These 8 Functional Fitness Exercises Improve Strength and Flexibility

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Photo credit: Halfpoint Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Halfpoint Images - Getty Images

The ability to benchpress hundreds of pounds is impressive—no one can really deny that. But unless you’re a competitive lifter, that strength—and more specifically, that learned lifting motion—doesn’t often come up in everyday life. What does, though, is functional fitness. While the term might seem involved, it’s actually a simple concept.

Ahead, find everything you need to know about the type of exercise, including some functional fitness movements to add to your routine.

What is functional fitness?

Functional fitness is the practice of “training and strengthening in positions you live and move in,” explains Kimberley Maugeri, D.C., C.C.S.P., certified athletic trainer and co-founder of SKOP, a Pilates reformer machine.

Think about it: Even the most dedicated gym buffs can stand up wrong and tweak their backs. Then there are avid runners, for example, who may not give their hips or shoulders the attention they need. We tend not to think about lowering to the couch or lifting groceries as exercise, but they’re actually the most common types. Unfortunately, though, when these daily tasks happen outside the gym, form is often forgotten. That’s where functional fitness comes into play.

Functional fitness benefits

“Functional training is important because when you strengthen patterns you move in and live in, that work and strength will protect you amongst your daily life—from bending over to pick up a baby, getting groceries out of a car, cleaning your house ... these are all activities that sometimes injure people,” explains Maugeri. “Functional training allows you to strengthen those movements and learn how to move correctly.”

Like most workouts, functional fitness works to increase strength and flexibility, but it also creates crucial muscle memory that transfers to daily life. This improved mobility can also come with decreased muscle and joint pain.

And the best part? Anyone can benefit from it, and zero equipment is necessary. “The only equipment required to practice functional fitness is you,” Maugeri says. “Every single person could benefit from training correct movement patterns and engaging the right muscles to move efficiently.”

Functional fitness exercises

As long as you’re paying close attention to form and muscle engagement, Maugeri says almost any exercise can be functional fitness. She adds that the most common movements rely on two core functions: mid-back stability and hip hinging.

A few of her favorite go-tos are Pilates, weight lifting, yoga, stretching, and TRX. “I like to start my functional workouts with a warm-up to engage the deep core and mid-back stabilizers,” she adds. “It’s like waking up the muscles and telling them it’s time to be alert!”

Here are some other exercises she and Roger Schwab, trainer and owner of X-Force Gym recommend to make your workouts more functional fitness-friendly:

  • Glute bridges

  • Plank variations (like a forearm plank)

  • Squats

  • Lunges

  • Bicep curls

  • Leg extensions (using a chair or standing)

  • Arm crosses

  • Crunches

Bonus if you can get your heart rate up and keep it there for the session, as it will increase your heart and lung efficiency, explains Schwab, which also contributes to overall health and quality of life.

It may sound overly simple, but these basic movements, if done consciously and consistently, can literally make or break you. “We often find ourselves blaming our workouts for injuring us and not looking at the rest of the day,” explains Maugeri. “If we could use our workouts to help the rest of the day, that to me is longevity and functionality.”

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