The term “functional exercise” has become another fitness buzzword that doesn’t mean what it’s proponents think it means.
Let’s take to the dictionary to find out what it actually means.
Function: an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing; practical use or purpose in design.
Handstand push-ups? Burpees? Dangling-from-a chin-up bar like a fish out of water Kipping pull-ups?
Do those movements have any practical use? Sure, they’re difficult, and being competent in any of them would probably lead to greater overall fitness, but could there be movements that are more... functional?
When I think of functional fitness, I think of movements that will help you in your everyday functions: carrying groceries, lifting children, going up and down stairs, etc. A truly functional movement will mimic your daily tasks, making your everyday movements easier.
Functional movements should be accessible for a wide range of age groups and abilities. They should also require minimal, specialized equipment.
Lastly, these movements are not about building a great physique, although they will definitely help. Big compound movements like squats, deadlifts and bench press should be the foundation for most people’s workouts. These movements are for people who are looking to improve function and longevity of their body. Most of these movements are not going to pack slabs of muscle onto your frame, but will help with mobility, strength and overall function.
Weighted carries are exactly like they sound: you pick something up and carry it for a distance.
Weighted carries will strengthen your grip (hands and forearms), upper back, core and legs primarily.
You will likely carry something every day: groceries, kids, furniture, dishes, briefcase, etc. You should aim to strengthen this motion by practicing loaded carries.
There are lots of variations of weighted carries, including Farmer walk, Suitcase carry, Bent-arm carry, Zercher carry, etc. Each one of these emphasizes slightly different parts of your body. Try them all out for a great workout with lots of variation.
For demonstrations and other options, check out this video.
Being able to get up from the floor isn’t a move that will get you lots of “Likes” but it will serve you in your real life. Unless you have children, you probably don't spend a lot of time sitting on anything lower than a chair. This means that you're losing the ability to get up off of the floor or low bench.
One of the biggest benefits of Get-Ups is mobility required to get your body into proper position. Hip, knee, ankle and toe mobility will all be required to get your body into proper position to get up and back down again.
Whether you are picking something up off the ground, tying your shoes, playing with kids or have fallen down and need to get back up, getting up is a skill that you should be practicing.
To do a Get-Up, you must first get down. Sit on the floor, either on your bum with legs in front of you, criss cross, or on your knees. From there, stand up. It's that simple. For a good workout, try different variations and make sure to use both legs.
If you really want to get after it, try the Turkish Get-Up.
Front Loaded, Full Range of Motion Squats
Squatting is a fundamental human movement. All around the world, people squat. When you were a child, you squatted - perfectly. However, over the years of a sedentary lifestyle and not performing full squats in general, lots of people lose the ability to perform a proper squat. Much like Get-Ups, squats are great for hip, knee and ankle mobility.
You do partial squats every day - getting out of bed in the morning, sitting down and standing up from a chair, going to the bathroom and more. These all involve squatting.
Most people associate back squats with squat workouts. While those are great, I would suggest that a front loaded squat is more functional. When was the last time you were carrying something on your back and had to squat? If you’re doing a weighted squat in real life chances are that you’re carrying something or someone in front of you.
Exercises like a goblet squat are great for perfecting the skill of squatting. Another benefit of front-loaded squats is that it can help to make up for a lack of mobility in the hips and ankles. If you were to try to squat down, you may find that before you get to the absolute bottom of your squat, you feel like you’re going to tip back. That’s likely due to a lack of mobility in your ankles. When you hold a weight out in front of you, it acts as a counterbalance and can help you get in that deep position.
Don’t have a kettlebell? No problem! You can use a dumbbell, backpack, sack of potatoes, soup can, small child, etc. for resistance.
Wall Slides/Overhead Press
Chances are that you suffer from some level of Upper-Cross Syndrome (UCS). UCS is a fancy way of saying your shoulders are rolled forward and your head sits further forward than is optimal.
It makes sense that this would happen, as you do most of your work in front of you. Combine that with chronic use of technology and you’ll spend a lot of your day tightening the muscles in your chest and the front part of your shoulder. As those tighten, they shorten and pull your shoulders forward, creating the slumped shoulders. Not only does it shorten the muscles in the front, but it rounds your upper back, creating a hunch-back look.
As you age, this position will become more and more permanent, limiting your ability to reach up overhead.
Try this, try to exaggerate a hunch-back. Now, try to reach up straight overhead. Pretty tough, hey? Losing shoulder mobility is a massive blow to one’s independence as they age. It is incredibly important to maintain upright posture and shoulder mobility.
Think about everything you do with your arms above your head. Reaching for various items, lifting kids, various sports, etc.
Wall slides might be one of my favorite exercises of all time. They are a true game-changer!
The overhead press is a great addition to wall slides as it will help to strengthen the overhead position. Tasks such as lifting something onto a high shelf become much easier when you are stable and strong above your head.
Single Leg Movements
I’m a firm believer that when your ability to walk goes, your quality of life is not far behind it.
Single leg exercises are great to maintain function for years to come. Not only does it strengthen muscles, it helps to keep bones strong. Think about it: if you’re doing leg exercises, you're sending a signal to your body to strengthen your bones. It will then take care of strengthening them. Want to slow down or avoid osteoporosis? Exercise!
Another benefit of single leg exercises is that it works on your balance and joint stability. When you remove your other leg from the equation, you force your body to stabilize itself.
Also, single leg exercises will help to correct imbalances too. If you have one leg that is far stronger, it will take over in bi-lateral exercises, like a normal squat. By removing that dominant leg, you expose weaknesses in strength and mobility.
Finally, single leg exercises require less weight than traditional leg work. Just because you can squat 100lbs, doesn’t necessarily mean that both legs can do 50lbs each. Single leg exercises mean you can challenge yourself from home without having to invest in a large amount of weight.
*BONUS* Bicep Curls
I know what you’re thinking, “Bicep curls? How on earth are those functional?” Glad you asked.
Almost anytime you pick something up, you end up flexing (aka bending) your elbow - that’s your bicep in action. Having strong biceps not only looks kind of cool, but can be fairly functional as well.