Functional Fitness: Benefits, Moves & How To Get Started

Certified Personal Trainer By Sara Angle, CPT
Certified Personal Trainer
Sara Angle is a writer, editor, and content strategist specializing in health and fitness. She is also an ACE-certified personal trainer.
Functional Fitness

You've probably read articles about functional nutrition or functional medicine at mindbodygreen—but have you heard of functional fitness? This style of training is totally accessible and can be beneficial for anyone. Intrigued? Let's break down this universally helpful mode of fitness.

What is functional fitness?

"Functional movement refers to movements that are performed naturally and often in our everyday lives, so functional fitness is about incorporating these movements in a higher-intensity setting to strengthen the muscles used and help us move better in our daily activities," explains Nathan Mago, athletics director of F45 Training

While you might immediately think of things you do every day like walking, going up stairs, bending over to pick things up, or reaching for something overhead, functional movement can also be performance- or sports-based training. 

It's quite literally fitness with a function, or goal, in mind, says Errick McAdams, CPT, an ACE-certified personal trainer based in Washington, D.C. That goal might be lifting a certain amount of weight, perfecting your tennis swing, or running faster—whatever it is, the training you do to achieve that can be considered functional.

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Science-backed benefits of functional fitness training:

1. Improved daily function.

Functional fitness mimics how you move in everyday life, so you'll naturally feel and move better in your day-to-day. "It's all about movement patterns," explains McAdams. Specifically, functional training is built around bending and lifting (also called the hip hinge), lunging, pushing, pulling, and rotation. 

Doing these movement patterns over and over again leads to neural adaptations, or the mind-muscle connection, says Mago. "The more often you perform a movement, the neural pathways become stronger and 'talk' to your muscles to help them work together to complete the movement more effectively."  

2. You'll improve your overall fitness.

Unlike isolation exercises that you perform on a machine at the gym or with a set of dumbbells or a barbell (think chest fly, hamstring curl, or bench press), functional exercises are compound movements, meaning they incorporate more than one joint, explains Mago. "Generally, the more joints and muscles that move together throughout a movement, the more energy is expended, and this helps us provide a time-efficient, full-body workout." 

In fact, one study found that women who performed a functional training program showed greater training improvements, including strength, endurance, and explosive strength, than a group using resistance exercise machines.

Research has also shown functional fitness at higher intensities can improve cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility better than traditional cardio because it recruits more muscles.

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3. You'll stay more motivated.

Because the nature of functional fitness is goal-oriented, whether you're working toward greater depth on your squat or being able to crawl around on the floor with your kids, you're more likely to stick with your training. Those small, measurable victories keep you going, explains McAdams. 

One small study found that participants who did three 15-minute functional movement circuits a week increased their motivation to exercise significantly as compared to participants that walked for 50 minutes three times a week.

4. You'll be less prone to injury.

Injuries are often signs of muscular imbalances that get exposed through different activities, explains McAdams. By training your most common movement patterns, you'll improve those muscular imbalances that can make you more likely to get injured

One that's more common than you might think? McAdams says many people actually get injured while loading the dishwasher because their bodies aren't used to the twisting and bending action. That's why he loves moves like resistance band woodchoppers or medicine ball swings. Another major imbalance he sees in clients that can result in injury is weakness in the core and glute muscles. But again, functional moves can help. "I use plank walkouts, squats, and lunges to address those challenges."

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Functional fitness exercises to try.

There are endless ways to perform the key movement patterns in functional fitness, and they can be scaled up or down for any fitness level. These bodyweight moves from Mago are just a few you can work into your routine:

1. Inchworm to squat

  1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Hinge at the hips and place your hands on the ground.  
  2. Walk hands forward into plank position.
  3. Walk hands back to start, bringing them behind the ears with elbows out wide.
  4. Send hips back and down for two squats. 
  5. That's one rep. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: A great move to warm up the whole body and encourage joint mobility before you get into more intense movements.

Form tips: Maintain a flat back in plank position. As you squat, keep the chest up.

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2. Rotational pushups

  1. Start in a high plank on palms, and slowly lower into the bottom phase of the pushup.
  2. As you push back up, lift one arm to the sky, rotating your body sideways and gazing up toward your hand.
  3. Return to start.
  4. Switch sides; repeat. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: This multi-joint movement works on pushing through the chest and then opening up with some rotation.

Form tips: Perform pushup on an incline (like a countertop or stair) or from your knees if you're still working on your pushup. Draw your navel toward your spine to prevent dipping in your lower back.

3. Dynamic lateral lunges

  1. From standing, take a large step out to one side, and lower your bodyweight on the outside leg.
  2. Squeeze the glutes and push off the outside leg to return to start.  
  3. Switch sides; repeat. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: Lateral movement encourages joint mobility and stabilization in the lower body.

Form tips: Keep chest facing forward as you lunge.

4. Body saw plank

  1. Start in plank on your forearms.
  2. Gently rock a few inches forward, then back.
  3. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: This challenges muscles throughout the core.

 

Form tips: Maintain a flat back in plank position. Regress the movement by coming down to your knees.

5. Burpee front reverse

  1. Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back, and bend at the knees to lower into a squat.
  2. Place hands on the floor. Jump feet back into a plank position.
  3. Jump feet forward, just outside of hands. Come back to a low squat position. Return to standing.
  4. Sit hips all the way back to the floor.
  5. Roll onto your back, bringing feet to the air. Use the momentum to return to standing. 
  6. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: Doing a burpee in both directions helps with proprioception (your body's ability to know where it is in space) and challenges your balance. 

