It’s possibly the buzziest term in fitness today. But what does “functional” really mean? “When we’re doing functional training, we’re doing training that helps people perform better. It’s training movement, not muscle,“ explains Dejuana Richardson, a fitness advisor and a personal trainer at New York City’s Asphalt Green.
For an athlete, that might mean training drills that mimic the experiences he’ll have on the field or court. For a more regular Joe, it’ll involve multi-joint movement patterns that make up everyday life: squats, carries, lifts, chops, as well as plyometric moves such as hops and jumps. “It’s about how we walk, sit, stand, reach, bend, etc.,” says Sean Alder, CSCS, personal trainer and team educator at SOLDIERFIT in Maryland. “These take more than just one muscle group, requiring core stability paired with multiple joints moving at once.”
Functional fitness is also a lot of fun—it’s not just, ya know, in the name—and training it will make you better at real-world activities like putting that suitcase into the overhead compartment and pretty much every sport out there. Try one of these workouts, designed by Richardson and Alder, and see for yourself. Chose your level (I is beginner, II is intermediate, and III is advanced) and add both A and B workouts to one week or alternate one each week in addition to your regular workouts.
Before you jump right in, warm up with a couple minutes of cardio, some dynamic stretching (such as walking high knees), and some light plyometrics (like skaters or skipping).
For all workouts, do three sets circuit-style, one exercise after the other, resting a minute between sets.
1) Level I, Workout A
Challenging to balance and stability and working one side at a time, step-ups are a great foundational exercise for functional fitness. “The exercise strengthens all of the muscles required for everything from running to climbing,” Richardson says. “The higher the step, the more the glutes are worked.” Each set should include 8 to 12 reps, working one leg at a time.
Start standing. Bend forward and place your hands on the floor (bending your knees if you need to). Walk your hands out so you’re in plank position. Pause for a beat, then walk your hands back and stand up. “Crawling in and out of a pike position helps to develop all of the muscles of the arms while increasing flexibility in the posterior (glutes, hams, calves, lower back),” says Richardson. Do 10 to 15 reps.
“All of the great benefits of a traditional pushup with a twist,” Richardson says. Perform a clean, perfect pushup. At the top, rotate your upper body open, sending one arm up toward the sky. Replace that hand, and push up again. “It opens up the hips and and elongates the spine, while developing balance through the core and extremities.” Do 4 to 8 reps to each side (alternating).
2) Level I, Workout B
Low Box Jump
Set up a low or medium box, 12 inches to 36 inches high. Two-foot jump up onto the box, landing in a quarter squat. Pause in that position for two seconds, then step down. “This is actually a deceleration drill, teaching control of the hips, knees, and ankles—the ability to stop safely,” Alder says. Do 8 reps.
Alternating Dumbbell Punch Press
Grab a couple of heavy dumbbells. Lie on a bench, feet up, so your lower back maintains contact with the bench. Hold both weights up over your chest, thumb turned up slightly. Lower one hand so it comes down with end of dumbbell above the shoulder. Punch that bell back up to match the other, with a slight inward rotation. Hold that dumbbell up while you do a rep with the other arm. “In this exercise, one arm stabilizes (up arm), while the other does the dynamic work,” Alder says. “The punching action makes it a more natural, all-in-one multi-joint shoulder/elbow/wrist movement.” Do 8 reps.
Half-Kneeling Anti-Rotational Hold
Using a cable machine or a handled band, stand so the tension is to your side. Kneel down with your inside knee down, outside knee up. The cable or band should be in line with your stomach, and you should feel tension when you pull the handles so they’re right in front of your navel. Press your forearms out straight while bracing your elbows against your ribs. Engage your glutes and core, and hold your arms out for 15 seconds. Switch sides. “This strengthens our ability to stabilize when one leg is in front of the other,” Alder says.
With a heavy kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand, walk the distance of 20 yards down and back, with steps at least as broad as you normally walk, allowing the free hand to swing opposite the stepping foot. Switch sides with the weight and repeat. Your goal is to keep your shoulders level despite the uneven weight, training good posture and core stability.
Related: The 100-Rep Squat Workout
3) Level II, Workout A
Asymmetrical Overhead Walking Lunge
Grab a single dumbbell or kettlebell. Holding it overhead, do 6 to 12 broad walking lunges. You’ll be testing your shoulder stability while working on your gait. “Moving your body from one place to another—body transport—makes anything more challenging and functional,” says Richardson.
Pushups on Kettlebells
Place a pair of kettlebells a bit wider than shoulder-width apart on the ground. Grasp the kettlebell handles and perform full-range pushups, lowering your body as low as you can control. On the kettlebells, not only will you get a deeper range of motion, you have to work harder to stabilize so you won’t fall off. Do 10 to 15 reps.
