The Ultimate Guide to Functional Fitness: Exercises and Training Plans
So you want to learn about functional fitness?
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We'll cover the following to answer the question, "What is functional fitness?"
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What is functional fitness and why is it important?
Functional fitness means training your body for everyday activities and making daily exercise easier and safer.
When we practice functional fitness, it applies to activities such as:
- Carry groceries
- Pick up small children
- Hiking in nature
- Be mobile on the floor
- Fighting sharks
Functional fitness aims to build strength, flexibility and balance for navigating the physical world and the objects it contains.
To do this, we repeat and practice the movements necessary in the real world: crouching, pulling, pushing, bending, climbing, walking and running.
Personally, I like to think of this as "anti-fragile" or as able to deal physically with the chaos of life.
For functional fitness, we prioritize natural movements (squats, pull-ups) over exercises that are performed on a machine (leg presses, lat pulldowns).
Here is the rationale: In your everyday life, you probably won't find yourself in a situation where you have to push weights along a guided route … while sitting:
But you will likely find yourself in a situation where you have to lift an object off the ground and then lift it over your head, like loading your luggage into the hold on an airplane.
So it makes sense to practice:
And that too:
Here the kettlebell replaces an object that you may have to pick up and pick up in everyday life: a book, a pet rabbit, a cursed golden idol, etc.
For this reason, we recommend free weights rather than machine use, as free weights force you to balance and control objects as you need to do in daily life.
Another thing to consider for functional fitness: "compound exercises".
Compound exercises require more than one muscle group to work together (squats, pull-ups) so that they replicate the way your body actually moves. This would be different from isolation exercises like bicep curls, which more or less work ONLY your bicep muscles to move in a specific direction.
Since functional fitness is designed to improve your body's ability to work as a unit, compound exercises are recommended!
As I said, variety is the spice of life.
Let's give one final example of functional fitness.
Compare running on an elliptical trainer to a short hike:
- Both of these increase your heart rate.
- However, hiking will challenge your stability and balance as you move over uneven terrain. The elliptical trainers, on the other hand, always ensure a repetitive movement.
There's a time and place for both, but introducing variety and instability is important if your goal is to develop comprehensive functional fitness.
What's this? Would you like to try out specific exercises?
You have it!
The 10 best functional fitness exercises
Functional fitness training prioritizes natural movements that help us overcome the obstacles and tasks in our daily life.
Here are the best functional fitness exercises:
# 1) squats
Squats are one of the most basic functional movements in our life.
Getting up from the floor, getting in and out of chairs, and shoveling snow becomes easier after a regular squat exercise.
Simple body weight squats are a great place to start. However, if this is too difficult at first, start with supported body weight squats:
Once you are comfortable with a regular body weight squat, you can add weights, like doing a cup squat:
If you're building up to a 30-pound dumbbell, this movement can repeat picking a young child off the floor. Practical and functional when you are a new parent.
When we talk about taking things off the floor, we're talking about the deadlift as part of functional fitness.
Moving furniture, grabbing bags of dog food, and going to bed with a sleeping child are all forms of deadlifting. When you start making the deadlift part of your life, you'll make all of these movements easier (and safer).
If you've never deadlifted before, this can be a little intimidating. A good starting point might be the Romanian deadlift with very light dumbbells:
If you're looking for other deadlifts or just want to make sure you're in shape, check out our complete guide with step-by-step instructions on how to deadlift safely.
# 3) Overhead press
The overhead press is another exercise that has benefits in daily life:
- Place a cast iron pan in an overhead kitchen cabinet
- When flying, lift your luggage into the top bin
- Show the piece of Triforce you just scored
Performing the overhead press not only increases your upper body strength but also your core as you balance and stabilize yourself as you stand and lift. Compare this to the bench press, where the bench itself provides support during the movement.
Again, some lightweight dumbbells are a great place to start if you're just getting started:
Read our full guide on how to do the overhead press for more variations and tips on how to progress.
# 4) Farmer's Walk
The farmer's way is really simple: take some weights and go.
