You move every day. You jog up a flight of stairs to catch a train, you put groceries away in the kitchen, you carry packages up the stairs to your apartment. These activities are exercise – at least, sort of. Functional strength training mimics the activities you do in your everyday life, and it aims to improve your strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility while also reducing risk for injury.
Traditional strength training also works to improve overall strength, but it doesn’t usually mimic movements we do naturally every day. Muscle groups are often isolated during a workout – such as focusing on just legs one day and arms the next. Exercises in a traditional strength training workout are typically grouped in sets, with four to six different exercises repeated eight to 12 times each and each set repeated three to five times (depending on the experience of the exerciser). Traditional strength training exercises include biceps curls, squats, bench presses, and rows.
Functional strength training involves more dynamic, full-body, multiplane movements designed to engage multiple muscle groups at a time, to better prepare us for the movements of daily living. Jaz Graham, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and certified personal trainer, adds: “Unlike traditional strength training, you're adding twists, bends, reaches, and additional steps to exercises like squats, lunges, hinges, step-ups, and planks.”
It can also be totally customized for an individual’s exercise level and goals as well as done anywhere ‒ like in a hotel room, on vacation, or in your living room!
Benefits of Functional Strength Training
Functional strength training is a great option for all kinds of people, whether you’re looking to begin your fitness journey, are ready to level up on your existing workout routine, or want to achieve certain fitness goals, like improving muscular endurance, balance, or flexibility.
This kind of training also reduces your risk of injury during your day-to-day life, such as when cleaning hard-to-reach areas on your hands and knees or carrying a heavy box up the stairs. That’s why functional strength training is beneficial for people of all ages, especially older adults, to maintain proper flexibility as you age.
1. Enhances mobility
While all strength training is intended to make people stronger, functional strength training has also been shown to improve mobility (the ability to move properly and without restriction through all ranges of motion). “Improving your range of motion is another great benefit of functional training, especially after an injury,” says Graham.
Muscle imbalances ‒ when muscles on one side of a joint are shorter than usual and the muscles on the other side are longer than usual – can create discomfort or even injury. Functional strength training, when combined with flexibility exercises such as stretching and foam rolling, can resolve these muscle imbalances and enhance overall mobility.
2. Improves stability
Stability refers to how balanced you are, both when you’re moving and when you’re standing still. If you tend to trip a lot, often lose your balance, or find it difficult to be on an uneven surface, you may need to work on your stability ‒ specifically, the strength of your core. The foundation of functional strength training is stabilization, ensuring that you have a good foundation to build upon to get stronger.
“Exercises that mix strength with balance activate core stability, which is essential as we move around every day,” says Graham. “A strong core means better posture and improved balance and stability in everything you do.”
3. Increases endurance
Like most exercise, functional strength training can increase your endurance, which means you can exercise for longer periods and not fatigue as quickly. “Exercise trains your body to not only raise your heart rate effectively but also bring it back down to resting more quickly after exercise, keeping your heart, lungs, and circulatory system healthy,” says certified personal trainer Nina Zorfass.
People who get the recommended amount of physical activity – 150 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise (or some combo of each) a week – can reduce the risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
4. Develops mindfulness
Exercise in general is an effective method for producing mindfulness, since you must focus your attention on how your body is moving and how it feels while it’s moving. This kind of mindfulness can help you improve your form while exercising, preventing injury and maximizing results.
“By using your workout time to be more mindful of your breath and your form and being as intentional as possible with each exercise, you’ll find it's an incredible way to decrease stress and boost your mood and self-confidence,” says Zorfass.
5. Promotes adherence
Mindfulness goes a long way ‒ it can also help promote adherence to your workout and healthy lifestyle routines! One study of YMCA members found that those who considered themselves more mindful tended to be better at sticking to their exercise routines.
Functional strength training prepares you for the ups, downs, and side-to-sides of everyday life, so you’ll be more likely to want to stick with your workout routine because you’ve experienced the benefits and outcomes of your training.
What Are the Drawbacks to Functional Strength Training?
“The primary drawback with functional training is the tendency to perform exercises incorrectly, therefore not receiving the benefit of the movement and potentially causing injury,” says Graham. Because functional strength training often requires dynamic movements in multiple planes of motion, it’s important to make sure you’re doing them safely and properly.
Graham’s recommendation? If you’re just starting your fitness journey, “hire a fitness professional for one-on-one or small-group training or take group fitness classes with an instructor who focuses on form.” You can also search YouTube and Instagram for credentialed trainers’ how-to videos.
