Functional Training 101: What Is Functional Fitness?

Posted by Casey Stenehjem on Mar 30th 2021

Functional Training 101: What Is Functional Fitness?

Does your workout include functional training? If not, you likely need to incorporate it in.

Chances are you work out to look good, feel good, eliminate pain from injuries, and live a long, meaningful life that’s not weighed down by physical limitations. That’s where functional fitness comes in.

What Is Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness training is a broad category, but simply put, it prepares your body for real-life movement. If you do any activity outside the gym, functional training is right for you! You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. In reality, all of us can benefit from functional fitness.

The concept of functional training stems from physical therapists working on rehabilitation. Commonly in physical therapy, a therapist will mimic what a patient does outside of the gym to help them return to the basic movements needed for life while reducing pain or risk of reinjury.

Interestingly enough, most of us have muscular imbalances, balance limitations, and more restrictions that need attention. If we never severely injure ourselves, we tend to work around the imbalances. But continuing to work around them could be holding us back from many things in our athleticism or everyday life.

What Are the Benefits of Functional Training?

Here are the top three reasons why functional fitness can benefit your fitness routine:

    1. Increases mobility
    2. Promotes better overall physical health
    3. Prevents or helps recovery from injuries

1. Functional Training Increases Your Mobility

Can you deadlift 100 pounds but have pain in your back from putting a spoon in the dishwasher? Or perhaps you do cardio workouts on your stationary bike all the time, but during a five-mile hike, your body is in constant pain, and you have mobility limitations.

If those struggles sound familiar, it’s time to challenge your body with more complex, compound, and nonlinear movements that better prepare the body for mobility. Functional movement is precisely that: movement that helps you function and prepare for everyday activities.

Want a real-life example? Consider a squat. Like to sit down to relax? You squat when you sit down on the couch. Got kiddos? You squat when you clean up toys off the floor. Like to shop online? You squat when you pick up Amazon packages at the front door. Squatting is a real-life functional, human movement you do several times a day, whether or not you’re in the middle of a workout.

2. Functional Training Improves Your Overall Physical Health

When you train your body for real-life movements, you’re actually training your nervous system. Our nervous system is the master regulator of mobility, flexibility, pain, and other such functions. Simply put, if your nervous system is not educated for everyday movements, you will have negative outputs.

If you can make a better, more predictable, and overall smarter nervous system, you will become a better athlete inside and outside the gym.

3. Functional Exercises Can Prevent and Help You Recover from Injuries

Functional exercises improve your balance and coordination. This leads to more awareness of your bodily movements and core strength, which can help to prevent injuries from occurring. If you’ve ever experienced an injury that required a physician, you’ve likely also done functional training as part of your muscle recovery and physical therapy.

The more functional training your body has, the easier it is to move your body as one system. This can make full-body HIRT workouts and unloading the dishwasher easier on your muscles and joints.

Is Functional Fitness Right for You?

Imagine this: You’re a parent who wants to enjoy playing around with your children on the floor and also need to be able to pick them up while they’re kicking and screaming. You need to be prepared to combine several movements at once. Activities like deadlifting, bent-over rows, and crawl patterns would help prepare for such a situation.

Or perhaps you’re doing the dishes but commonly have back pain when you stand for long periods or bend over. Training your body with movement patterns that involve bending and twisting could better prepare your body to do household chores.

Functional movement helps you inside and outside the gym, making functional fitness right for everyone. 

Our bodies can only do so many movements; vertical and horizontal push, pull, hinge, squat, and rotate. All other movements are a variation or combination of these — often referred to as compound movements.

Functional training is essentially more complex combinations of these movements sequenced together. We need to prepare our nervous system to execute these complex variations to move throughout life without limitations.

Does Functional Fitness Differ From Weightlifting?

Functional fitness can and commonly does include strength training, but it is a different form of weightlifting. Traditional strength training focusing on building strength in an isolated muscle rather than incorporating complex, nonlinear, and compound movements.

A simple example is a leg extension machine vs. a bear crawl. Both will target the quadriceps, but the leg extension is isolated. The bear crawl uses many more muscles and other complexities to challenge your body.

Traditional weightlifting also commonly involves seated, supported, or fixed positions and slow, controlled movements with a reduced range of motion. These aren’t bad things to incorporate into your workout, and there are many benefits to weightlifting. But you need to combine that strength training with more functional movement variations to keep your body more prepared for life.

5 Functional Training Exercises You Can Do at Home

If you currently don’t incorporate any functional movement into your training, that’s okay! Luckily, it’s easy to start incorporating functional exercises without changing your entire routine. Here are some functional fitness exercises you can do right in your home gym:

1. Bear Crawls

A bear crawl will have you on all fours, which will target muscle groups in your shoulders, core, chest, glutes, and back simultaneously. While no equipment is required, it helps to use a yoga mat if you have one handy.