To increase the difficulty, put on more weight. Or go further.
Very simple yet very functional as most of us are constantly carrying items from one place to another.
When carrying out the farmer's walk:
- Pick up the weight with a good shape
- Maintain a tight posture with your shoulders back
- Take small, manageable steps
The farmer's path challenges your arms, back, shoulders, core, and grip.
Lifting and carrying heavy objects is as functional as possible.
# 5) Bear crawl
When we are young it goes without saying that we are mobile on the ground.
Not so much as an adult. The only interaction with the ground comes from us standing on it. We won't even sit on it without a chair helping us.
Not very functional.
Enter the bear crawl …
How to do the bear crawl:
- Start in a table position.
- Bring your knees up so they are floating.
- With opposite arms and legs (e.g. right arm, left leg), take a small step forward with each limb. You want to use small steps to keep your torso stable instead of rocking back and forth.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
It will look like this:
# 6) Walking lungs
The lunge while walking results in less physical strength and less balance as you get in and out of the movement.
To do a lunge:
- Stand shoulder width apart.
- Kick out with your right leg.
- Lower your hips until the knee of your back leg almost touches the floor.
- If you've stepped out far enough, your front knee won't reach past your toes.
- Explode forward and upward by pushing upward with your back leg and upward with your front leg.
- Bring both feet together, then step forward with your other foot and repeat the process.
# 7) Pull-ups
When we talk about the best functional fitness exercise, we can't neglect your "pull" muscles.
Standing up is very functional and can save your life if you are being chased by velociraptors.
If you can't quite get your first pull-up just yet, doing a reverse body weight series will help you build strength until you can.
# 8) Kettlebell swing
The kettlebell swing is an explosive full body movement that focuses on building strength with your hip joint.
How to Perform the Kettlebell Swing:
- Get into a bent position with your back flat and use both hands to remove the kettlebell from the handle.
- Swing the kettlebell behind you and get ready to jump up.
- Jump up (without leaving the floor) and swing the kettlebell up. You should stand tall at the height of the movement.
- Reverse the movement and bring the kettlebell back down and behind you.
- To repeat.
For more tips on exercising with a kettlebell (a great tool for functional fitness), see The 20 Minute Kettlebell Workout For Beginners.
# 9) pushups
Pushups, the old fitness staple. However, if you can hold on to (not sink) in a straight line while pushing yourself up, a lot of nuclear force is created. And a great functional exercise.
Also, you can add some variations to improve it and create a more dynamic exercise.
For example, you can do push-ups for dive bombers:
# 10) Increase
It doesn't get much more functional than taking steps upwards. Life doesn't always give us lifts.
If this seems too easy, mix weights into practice:
BONUS: # 11) Handstand
On the one hand, handstands are very tough. On the other hand, the strength and balance required to perform a handstand are central to functional fitness.
And … ah … you need both hands to do it … unless you are Luke Skywalker:
We have a complete guide to walk you through your first handstand using simple wrist stretches:
Up to handstand pushups:
Are you doing these moves right? A great way to check this is to take a video of yourself and match it with the gifs and videos here. If they look closely, you are fine!
The other option would be to have a trained professional review your form, which we can do in our 1-to-1 online coaching program!
With our stylish mobile app, you can send a video of your training directly to your coach, who will give you feedback so you can perfect your technique.
You also create a training program that is tailored to your situation and can improve your functional strength!
Let a nerd fitness coach put together a functional fitness training program for you and check your form! Click here to find out more!
What is functional fitness training?
Now that we've looked at specific functional fitness exercises, let's pull them together to create a workout routine.
For most beginners, I recommend first creating a full body practice that includes:
- Quads (in front of your legs).
- Buttocks and hamstrings (hind legs).
- Chest, shoulders and triceps: (push muscles).
- Back, biceps, and grip (pulling muscles).
- Core (abdomen and lower back).
Because we've prioritized compound exercises in today's release (because they're more aligned with functional fitness), our muscle groups will overlap as we build our routine.
