your body, literally “dragging” up your shins and keeping the bar close to your body. This reduces unnecessary force generation to raise the bar. Be careful not to bend elbows in an attempt to lift the bar with your arms, as it can be dangerous as you start using measurable weight.
  5. Erect your spine fully, and slowly follow the same trajectory going downwards to the start position.
  6. Congratulations, you did your first deadlift!

The deadlift will yield untold benefits on your health and strength for that matter, given it is performed safely and consistently. After a few weeks of mastering form, you may find yourself able to add 5 pounds to every workout, allowing for immense strength increases in a short period of time.

Caution: It is extremely important to not lift more weight than you can handle when doing a deadlift, it is best to get professional support when starting this move.


Purpose:  Strengthen the lower body and leg muscles, train balance, promote hip flexibility, and improve posture

Muscles Worked: Mainly quadriceps, secondary, calves, glutes, hamstrings, adductors or inner thighs, hip flexors and the core, which includes all the ab muscles and the lower back.

Real Life Application: Bending, kneeling, gardening, getting up off the couch, picking up your kid or heavy groceries from the floor.

Increase Difficulty: Add weight with barbell or dumbbells as you get better at squatting

Why Squat?

The squat like the deadlift is one of the most amazingly useful movements that should be done and perfected by everybody, it is truly one of the most wide reaching of functional movements that mimics all types of life activities.

How To Squat 

  1. Stand with your feet a shoulder width apart and place your toes angled out at about a30 degree angle.
  2. Slowly bend the knees until the thighs are parallel to the floor. The move is very much like when you are about to sit in a chair.
  3. The knees should perfectly aligned over the toes, keep the back straight at all times and keep the abs tight
  4. Push down through the heels
  5. Return to standing position

Add intensity and progression by adding dumbbells, as you get stronger

Perfect balance by squatting with your arms above your head

Bodyweight Jump Squat

Purpose: Builds explosive lower-body power, leg strength, knee strength, ankle and hip extension, burn fat, endurance and train core stability and coordination.

Area/Muscles Worked: Isometric power exercise that works the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and ab muscles

Real Life Application:  Standing up fast, jumping, and lower body strength to walk, run, and climb stairs with ease and confidence.

How To 

  1. Place both hands on the back of your head
  2. Pull the elbows back so they are aligned with your body
  3. Keep the feet a shoulder width apart
  4. Descend into a squat position
  5. Keep the core tight and explosively push your hips upward and jump as high as possible
  6. Drive the jump through the heels

As you land, go immediately back into a squat and jump again

Overhead/Shoulder Press

Purpose: Builds upper body and core strength and strengthens the shoulders

Area/Muscles Worked: Compound movement targets the shoulders mainly and triceps secondary

Real Life Application: Throwing, pushing, applying force while standing, overall body stabilization and building strength to overcome inertia; holding a child over your head, and overall shoulder strength for any lifting, reaching or carrying.

How To 

  1. Start with a barbell placed on a squat rack at your chest level
  2. Remove the barbell with your palms facing forward. The grip should be wider than a shoulder width apart
  3. Bend your knees slightly and lift the barbell keeping it close to your chest
  4. Take a step back and place your feet a shoulder width apart from each other
  5. Lift the bar over your head and lock the arms, this is the starting position
  6. Inhale and lower the bar slowly down to your collarbone
  7. Exhale and lift the bar back up to the starting position

This is one rep

Easier Substitutes: Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Dumbbell Clean to Press or Kettlebell Press

Caution: You should never shoulder press more weight than you can handle, and use a spotter when you first start out, these are best practices to avoid injury.

Chin Up

Purpose: Builds enormous upper body strength and strengthens the shoulders and back muscles.

Area/Muscles Worked: Compound movement that works the lat muscles, and also biceps, forearms, and middle back.

Real Life Application: The strong pulling motion improves posture and strengthens shoulders to prevent pain. Mimics climbing, and dragging, works the entire upper body and builds enormous strength for all activities that require arm, shoulder and back strength.

Most people cannot pull their weight, weather it is a chin up or a pull up. If you can perfect this movement, you will be so much stronger and much more able to perform in your everyday life.

How To 

  1. Grab a pull-up bar with palms facing inward towards the torso. Your grip should less than a shoulder’s width
  2. Your starting position is to extend both arms, keep the torso straight, and stick your chest out. Straightening the torso helps target the bicep muscles and reduces tension on the back.
  3. Breathe out, and pull the torso up, while keeping the core tight.
  4. Squeeze the biceps to a contracted position, and slowly lower the torso back to start.

This is one rep.

Caution: It is helpful to watch a video with professional instruction when attempting this move in order to avoid injury, a spotter helps too.

Easier Substitutes and Progression:  Bent Over Row or One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Squat To Bicep Curl

Purpose: Training the upper and lower body muscles to work together and building strength in lifting and bending.

