Functional fitness has exploded in popularity with the rise of CrossFit, F45 and similar workouts, but it's by no means a fad. These types of exercises develop the strength and mobility you need for daily activities like picking up heavy objects, putting something on a high shelf and even getting up from the floor.
As people age, they lose the ability to perform these everyday tasks due to decreased bone density and muscle mass and increased inflammation and joint degeneration, among other things, according to the Merck Manual.
However, a November 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that exercising may help delay some of the signs of aging — so much so that the muscle cells of older men closely resembled the muscle cells of 25-year-old men. Strength training in particular helps combat many age-related issues, such as the loss of strength, mobility and bone density.
To help you fight the effects of aging and retain a high quality of life as you get older, incorporate these expert-approved functional exercises into your workout routine.
The squat is by far the most important classic strength exercise that everyone should be able to do, says Alex Robles, MD, CPT. "Back in ancient times, if you couldn't squat, you wouldn't survive," he says. "Unfortunately, many people have lost the ability to squat properly. When it comes to classical strength patterns, the old adage rings true: If you don't use it, you lose it."
A good squat involves a deep, stable range of motion, and inappropriate squatting mechanics can lead to excessive wear-and-tear of your knees and hips, says Robles. So it's not only important to squat but to squat properly.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees and hinge your hips to lower yourself into the squat position. End with your hips below your knees if your mobility allows.
- Keep your spine in a neutral alignment, heels flat on the floor and knees pointed straight or out toward your toes.
- Once you reach the bottom, drive through your heels to stand back up.
Make it easier: Do supported squats. Hold onto something sturdy (like a pole or the back of a chair) as you squat down and back up, Dr. Robles says. You can use the strength of your arms to help pull you out of the squat and control how deep you go if you lack sufficient mobility to break parallel.
Make it more challenging: Add weight for goblet squats. After you've mastered the squat with your own body weight, add external resistance in the form of a dumbbell or kettlebell. Hold the weight with both hands at your chest and follow the same steps as described above.
Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try
The deadlift is one move everyone should do, in some variation, at least once a week, says James Shapiro, an NYC-based personal trainer. It's a classic posterior chain (muscles along the back of your body) movement that requires a ton of muscle activation and coordination to successfully pull weight up, Shapiro says.
- Stand with your feet outside your shoulders. Point your toes out slightly.
- Stick your hips back and bend forward to grab the barbell below with both hands, using an overhand grip.
- Sink your hips down, flatten your back and pull the bar off the ground until you're standing straight up.
- Lower it back down to the ground under control with your back flat.
The functional aspect is thanks to the hip hinge and emphasis on keeping a neutral spine. "As we age, we don't only experience a reduction in bone mass (more important for women to maintain post-menopause), but our muscle protein synthesis slows down," Shapiro says. "This can snowball into a lower functional capacity and increased chance of injury."
Make it easier: Try the barbell rack pull. The set-up is the same, but in a racked (elevated) position. You can adjust the start position to different heights, so it's a great tool for those who lose their form at certain points of the deadlift, as it helps you learn how to stay tight in those sticking points.
Make it more challenging: Try the snatch-grip deadlift. Nothing changes in your stance or approach except for your grip position. With a wider, double-overhand grip, you'll notice you can't handle the same intensity as you can with a traditional deadlift. This variation also requires more upper back strength and develops your upper traps due to the stretched position, Shapiro says.
Read more: 6 Deadlift Variations to Add to Leg Day
Push-ups are one of the most universally known strength exercises that are perfect for anyone of any age or level of physical fitness, says Nicholas Rizzo, biologist and fitness research director at RunRepeat.com.
"Push-ups are a great movement for targeting your chest, shoulders, triceps, forearms and your core," he says, "and this classic movement can also be modified to suit individuals on either side of the physical fitness extremes, and anything in between."
The push-up translates to everyday life in a number of ways: If you can't support your own body weight, many daily activities are likely to be unnecessarily difficult. Push-ups also help build core strength, which translates to better balance and stability. That's especially important as you age, as it can help prevent falls and injuries.