    1. Start in tabletop position, with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips over your knees.
    2. Hover your knees slightly off the floor.
    3. Keeping a neutral spine, move your left hand and right knee forward in a crawling motion. Then move your right hand and left knee forward.
    4. Repeat this motion three times forward, then reverse to your starting position on the mat.

2. Farmer’s Carry

The farmer’s carry or farmer’s walk is another compound exercise that engages the entire body. It’ll target your biceps, triceps, quadriceps, abdominals, and hamstrings. While this move is often performed with powerlifting, those starting out can use free weights like kettlebells, dumbbells, or YBells.

    1. Hinge at your hips, then bend your knees to pick your weight(s) off the ground. You can use one or two-sided weights.
    2. Bend your legs to lift the weight and return to your standing position.
    3. Hold the weight(s) to your side with your arms straight. (If you’re using a YBell, consider holding it with an outer grip for this exercise.)
    4. Pay attention to your posture — stand tall with your shoulders back and chest pulled down slightly. Then slowly walk forward with the weight(s).
    5. Walk for whatever distance feels comfortable to you, using a pace that allows you to keep good posture.

3. Goblet Squats

Standard squats are great for leg day, but goblet squats will target your whole body with the addition of free weights. Use light weights if you’re looking for cardio and mobility workouts or heavier weights for strength and muscle gain. We recommend using a dumbbell, kettlebell, or a YBell using an under grip.

    1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes pointed out slightly.
    2. Pin your elbows to your side by your ribcage, and hold the weight under your chin.
    3. Slowly bend your hips and knees to lower your body. Go as low as you’re comfortable, and hold that pose for three seconds.
    4. Using your glutes, legs, and heels, drive upward to your starting position.
    5. Work your way up to doing 10 reps for two sets.

4. Wood Chops

Wood chops are great for your obliques and upper abs. They can easily be incorporated into a cardio workout in your home gym. This exercise will require a dumbbell, med ball, or a YBell using an under grip.

    1. Start in a squatted position, twisting to your left to hold the weight outside your left leg.
    2. Take a deep breath. While exhaling, stand and twist to the right, lifting the weight across your body in a diagonal motion. You’ll end the twist with the weight above your head on your right-hand side.
    3. Control the weight and slowly squat back to your starting position to complete one rep. Avoid swinging the weight around as you move.
    4. Do 10 to 15 reps on each side.

5. Windmills

Windmills are a compound functional exercise that emphasizes improving your strength, stability, and flexibility. They’ll target your obliques, glutes, shoulders, core, hamstrings, and hips. This exercise can be performed without weights or with a dumbbell or a YBell in an outer grip.  

    1. Start with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart and toes pointed out slightly.
    2. Grip the weight handle with your right hand, then extend your right arm up with your palm facing forward. The weight should be above your shoulders.
    3. Hinging at the hips, extend your left arm down your left leg and lower your body to the left side while keeping your eyes on the weight and your right arm extended over your head. At the deepest position, your torso will be tipped to the left and slightly rotated to the right.
    4. Reverse the movement by lifting your body while keeping a straight spine until you return to the starting position. Your right arm and the weight should stay overhead.
    5. Do 10 reps on each side.

You can build and add complexity to each of the functional exercises listed above using the following strategies:

  • Increased weight
  • Weight positioning: Suitcase, front rack, overhead, or offset
  • Foot placement or stance: Wide or narrow foot positions or single-legged
  • Changes in speed, tempo, and rest between movements
  • Combinations of movements

Whether you’re new to working out or a seasoned athlete, if you currently don’t have any functional movement in your training, go slow. Start by adding just a few moves into your current routine.

If you already have some functional movements in your workout but need more variety, try adding more weight or compound movements. Remember to take it slow, make changes in small increments, and listen to your body.

Functional training is essential for anyone, regardless of age or fitness level. It offers change, challenge, and adds complexity that will keep your body mobile to reduce or eliminate pain and achieve anything your athleticism desires.

Casey Stenehjem

Casey has been a health and fitness professional since 2009, after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science. She has helped hundreds of people achieve their fitness goals. From working with beginners, youth, older adults, and almost everyone in between, Casey loves to blend her diverse knowledge and experience to help guide her clients to where they want to be. Her philosophy is simple: meet people where they are today in order to help them learn, grow, and excel through education in nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes unique to them.

Casey’s certifications include:

  • Z-health R-phase, Z-health I-phase, Z-health S-phase, Z-health T-phase, Z-Health Strength and Suppleness  
  • Functional Range Conditioning Level 1
  • NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist
  • ACE Certified Personal Trainer  
  • Precision Nutrition Level 1  
  • USA Weightlifting Certified