Alternating Renegade Rows
Hold a plank on your kettlebells. Alternately pick up one weight and row that arm so your elbow breaks the plane of your back, maintaining solid form and preventing your hips from rocking or piking. Replace that kettlebell and row the other one. “Asking your body to perform two exercises at once is challenging enough,” Richardson says. “Here, we’re challenging the core even more as it has to contend with the force production, deceleration, and shifting of weight at the shoulder.” Do 6 to 10 reps per side.
4) Level II, Workout B
Weighted Side Step-ups
Set up a low to medium box, 8 to 24 inches high. Stand to the side of the box, holding a single dumbbell, 10 to 25 pounds, in your hand closest to the box. Place your inside foot on the box and shift your weight into that foot to press yourself to stand up on the box. Bend the standing leg slowly, keeping knee pointed straight ahead, to lower the loose leg to the floor. “The weight being held on the same side (only one side) helps us resist side-bending at the waist and/or spine,” says Alder. Do 8 reps each side.
Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Overhead Press
Kneel down, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in the hand opposite your front knee, palm facing in. Press the weight straight up, rotating the hand so palm is facing forward and holding the weight for a count of two, the torso perfectly aligned. “You have to think about core control here,” Alder says. “You don’t ever want to reach overhead with your low back arching.” Lower it down slowly. Do 8 reps, then switch sides.
Overhead Slam with a Step
Scoop up a slam ball. Pick it up overhead in both hands, slamming it into the ground as you squat down. Catch the ball on the rebound, step forward with one foot, and slam the ball again, alternating your steps. “Instead of always pushing off one leg, this way we train both sides,” says Alder. Do 6 steps with each foot.
Hovering Bear Crawl
Down on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, bear-crawl 10 to 15 yards forward—slowly. Hold opposite hand and foot off the ground for up to a second before taking each step, and as knee comes forward it should touch the inside of the same-side elbow. Then, go backwards (now the elbow will come to touch the knee). (Hello, core!)
5) Level III, Workout A
Heavy Sled March
Load up a heavy sled with double your bodyweight (to start). Place your hands on the sled, and push using a slow march—drive knees up and extend the back leg completely, driving the ball of each foot into the ground as you step forward. “This trains hip extension with a neutral spine, and teaches good foot dorsi and plantar flexion with a load,” Alder says.
Single-Leg Cable Reverse Lunge
Hold the cable handle in one hand at tension. Take a broad step back with the same side leg as the loaded arm, into a reverse lunge with good hip extension to stretch the hip flexor, allowing the unloaded hand to reach back behind the hip. With control, drive through the front foot to stand back up, never letting the weight stack drop or pull you forward. Do 8 reps on one side before switching.
Front Plank Lateral Crawl
From plank position, crawl sideways, crossing one arm under the other, reaching as far as you can with each arm movement, side-stepping your feet as you go (they don’t cross). Maintain a strong plank the whole time. Do 5 steps to one side, then switch directions. “This teaches dynamic control of the entire body in an extended position,” Alder says.
With a kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand, lie on your back, bending the leg on the same side as the loaded arm. Hold the kettlebell straight up for the duration of the exercise. Roll up onto the unloaded forearm and same-side hip. Press up onto your palm and into the foot of the bent leg, lift your hips, and come to a half-kneel. Stand up, still holding that kettlebell up overhead. Reverse the movements to come all the way back to the ground. Do four each side. The entire body is involved in getting up from the ground, while maintaining the straight loaded arm improves shoulder stability, says Alder.
Related: The Weight Sled Workout
6) Level III, Workout B
Burpee Box Jumps
“First we get stable, then we get strong, and then we jump!” Richardson says. Place a medium box in front of you. Do a burpee—hands down, jump feet back to plank, do a pushup, jump feet back in—and then explode off the floor to do a two-footed jump up on to the box, landing with soft knees. Step down and repeat 5 to 10 times.
Kettlebell Lunge and Toss
Hold a kettlebell in one hand. As you lunge back with the opposite foot, swing the kettlebell back. Come back to stand, simultaneously swinging the kettlebell forward. Pass the kettlebell to the other hand at the top of the swing, and repeat the backswing/lunge movement with the other side. Do 6 to 12 reps per side. “The fast pace and hand-eye challenges necessary for this advanced movement makes focus and coordination crucial,” says Richardson.
Few things are harder then pulling yourself up and over a bar,” Richardson says, “Until we ask you to do it holding onto a towel.” Loop one large towel or two hand towels around a pullup bar. Grab onto the fabric firmly with both hands. Pull up! “Grip strength is an often forgotten functional strength,” he says. “The biceps, back, and core all kick into high gear to complete this king of upper-body function.” Perform reps until failure.
By Amy Roberts, C.P.T.
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