- Start on all fours, hands under shoulders. Straighten your legs straight out behind you so that you're in a high plank — your body forming a diagonal line from feet to head.
- Bend your elbows out at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your chest to the ground (or as far as your strength and mobility allow).
- Press back up to the start.
Make it easier: Modify with wall and incline push-ups. In its easiest form, the push-up is performed standing up, arms extended and hands against the wall. As you get more comfortable, continue to inch your feet away from the wall to increase the difficulty. If you're ready to do push-ups on the ground but still need some support, start with kneeling push-ups.
Make it more challenging: Experiment with variations. If you're strong enough to do standard push-ups (both hands and feet on the ground), play around with different hand placements and styles of push-ups to target different body parts. For example, you can do push-ups with your feet elevated to change the angle of the movement or use an unstable surface to train balance and stability.
4. Overhead Press
The overhead press (also called the strict press or the military press) is an important movement that should be worked on regularly to build and maintain upper-body strength, says Davin Arkangel, CrossFit Level-2 trainer and owner of CrossFit Camarillo.
- Hold a barbell across your chest, gripping the bar slightly outside of shoulder width, with the bar resting close to your wrist in your palm.
- Bracing your abdominals and lifting your chest, keep your forearms vertical and elbows directly under wrists as you lift the bar over your head.
- On an inhale, lower the bar back down to chest height.
"When done standing, it's more than just a shoulder workout," Arkangel says. "You are [also] squeezing your core, and presses will test your strength, flexibility and range of motion."
Arkangel offers a real-life example: "When I worked in the oil field, we used to do overhead presses every day. It was a requirement, and if you couldn't pass the physical exam which required overhead pressing a box with weight, then you wouldn't get hired."
But even simpler scenarios require overhead strength, such as putting a jar of cookies up high where your kids can't reach them, he says, or hoisting an item up onto your garage shelf.
Make it easier: Swap in another weight. If you have limited range of motion, pressing with a barbell might be difficult, but that doesn't mean you should neglect the shoulder press, Arkangel says. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells or even resistance bands. You should also work on some stretches for your shoulders and upper back so you can progress to the barbell.
Make it more challenging: Try the push press. This explosive version of the overhead press involves utilizing power from your legs to assist. The upward momentum you create by bending and extending your legs allows you to lift more weight than you can in the strict overhead press, where there is no leg motion.
- Start with the barbell in the front rack position.
- Dip your knees and drive through your heels to gain upward momentum, finishing with the bar overhead.
- Lower back down to your chest with control and without arching your back.
Doing single-leg exercises "helps to isolate and correct muscle imbalances, improves balance, utilizes core muscles, aids in injury prevention and facilitates rehabilitation," according to the American Council on Exercise. And neglecting unilateral movements limits your ability to develop symmetrical and long-lasting strength.
- Stand tall, then take a step a few feet forward, bending both knees to 90 degrees.
- Press off your back foot and bring it to meet your front foot as you return to standing.
- Step forward again, but this time with the opposite leg.
Make it easier: Try assisted lunges. Until you develop the strength to maintain proper form throughout the full range of motion, do assisted lunges, holding onto a wall, chair or other sturdy object for balance.
Make it more challenging: Add weighted or jumping lunges. Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides to increase resistance. Commonly called "suitcase lunges," this weighted version will help you build more strength and power in your legs, as well as challenge your core stability and grip strength.
You can also try jumping lunges — instead of standing up out of the lunge, jump out of it as powerfully as you can. Plyometric movements like this build power and anaerobic capacity, two important functions people need as they age.
- Merck Manual: Changes in the Body With Aging
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Effects of Aging and Lifelong Aerobic Exercise on Basal and Exercise-Induced Inflammation
- Scandinavian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports: Role of the nervous system in sarcopenia and muscle atrophy with aging: strength training as a countermeasure.