Form tips: Focus on hitting your best squat position during each stage of the movement, keeping low back neutral.

6. Glute bridges

  1. Lie face-up on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms by your sides with palms flat on the floor.
  2. Press through your heels and squeeze the glutes to raise your hips, holding them level. 
  3. Hold for a pause at the top before lowering hips back to the floor.
  4. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: This move activates your glutes muscles, which can improve hip-hinging.  

Form tips: Keep your back and core in one straight line as you raise your hips. Make the move harder by not letting your butt touch the floor in between reps.

7. Bicycle crunches

  1. Lie face-up on your back with knees bent in tabletop position. Place hands behind your head, elbows out to sides.
  2. Brace your core and take the opposite elbow to the opposite knee while extending the other leg forward. 
  3. Switch sides; repeat.

Benefits: This move works on rotation through your core muscles, particularly on the obliques. 

Form tips: Avoid rotating through your hips to keep the work in your core. 

8. Four-point extension on knees

  1. Start on all fours, knees stacked under hips, shoulders over wrists.
  2. Bring the opposite arm and opposite knee toward each other, rounding your back into a curl.
  3. Extend both limbs into a straight line, engaging your core. 
  4. Return to start. Switch sides; repeat. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: This move challenges your balance and coordination while improving your core control.

Form tips: Maintain a flat back as you extend, reaching from fingertips through toes.

9. Half squat with alternating lunges

  1. Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back and bend at the knees to lower into a half squat, with thighs roughly between parallel and your starting position.
  2. Extend one leg back into a reverse lunge, with front thigh parallel to the ground and back knee almost touching the ground.
  3. Return to start. Switch sides; repeat. Continue for 40 seconds.

Benefits: Staying low in between the lunges will activate your quads and glutes and challenge your smaller, stabilizing muscles.

Form tips: Keep your chest up throughout the movement to properly engage your core.

Should you try functional fitness?

"Functional training can be done by virtually anybody," says Mago. If you have any medical conditions, you may want to check with your provider before starting a new exercise routine, but the great part about functional fitness is that the moves and intensity can be regressed or progressed to meet any level of fitness or any goal. 

"There are a number of ways to stress each movement," says McAdams. You can increase the number of reps, increase your speed, or work in different planes of motion (like performing a lunge forward, to the back, side to side, or transverse). You can also add resistance to most movements, such as adding dumbbells, sandbags, or resistance bands.

Or you can slow down each movement and focus on form. Particularly for people who are older, have any movement restrictions, or are just starting out with exercise, slow movements will build a strong foundation for long-term fitness without stressing your joints.

McAdams notes that for people who are very goal-oriented, functional training is a great way to stay motivated because it's easy to see improvements in your movement patterns or find ways to progress as your body adapts.

How to incorporate functional training into your fitness routine.

If you're interested in trying out functional fitness, you've got plenty of options. But first things first: "Think about the things you do in your everyday life and where you want to get better," says McAdams. That's your functional fitness goal, and your training should reflect those interests. Then, choose how you want to get started.

Personal training

If you have a very specific goal in mind, or if you want more personalized attention, personal training is the way to go. 

McAdams stresses the importance of making sure your trainer is certified and has a few years of training under the belt. Trainers with some experience will be the most comfortable working with people at all levels, with injuries or limitations, or with any medical conditions like asthma, ensuring you'll stay safe during your sessions. 

The American Council on Exercise (ACE), a popular personal trainer certification program, offers a database to help you find a personal trainer. You can also call your local gym and ask about personal training. Ensure your trainer is certified by asking about their credentials. Other reputable certifications come from NASM, ISSA, NCSF, ACSM, and NFPT.

Most trainers should be well versed in functional movement patterns, but everyone has their own style, so when you're talking to potential trainers, ask them if they're comfortable with functional training.

Finally, make sure your trainer completes a physical assessment with you during your first session, says McAdams. This should help them—and you—determine where your imbalances are and what you need to work on together.

Fitness classes

Group fitness classes, whether in-person or online, can offer community and take out most of the guesswork. "We do all the programming for you; your trainers will walk you through all of the movements and are on hand every step of the way. The music is pumping, everyone is working out together, and this makes the time fly while you get a full-body workout," says Mago.

Some studios or classes will clearly bill themselves as functional fitness, but others may not. If you're unsure, give the studio a call and ask. Some studios or gyms may offer a type of hybrid training, like F45, which combines functional training in a HIIT format. 

At-home workouts

You can also build your own workouts at home. Start by choosing five to 10 moves (like the ones above), making sure you have at least one move that hits each basic movement pattern. Start with 8 reps or 30 seconds for each move, slowly increasing to up to 12 reps or 60 seconds per move as you get comfortable. You can begin with just one set of each move, increasing up to four sets. Rest for 90 seconds between each set. 

When you're ready for an extra challenge, add resistance. TRX is a great piece of equipment for beginning functional training, says McAdams. "It makes it so that everybody can do a pullup." The TRX can also be used for moves like an incline pushup, lunge and squat variations, and rotational movements.

He also recommends resistance bands as an inexpensive and minimal piece of equipment if you're training at home.

Whichever method you choose, Mago recommends starting off with two to three sessions a week and building up as you get fitter and stronger. 

Bottom line.

Functional fitness can be a fantastic style of training, for all levels. If you're interested in giving functional fitness a go, be sure to seek out adequate resources, set your goals, move at your own pace, and start working toward a stronger, more stable body.

Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.

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