With the exercises discussed above, our functional fitness workout could be:
That's it! If you do this once a week, you will be well on your way to building functional fitness.
If you want to do this twice a week, you might turn off some exercises:
- Instead of push-ups, try the overhead press
- Instead of doing squats, try lunges
- Instead of doing pull-ups, try body weight rows
An important point: No matter which routine you choose, always warm up first!
It can be simple arm circles:
Or a couple of jumping jacks:
The warm up is important because we want your muscles to be tense before we jump right into our workout. So warm up for about 5 minutes before starting your workout.
As long as you include your warm up, you now have what you need to start exercising.
If you need more help building a functional fitness practice, I have a few resources for you:
- To create your own exercise routine: Our guide will guide you through building your own training practice. We'll show you which exercises to do, how many sets and repetitions to do, and how often to exercise. It will help you start doing fitness exercise today.
- Our 1-to-1 online coaching program: If you want a more personalized approach to your exact situation (kids, an old injury, you turn into a werewolf once a month) then check out NF Coaching. We will create a precise plan of attack for you on how you can become a functional fitness master.
Let a nerd fitness coach guide your functional fitness training! Find out more here.
Is CrossFit Functional Fitness?
CrossFit claims to support "functional movements" with "safe, effective, and efficient movements similar to those you use every day in life".
So yeah, that sounds like what we've been talking about all along.
The difference to CrossFit is the intensity. This is something that we highlight in our article Beginner's Guide to CrossFit.
CrossFit promotes functional fitness. This is why you will see people at CrossFit gyms carrying sandbags, turning tires, and carrying sledgehammers:
However, intensity is another notable aspect of CrossFit. The workouts are done in a group with people cheering you on.
While this can be great for motivation, it can be less great trying to move at your own pace and exercise with the right form.
This is a generalization, and all CrossFit gyms have their own characteristics and culture.
If you're curious, it doesn't hurt to walk through the door of your local CrossFit gym. First read our Crossfit Beginner Guide. I am sure they would love to see you and show you around.
How To Build Functional Fitness (Next Steps)
We've covered many different ways to increase and build functional fitness.
But our article barely scratched the surface:
- Exercise rings would be a great way to promote functional fitness.
- Preparing for the first handstand is fun with strength training.
- A yoga routine can also be viewed as "functional".
- Hiking would be a great way to prepare for trips through natural landscapes.
Let's not be open-minded here either. If you are strong, you can find your way around the world before you. In this sense, any form of strength training can be viewed as "functional fitness".
This is how parkour that lets you travel through cityscapes would:
Just find something you like and get started!
The more you do and the more variations you include (barbell training, yoga, and hiking), the more functional you become.
This is how you become “anti-fragile”.
Now all you have to do is start:
Do you want a little help getting started? The perfect next step to start your functional fitness journey?
Here are 3 options on how you can proceed with Nerd Fitness:
Option 1) If you want to learn step by step how to get strong, lose weight, and improve your life, check out our Killer 1-on-1 Coaching Program:
Our coaching program changes life. Learn how!
Option 2) For a daily functional fitness exercise prompt, see NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app will help you exercise more, eat healthier, and (literally) improve your life.
Try your free trial here:
Option 3) join the rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.
Sign up below and receive our free guide Weight Training 101: Everything You Need To Know. It provides step-by-step instructions for the Best functional fitness exercises covered in today's guide.
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- Everything you need to know to get strong.
- Exercise routines for body weight AND strength training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly all in one.
Okay, enough about me. It's your turn:
Do you practice functional fitness?
Do you have any specific exercises that you deal with?
Any tips or tricks for someone just starting out?
Let me know in the comments!
PS: Weight training would be a great way to promote functional fitness. If you're not sure where to start your strength training journey, start here.
GIF Source: Bear Crawl, Batman Vs Shark, Triforce, Indiana Jones, CrossFit, Chest Press, Parkour
Photo source: "I am Batman", Wandering, Strongman, Scenes from an Empty Lot in Brooklyn, Volume 1., Antonio Guillem © 123RF.com