A Functional Strength Training Exercise Routine
More and more people are opting for at-home workout routines, and functional strength training can fit right in. Functional training involves both body-weight and weighted exercises, so do what’s best for you, depending on where you are in your fitness experience.
From sitting on the couch to picking up groceries, you squat every single day. Squats work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominal muscles, and even the flexibility of the ankles.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your hands by your sides.
- Engage your core by pulling your navel in and down, and begin to push your hips back, bending your knees as if going to sit down.
- Keep your knees aligned above your ankles and keep your chest up.
- Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause.
- Raise your body back to starting position by straightening your legs, keeping the weight even in your feet and squeezing your glutes at the top.
Modification: If your heels lift off the ground during this exercise, put a thin book or towel under your heels for when you perform the squat motion.
Advanced: Hold dumbbells on either side of your body as you go up and down.
From walking, reaching down to grab something, and climbing stairs, we do lunges frequently. Lunges work the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
- Stand with your feet together.
- Take a step out in front of you with one foot, bending the front knee to 90 degrees. Your back knee/leg can be straight or bent to 90 degrees as well.
- Keep your chest up (not falling forward) and hips stacked and facing forward throughout this movement.
- Push up through your front foot, return to the starting position, and repeat on the other side.
Modification: Keep your back leg bent in order to make it easier to return to starting position after the lunge.
Advanced: Hold dumbbells on either side of your body as you lunge.
Like the forward lunge, the lateral lunge helps create stability, especially if you slip and need to catch yourself. Lateral lunges work the glutes, quadriceps, and hip adductors.
- Stand with your feet together.
- Take a step out with your right foot, keeping your weight back in your heel to sit back into your right hip (it should feel like a squat, except only on one side).
- Keep your left leg straight and your chest up and proud.
- Push up through the right foot to return to starting position.
Modification: Sit back only as far as you’re able when you lunge. You can also put something thin under your heel, as in the squat modification.
Advanced: Hold dumbbells on either side of your body as you lunge or hold one heavy weight at your chest, like a goblet squat hold.
Planks are not only a core exercise but also a full-body one! They’re easy to modify and are a great addition to your routine. Planks target the deltoids, abdominal muscles, quadriceps, and erector spinae (stabilizes your spine).
- Get into a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Make sure your hips aren’t sagging and engage your core ‒ your spine should be neutral, not rounded and not arched.
- Envision your body in a straight line from head to toe.
- Hold this position for at least 20‒30 seconds.
Modification: Put your knees down on the ground so that you are in a diagonal line from your shoulders to your hips. You’ll still feel the burn!
Advanced: Do five shoulder taps on each side, being careful not to rock your hips from side to side.
Push-ups are a foundational full-body exercise and are key to upper-body strength. Push-ups work the pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps.
- Get into the high plank position with your hands set slightly wider than your shoulders.
- Keeping your body straight and looking straight ahead, roll your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your elbows and lower yourself, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle, until your chest touches the ground.
- Push back up to starting position, making sure to bring your whole body up with you at once.
Modification: Push-ups are just as effective when done from your knees, keeping the same upper body position and alignment as if you took the plank modification.
Advanced: Try triceps push-ups by bringing your hands closer together, underneath your shoulders, and keeping your elbows and triceps tight to the body as you lower yourself and push back up.
Rows can mimic the movement of grabbing a heavy object from an arm’s length away or lifting something out of the car or up from the ground. Rows work the rhomboids, trapezius, biceps, and latissimi dorsi.
- Attach a resistance band to an anchor slightly above your head and then step back, holding the band with both hands until it’s taught but not stretched.
- Keep your knees slightly bent with your feet directly beneath you, hips square, chest up, shoulders rolled down and back.
- Pull the band, bringing your elbows directly behind you; pause for one second, then release slowly back to starting position.
Modification: Sit in a chair or on the floor while performing this motion, making sure that the band isn’t anchored too high above you.
Advanced: Try a standing row using dumbbells. With your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in either hand, hinge your hips forward while also bending your knees so that your chest is parallel to the floor and you’re sitting back in your hips. With your palms facing each other, row each dumbbell up to your ribs and then slowly lower it.
Stair injuries are common among every age group, and more than a million Americans injure themselves on the stairs each year. Step-ups strengthen the muscles used to climb stairs and work the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Stand with a bench or stair in front of you, about one step away.
