Fitness Articles

Round Out Your Routine With Functional Fitness Training

Why This Type of Training is Right for You


Have you noticed that reaching for a can on the top shelf of the pantry, zipping up the back of a dress or picking up a bag of groceries from the floor has become more difficult, maybe even more painful over time? When your kids ask you to play tag or shoot hoops, do you worry about pulling a muscle or other injuries? As you get older, simple daily activities can become more challenging or even dangerous if you aren't strength training regularly, and more importantly, doing the right kind of strength training exercises. Functional fitness, or training specifically designed to improve balance and power as related to everyday routines, is rising in popularity. Adding it to your strength training routine could mean the end of the everyday aches and pains.

What Is It?

Functional fitness is a specific type of training which incorporates movements designed to mimic real-life activity. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability."

For example, instead of doing triceps kickbacks and exercising only the triceps muscles, a better option might be dumbbell rows, which target the shoulders, upper back and biceps. Functional exercises target multiple muscles at a time, while also mimicking movements people do regularly. The rowing motion simulates the daycare worker lifting a baby out of the crib, the person picking up a bucket of water to mop the kitchen floor or the plumber lifting and moving heavy pipes. When you strengthen your muscles in the same way you actually use them, you decrease your risk of injury and make everyday activities easier to perform.

This doesn't mean that targeted exercises (such as the aforementioned triceps kickbacks) have no place in a well-rounded exercise routine. If you know that your triceps are significantly weaker than your biceps, adding a triceps-specific exercise to your routine will help correct that imbalance. A good strength routine will identify areas of weakness and focus on them—whether that's through targeted or functional exercises.  

Who Does It Benefit?

Functional fitness training can help improve balance, decrease the risk of falls and increase strength—all of which become more of an issue as you age. In order to maintain independence, these exercises become an especially important part of an older adult's regular exercise routine. Although it isn't a substitute for medical diagnosis, an at-home senior functional fitness test is a good place to start. This test can help identify areas of weakness you may have. Of course, before starting any exercise routine, you should get clearance from your doctor.

Jamelle Bowers, an internal medicine physician with Mercy Health, says she sees the impact of functional fitness training on a daily basis. "Patients often struggle after an illness with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as toileting, cooking, brushing their hair and getting dressed. Our top priority is to help patients return back to their previous level of function and to try to return to their home environment," she explains. "We tend to order physical and occupational therapy very early on in a hospital stay so that patients can continue to at least mimic these basic functions while in the hospital. Having patients who are already familiar with muscle strengthening and conditioning in ADLs and have a previous level of functional fitness prior to getting sick seem to have a less difficult time returning back to their home environment. Even after seemingly minor illnesses, some older patients really struggle with basic activities."

It's not just the elderly or inactive who benefit from functional fitness, though. Even those who exercise regularly risk injury if they aren't training their body to deal with real-life movements. For example, your buddy at the gym might be able to leg press hundreds of pounds, but that same guy could just as easily pull a hamstring trying to kick a soccer ball across the yard. He might have been gaining strength through his workouts, but he wasn't necessarily training in the way the muscles work normally throughout the day.

Where Do I Begin?

Getting started with functional fitness exercises is fairly simple, and in many cases, can be done using just your own bodyweight. By incorporating even a few of these exercises into your regular strength training routine, you will notice a difference in your ability to perform daily tasks. As you become stronger, try increasing the intensity of the exercises. For instance, if traditional squats are no longer challenging, do them on one leg or with dumbbells in your hands. Perform the shoulder press standing instead of seated and increase the amount of weight. Move from pushups on your knees to pushups on your toes. By modifying to make the exercises more challenging, you'll continue seeing progress and results from your hard work.

Each exercise below lists the muscles worked, along with the daily movement the exercise simulates. This routine can be performed two to three times per week, with one to three sets of each exercise and eight to 12 repetitions per set.

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes
Real-life movement: Sitting down or standing up from a chair, getting in and out of the car
Squats Exercise

Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Muscles worked: Shoulders
Real-life movement: Putting a box on a high shelf, picking up a child
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press Exercise

T Stand
Muscles worked: Abs, lower back, hamstrings
Real-life movement: Picking things up from the floor, tying your shoes
T Stand Exercise

Lateral Lunges
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, inner thigh
Real-life movement: Vacuuming, raking leaves in the yard
Lateral Lunges Exercise

Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, shoulders
Real-life movement: Getting up off of the floor, pushing a heavy door open
Pushups Exercise

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, calves
Real-life movement: Climbing stairs, any activity that requires balance
Step-Ups Exercise

Muscles worked: Upper back, shoulders
Real-life movement: Opening cabinet drawers, pulling grocery bags out of the car
Boxer Exercise

Whether you are struggling with daily tasks or just want to take a proactive approach to preventing injury or aging aches, functional fitness has a place in any well-rounded strength routine. By incorporating these exercises into your workouts, you're taking a proactive step toward improving strength, balance and the overall quality of your life.

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Member Comments

  • i'm quite limber, and can easily bend over and touch the floor. But the T-Stand move here was surprisingly hard--I kept wobbling and losing my balance, and couldn't get my hands on the floor. So the second round I used my platform from the step up move, and it worked *much* better!
  • Great article. I'm going to incorporate some of this into my workouts.
  • I worked with a personal trainer when my back went to heck a few years ago. He had me do most of the exercises in the article. I still do them. Require no special equipment or a gym. No back problems in 6 years.
  • Excellent article! Thank you!
  • I will start to do some of these with my morning warm up
  • Very helpful article! I can't afford the expensive functional fitness classes at my gym, but have incorporated most of the exercises shown in the article already. I do quite a bit of strength training, but the area I fear and need to work on most is that of balance. I am in my early 70s and know too many seniors who have been seriously injured in falls. The falls were not during daredevil feats, they fell walking in public restrooms or slipping on a little water at home. In my younger years I easily righted myself before actually falling and now I hope I can keep the reflexes since I have osteoporosis and would be susceptible to breaking bones.
  • One person asked about being stiff, even after doing very active exercise, such as Zumba. Yoga is exactly what you need. It helps lengthen and strengthen muscles at the same time, and it is a huge benefit when you add it to your routine. You can do it after your workout, after your muscles are all warmed up, or on the "between" days that you aren't doing your workouts. I highly recommend it. You do not need to be flexible to do yoga, but yoga will help you to be more flexible and less prone to injury if you are doing it right.
    I do Zumba twice a week and sometime i am still as stiff as i can be .Any suggestion that i do .
  • definitely like the idea of functional fitness. thanks for the information
  • I don't have any issues with article or with the exercises- I just wish that the associate stretches were shown - its all well and good to strengthen a muscle group - some of us old farts (LIKE ME) aren't as flexible as we used (or want) to be.
  • Good ideas and easy to add/modify what I'm already doing.
  • I love the little moving picture things in the artcle. They help me understand the article better.

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist, behavior change specialist and functional training specialist. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.