An overused marketing ploy in the world of fitness, the phrase "functional fitness" may be a bit of a buzzword. But quit your eye-roll. Because not only is it a legitimate type of exercise, it's arguably the best type.
"Functional fitness exercises mimic movement patterns that you do in everyday life," says Ian Elwood, CSCS, CF-1, founder of Mission MVNT. Think: Sitting down to the toilet, lifting a package from the front steps, putting the detergent back on the top shelf or stepping into the shower.
There are a million different exercises that might be considered functional, but they all fall into one of six categories: squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, and rotate. "If it can't be categorized into one of those groupings, it's typically not considered functional," says Alena Luciani, CSCS, founder of Training2xl.
Below, Luciani and Elmwood break down the benefits of incorporating functional movement patterns into your workout routine and explain how those six categories apply to your everyday life.
What's So Special About Functional Movement Patterns?
Functional exercises are the exercises that will most directly help you more-safely move through life, Elmwood says. "They're exercises that, when done correctly, make you stronger in the movement patterns that you use from when you wake up to when you fall back asleep."
But these exercises aren't just about, as Luciani says, "getting the biggest bang for your exercise buck." Rather, the failure to perform them (and perform them safely) is going to cause problems as you age — big problems. "An inability to move safely, stably and strongly through these movement patterns increases risk of injury as you age," Elmwood says. Or at the very least, decrease your ability to live independently.
Let's say for instance, you can't properly perform a lunge. If you're on the street and have to lunge out of the way of a bicycle coming your way, there's a very good chance you hurt yourself doing the vehicle. Same idea applies if you can't squat.
"If you can't safely perform a squat, you're not going to be able to sit to the toilet without aid, or without hurting yourself," Luciani says. In fact, one December 2012 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that the ability to go from sitting to standing can literally be used to predict your life expectancy.
The 6 Types of Functional Exercise
Whether it's squatting to the toilet, getting settled in your desk chair, getting into a car bending down to pick up your kid, Luciania predicts that most folks squat at least 100 times a day.
"The squat is an anterior-chain [front of the body] dominant movement, that primarily works your quads, but it also works some glutes, calves and hamstrings," Luciania says. Add some load to the movement — either through a traditional weight like a barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell or an everyday item like a backpack, book or pot — and it becomes a full-body movement, she says.
A "proper" squat will look different on different bodies, based on things like body proportions, mobility and muscle imbalances, Elmwood says. But he explains that generally a good squat entails placing your feet hip-width apart, toes pointed out slightly, then sitting your hips down and back as low as possible.
"Most people actually are able to squat properly," Elmwood says. Still, becoming stronger in the movement isn't a bad idea. Both he and Luciani agree if you're only going to do one squat variation it should be the goblet squat because, as Elwood explains, "It's a front-loaded movement that therefore mimics something you'd be likely to do in real life."
- Get in squat stance, then grab a kettlebell (or dumbbell). Hold the bell at chest height, handle facing down, and glue your elbows to your ribcage.
- Sit your hips back and squat as low as you can without dropping our chest forward or shifting into your toes. The key is to avoid rounding forward and keeping your core braced can help.
- Press into your heals to return to standing.
Ever watch a baby or toddler try to pick something off the ground? Usually, they try to pick it up in a squat position first, Elmwood says. "If that doesn't work, which it won't if the object is heavier, they'll stand back and then do a deadlift-type movement to lift the thing off the floor," he says.
That's because that movement pattern (a hinge) puts you at the most optimal position for picking something super heavy. And whether it's lifting a bag of groceries off the floor of the car, carrying a suitcase up a few flights of stairs or picking up said toddler from the ground, adults do the hinge movement all the time, too.
"The movement pattern engages all your posterior chain muscles, which are all the muscles from the back side of your head all the way down to your heels," Luciani says. Most notably: the hamstrings, thoracic spine, glutes, lats and calves.
And while you do a hinge movement anytime you want to lift something heavy off the ground, it's also the movement people most often mess up, Elmwood says. Just think about the number of people you know who've thrown out their back picking something up.
Hinging well entails screwing your feet into the floor at hips-width, getting a micro-bend in your knees, shifting your butt back, then bending (hinging) at the hips while keeping a flat back. If there's something in front of you to pick up like a barbell or large package on your porch, you'll continue hinging until you can grab hold of it. Then, keeping your core engaged and arms straight, you'll drive through your heels to bring it to thigh-height.
"The most popular hinge exercise is probably the barbell deadlift," Elmwood says. "But if folks are only going to do one hinge exercise, it should be the single-legged Romanian deadlift." Why? Because it's a unilateral exercise, meaning that you perform the hinge movement while balancing on one leg, which can help correct any existing muscle imbalances, and ultimately make you stronger.
- Grab a very light weight dumbbell to start — or plan on using no weight, if the movement pattern is new to you.