- Step up onto the bench with your right foot, keeping the left firmly on the ground.
- Bring the left foot up to meet it, lightly resting it on the bench while keeping your weight evenly on the right foot.
- Step your left foot back down (carefully) to the floor while keeping your right foot on the bench.
- Repeat several times, alternating the foot you focus your weight on.
Modification: Hold on to a bar or railing with one or both hands.
Advanced: Instead of resting the foot that’s moving during this exercise, try to keep it elevated off the bench or stair during every rep to improve balance. You can also hold on to a bar or railing during this movement.
Also known as Superman, this exercise focuses on your core, which assists you in moving up and down, like getting out of bed or even getting up from the ground after a fall. Superhumans target the lower back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals.
- Lie on your belly on the floor with your legs extended back and arms extended forward.
- Slowly lift your arms and legs a few inches off the floor.
- Keep your neck and cervical spine in a neutral position (simply keep your eyes looking down at the floor).
- Squeeze your glutes and feel your lower back contract (should not cause pain).
- Picture yourself as a flying superhero!
- Hold for one to two seconds and then slowly lower to starting position.
- Repeat 8‒10 times.
Modification: Lift only your arms, being sure to engage your glutes and keep the tops of your feet planted on the ground.
Advanced: Once you’re in the flying position, rotate your arms so that your palms are facing the ground. Squeeze your elbows back and retract your shoulders, making a goalpost with your arms, extend them upward, then bring your body back down. This works your upper back and shoulders in addition to your core.
Your glutes are some of the largest and strongest muscles in your body and are essential for everyday movement. Glute bridges work the glutes, hamstrings, and abdominal muscles.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your arms straight by your sides, palms down against the floor.
- Lift your hips toward the ceiling, pushing through the soles of your feet, engaging your core, and being careful not to overextend your hips – you should be in a diagonal line from your head to your knees.
- Pause when you reach the top, then slowly return to starting position.
Modification: Place your feet on a small step to create height before starting the movement.
Advanced: Instead of keeping your arms by your sides on the floor, extend your arms up above you, as if you were reaching for a beach ball above your head. Keep them up as you move your hips up and down.
Tips for Functional Strength Training
As with any strength training program, there are certain guidelines that will allow you to both maximize your results and prevent injury in order to feel and look great.
1. Seek Expert Guidance to Ensure Proper Form.
For Graham, this is her number one tip for beginning any sort of exercise, let alone functional strength training. As mentioned earlier, form is key, which means seeking out professional support and guidance to make sure you’re doing everything correctly. There are many free and paid resources available today, so find what works for you.
2. Start with at Least Two Times a Week.
To see results, Graham says to start with just twice a week. Seems doable, right? Yes! Try functional strength training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and mix in other exercise modalities ‒ like yoga and Pilates, which are also effective in strengthening your body for functional movement ‒ the rest of the week.
3. Get Adequate Rest and Don’t Skip Recovery.
One of the most critical aspects of success is – ironically – rest. When you exercise, you’re creating microtears in your muscles. Once these tears heal, your muscles become stronger and larger, but you must give them time to heal! This is why rest days are so important. Recovery days are also helpful for treating burnout and allow your mind to rest. Going for a walk or doing some light stretching are good ways to use your rest days.
4. Focus on Nutrition.
When you’re trying to lose weight or gain muscle mass, nutrition is key. Not eating enough calories and/or not getting enough nutrients can reduce muscle mass, lower bone density, and cause fatigue. This puts you at risk of injury, illness, and burnout and will even increase recovery time. A dietitian or nutritionist can support you in creating meal plans that are tailored to your health and fitness goals, and a Health Coach can guide you in implementing those changes to achieve success.
5. Have Fun.
Yes, exercise can be fun! “With so many options to train functionally, there's never a reason to get bored. Variety adds a level of excitement and motivation when planning your routine,” says Graham, referring to the different types of equipment you can use ‒ like resistance bands, weights, and medicine and stability balls.
The Bottom Line
While functional training can improve fitness levels, muscle definition, and muscle mass, it’s really about making your life easier. Fitness is more than just being fit. It’s about making your body function at peak performance level, and for most people that means not getting winded walking up a set of stairs and not throwing their back out lifting moving boxes.
If you’re looking to make sustainable lifestyle changes, including fitness-related changes, seek out a wellness professional like a personal trainer or a Health Coach. These professionals can help you determine which exercises are best for you ‒ and how those will translate into long-lasting, sustainable results.