Area/Muscles Worked: Mainly quadriceps, and biceps, secondary, calves, glutes, hamstrings

Real Life Application: Lifting kids, the laundry basket or grocery bags from the floor.

Why is it that some people can lift very heavy weight at the gym, and then they bend over to pick up their laundry and throw their back out. This happens because they are lacking in functional fitness and the exercises they are doing are not training their muscles to properly work together. This move is does just that.

How To

  1. Begin by standing with your feet a hip-width apart and holding two dumbbells at your side. Keep the back straight and the core tight
  2. Slowly bend your knees and lower your body until the your knees are at a 90-degree angle
  3. As you rise back up to a standing position, turn your palms up and curl each of the dumbbells in towards your shoulders

That is one rep

Dumbbell Step-Up

Purpose: To build strength in climbing and train balance

Area/Muscles Worked:  Mainly quadriceps, and biceps, secondary, shoulders, calves, glutes, arms, and hamstrings

Real Life Application: Carrying a suitcase, boxes, groceries or any load while climbing stairs and any activities that require balance, which are many found in life.

How To

  1. Start at the bottom of a staircase or a plyo box with a dumbbell in each hand
  2. As you ascend either, just hold the dumbbells or slowly curl the weights in toward your shoulders

Medicine Ball Throws

Purpose:  This dynamic exercise strengthens the back, shoulders, and the core, while promoting stability and flexibility of the spine.

Area/Muscles Worked:  Compound plyometric strength training exercise that mainly works the shoulders, secondary muscles worked are abs, back, quads, and hamstrings.

Real Life Applications: All types of activities as the core and spine play a key role in any kind of movement. Balance supports efficiency in numerous everyday tasks and is especially important as we age, as balance training prevents falls, the number one cause of injury in seniors.

How To

  1. Stand in a semi squat position and hold a medicine ball in your hands keeping your arms hanging so the ball is more near your feet
  2. Thrust the hips forward and extend through the legs
  3. Jump up, and simultaneously swing the arms up and over your head.
  4. As you keep your arms extended, release the ball
  5. Catch the ball on the rebound

This is one rep

Stork Hinge With Single Arm Reach

Purpose: Train balance, increase core strength, teaches you to resist bending of the back motions and stabilizes the core

Area/Muscles Worked:  Ab muscles, obliques, and back muscles

Real Life Application: any activity that requires balance, like walking and carrying things, prevent falls and injuries from falls and to strengthen the back allowing you to perform various activities

Another great movement that trains core balance and strengthens abdominal muscles. A strong core and balance supports numerous everyday movements on a large scale. This is especially important as we age, as balance training prevents falls, the number cause of injury in seniors.

How To

  1. Start with feet in a slightly staggered stance and shit your weight to the foot that is in front
  2. Raise the opposite arm, while placing the other hand on your hip or at your hip
  3. Slowly hinge forward while raising the back leg. As you lower your torso, keep the back straight and the straight arm and leg in the same plane
  4. Slowly and with control, tilt the body back to starting position

This is one rep for one side

Swiss Ball Reverse Hip Raise

Purpose: Leg strength and stability, train balance, core strength and stabilization, and teaching multiple muscle groups to work together

Area/Muscles Worked:  Spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and abdominal muscles

Real Life Application: All activities that require balance. Core strength and stabilization improves general functioning and all movements found in life.

How To

  1. Lie on a Swiss ball and place your hands on the floor
  2. Keep your core tight and lift both legs up until they are parallel to the floor
  3. Hold this position for a few seconds
  4. Return to start

This is one rep

High Knees

Purpose: Boost power, build balance, improve endurance and cardiovascular strength, improve lower body speed, and increase flexibility.

Area/Muscles Worked:  Gluteus maximus, ab muscles, quadriceps, gastrocnemius, soleus, hip abductors, hip adductors, tibialis anterior, and core stabilization.

Real Life Application: Walking, running, leg strength for any activity, cardiovascular strength for heart health, and endurance to perform any task.

How To  

  1. Stand straight and place your feet a hip width apart
  2. Look straight ahead and keep your arms hanging at your sides
  3. Jump or march (if jumping is too intensive for you) alternating from one foot to the other and as you do that, lift the knees up towards the core, try to lift as high as you can with control, not allowing them flop aimlessly
  4. Allow your arms to follow the same motion

As you get more fit, begin jumping instead of marching

Getting Started

There are many other functional movements and the assessment portion in the previous chapter will help you identify your main movement issues that will help you to choose and work on moves that will improve these areas of your functionality.

Form is everything when it comes to any of these functional movements so be sure to understand and practice proper form. A personal trainer or demonstration videos will help.

Functional training is a wonderful way to improve your strength and general ability in all you do in your every day life.

Get started today!


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