- With the weight in your right hand and feet underneath you, shift your weight into your left leg while hinging forward at your hips, so that your right leg shoots behind you.
- Keeping your spine straight, press your left leg into the ground to return to standing.
Read more: 6 Deadlift Variations to Add to Leg Day
"The lunge is essentially an over-exaggerated version of the kind of step you take when you walk," Elmwood says. It's also the movement pattern you perform when you step one foot forward and bend down to tie a shoe, when you step out of someone's way or how you catch something as its falling off the table, he says.
Lunges strengthen your quads, glutes, calves and all the stabilizer muscles around your knees, Luciani says. And, like the single-leg Romanian deadlift, lunges are by definition a unilateral exercise. "Being able to perform them adequately helps you reduce muscle imbalances, and become more stable," she says.
From walking to stationary, weighted to unweighted, front to back, there are tons of variations on the lunge. Elmwood recommends mastering the in-place, un-weighted front-lunge, then adding weight via a kettlebell in the goblet position or overhead dumbbell for boosted strength gain.
"Focus on getting as deep into the lunge as you can, and be sure to prioritize stability over speed," he says. There should be zero movement in your lower back, and your chest shouldn't sink forward as your descend into the lunge.
- Stand up tall, then step your right foot out a few feet.
- Bend both knees to 90 degrees.
- Straighten both knees, then repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each side.
When you walk, your torso twists. Same goes for when you buckle your seatbelt, put something away in the fridge, turn to look at someone in the seat next to you or play golf, tennis or baseball. "Being able to rotate, or twist, your torso requires core strength and coordination" Elmwood says. An inability to safely twist or rotate puts your back at serious risk for injury.
So long as the rotation comes from your core and hips and not your lower-back and lumbar spine, rotational exercises like the Russian twist, medicine ball slam, landmine rotation, cable woodchopper and kickboxing help strengthen the core and hip muscles involved in this movement.
But according to Elmwood, more effective than rotational training is anti-rotational training. "Anti-rotational training helps your body stop from rotating," he says. The best anti-rotational training move? The kneeling pallof press.
- Wrap a resistance band around a stable object so that when you're on your knees it's at chest-height. With the side of your body facing the post, kneel down and grip the band with both hands.
- Brace your core and glutes and pull the band to the center of your body. As you do so, resist the pull of of the band by keeping your core engaged and your body in one straight line.
- Return back to the start and repeat before kneeling facing the opposite direction and repeating on the other side.
Also known as the press, the push is any movement that involves pressing the weight away from your body. If you sleep on your stomach, you press your body up to get out of bed. You're also working your pressing muscles anytime you push open a door, push in a chair or push off a table to stand.
The push works the front of your body — pecs, delts, shoulders and rotator cuff muscles, Luciani says. And any movement that has the words "push" or "press" in its name will work this movement pattern, including the bench press, dumbbell chest press, push press, push-ups and overhead strict press. A well-rounded exercise routine will include a chest press movement, like the bench press, and a shoulder press movement, like the strict press.
Luciani says the biggest form-flaw she sees in push exercises is a loose lower-back. "The key for push movements is making sure your core is braced in order to support what the upper-body is doing," she says. Failure to stay nice and tight throughout your midline is a recipe for back pain and impingement.
- Lie on a flat bench, facing up and gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press your feet into the ground and your hips into the bench as you lift the barbell off the rack.
- Slowly lower the barbell to your chest, bending at the elbows.
- Once the barbell reaches chest height and your elbows dip slightly below the bench, press your heels into the ground to raise the barbell back up.
- Return the barbell to starting position, elbows extended but not locked.
- Hold a barbell just under shoulder height and grip the bar slightly outside of shoulder width, with the bar resting close to your wrist in your palm.
- Keep your forearms vertical, elbows directly under wrists, and lift the bar over your head, contracting your core and glutes to avoid hyperextending the lower back.
- On the inhale, lower the bar back down to chest height, keeping the forearms vertical and using the stretch reflex to get right back to the next rep.
Push and pull movements are considered complementary exercises because while the push works the front of the body, the pull works the back. But, according to Elmwood, "We spend a lot less time doing pull movement throughout the day than we do doing push movements."
That's why he says the goal in the gym should be to two pull reps for every push rep. "That can be in the form of rowing, pull-ups, rows, lat pull-downs, snatch or clean pulls," he says. Failure to do enough pull movements can result in shoulder issues, poor posture and back pain.
If you're only going to do one pull movement, make it the pull-up. "Just make sure to actually using your lats to pull yourself up, as opposed to initiating the movement with your shoulders or biceps," Luciani says. Can't do a pull-up? Try the assisted version with either a machine or resistance band.
- Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing out and your hands shoulder-width apart. You may need to bend your knees and hold your feet behind you if you can still touch the ground while holding the bar.
- Using the muscles in your upper back and arms, pull yourself up toward the bar until your chin is above the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back down with control.