Although it’s become quite the buzzword in the health and wellness realms, functional fitness is a very important part of exercise and daily life, especially for adults as they age.
What is functional fitness? It refers to exercise that helps you with everyday activities, like getting up off the floor, carrying heavy objects, and putting something up on a shelf.
By strengthening the muscles in the same way you would need to use them for certain tasks, it reduces your risk of injury and increases your quality of life. You can go throughout your day without worrying about straining or pulling something.
According to fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld, functional fitness exists on a continuum. In his view, almost all exercise can be functional depending on the context, because in reality, increasing strength will inherently help you become more functional in daily life.
While increasing your overall strength will help you move better, combining strength training with exercises that mirror the movements of daily activities can provide an even more effective training regimen. It can also promote better balance, endurance, and flexibility. And who doesn’t want that, right?
We’ve compiled 13 exercises below that will help improve functional fitness for adults of all ages. Complete five to six of these exercises three to four days per week for optimal results.
Squatting is a similar movement to sitting in a chair, so it’s a must-include in any functional fitness routine. Make sure you’re moving slow and controlled throughout the movement, and if you need more of a challenge, hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms down at your sides
- Bend your knees and start to squat down, pushing back into your hips, almost as if you’re about to sit in a chair. Raise your arms up in front of you as you go.
- When your thighs are parallel to the ground, pause and push through your heels, extending your legs and returning to the starting position.
- Complete 2 sets of 15 reps.
2. Incline chest press
Being able to push yourself up off the ground or another surface is invaluable in terms of functional fitness — but pushups can be very challenging. The incline chest press works the same muscles and may be friendlier for beginners.
- Position the bench at a 45-degree angle. Hold one dumbbell in each hand and lean back onto the bench. Extend your arms straight up with the dumbbells above your head.
- Bend your arms, slowly dropping the weights toward your chest. When your upper arms just pass parallel to the ground, push the dumbbells back up to the starting position, using your pectoral muscles to lead the movement.
- Complete 2 sets of 15 reps.
Getting into and holding the plank position requires mobility and balance, which is helpful for getting up off the floor. Plus, the exercise recruits so many muscles, so it’s great for building overall strength.
- Start on all fours with your palms planted on the ground and your knees bent slightly further than 90 degrees.
- Push up from your hands and feet, extending your arms and legs, and keep your core tight. Your body should form a straight line from head to toe.
- 3. Hold for as long as you can. Repeat for 2 sets.
4. Wall squat
If you need a bit more support than in a regular squat, perform one against a wall. This should take any lower back pain out of the equation.
- Stand with your back against a wall and your feet a step out.
- Bend your legs, pressing your back into the wall and allowing yourself to slide down into a squat.
- When your thighs are parallel to the floor, push back up against the wall into the starting position.
- Repeat for 2 sets of 15 reps.
Similar to getting down off a high seat or descending a set of stairs, step-downs are a great way to help improve balance and stability.
- Stand to the side of your bench, or step with one foot on it and one foot on the ground.
- Pushing through the heel of the foot on the bench, step up to extend your leg fully, then slowly lower back down to start.
- Complete 2 sets of 15 reps on each side.
A row is a similar movement to getting a heavy object out of your trunk. Targeting your back and arms will help you stay strong.
- Attach your resistance band to an anchor slightly above your head. Sit in a chair, holding the handles so they’re taut.
- Pull your elbows down and back, pausing for one second, then releasing back to the start.
- Complete 2 sets of 15 reps.
7. Stationary lunge
In this split stance, you’ll again mimic the movement of getting up off the ground. Strengthening your quadriceps, as well as promoting mobility in your knee joints, is crucial for doing daily activities.
- Split your stance, so your legs form a triangle with the ground.
- Not moving your feet, lunge forward on your leading leg. When your leg forms a 90-degree angle with the ground, return to start.
- Repeat 2 sets of 15 reps on each side.
Strengthen the muscles used to climb stairs with step-ups.
- Stand with a bench or step in front of you — about one step away is good.
- Step up onto the bench with your right foot, only tapping your left foot to the surface while keeping your weight in your right foot.
- Step your left foot back down to the floor while keeping your right foot on the bench.
- Complete 2 sets of 15 on each leg.
9. Single-leg lift
Improving your balance makes everything easier, even walking. It also helps prevent falls. Exercises that work one leg at a time force you to engage your core and work each side of your body separately.
- Stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips.
- With your weight in your left leg, hinge slightly forward at the hips while slowly raising your right leg straight back until it reaches a 45-degree angle.
- Return to start. Repeat for 2 sets of 15 reps with your right leg, then switch.
10. Side plank
Strengthening all parts of your core is key for functional fitness. Try a side plank to hit the obliques.
- Start on your side, legs stacked on top of each other, arm bent at a 90-degree angle, and weight resting in your forearm. Extend your other arm up toward the ceiling. Your gaze should be there as well.
- Using your obliques, pull your midsection up toward the ceiling as high as it will go and hold there until failure.
- Turn to the other side and repeat. Complete 2 sets.
11. Downward-Facing Dog
This yoga move requires you to support your own body weight, a very useful tool for everyday life.
- Start in a high plank position, weight in your hands and feet, and your body forming a straight line from head to toe.
- Keep your hands, feet, and neck stationary and pike your hips up so your body forms a triangle with the ground.
- Pause here for 10 seconds. Repeat 2 more times.
12. Single-leg deadlift
Deadlifts are effective because they hit many of the muscles in your legs at once while helping you master the hip hinge. Next time you go to pick something up off the ground, you’ll be happy deadlifts are a part of your routine.
- Start with a dumbbell in each hand resting on your thighs.
- With a slight bend in your right leg, hinge at the hips and lift your left leg back while keeping your back straight. The weights should slowly drop down in front of you, close to your body, as you go. Stop when you can no longer maintain your balance, or when your left leg is parallel to the ground.
- Return to start and repeat for 15 reps. Complete the same on the other leg.
13. Lunge with bent-over row
Combining a lunge with a row requires an additional level of balance.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and assume a lunge position.
- Hinge forward at the waist to a 45-degree angle then row, pulling your elbows up and back. Release and return to start.
- Complete 10 reps here, then switch your lunge and complete 10 more reps. Do 2 sets.
Functional fitness can help improve daily life by strengthening muscles to prepare them for everyday tasks and activities. Mostly using your body weight, this form of strength training is simple and safe for almost anyone.
If you have any injuries, you should consult a doctor before implementing this type of exercise.
Unlike other popular forms of strength training, such as CrossFit and bodybuilding,
functional fitness is much more laidback, requiring less equipment and way less intensity. The focus is on performance, not muscle size. The risk of injury is significantly lower, which makes it suitable for people of all ages and experience levels.
Adults: If you’re looking for a safe and effective way to improve your daily life, functional fitness is for you.
Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.