Turning a year older means you're definitely doing something right.
That's why functional exercises — moves with major carryover into everyday life — should be an absolute priority in your fitness routine.
"Training in ways that replicate day-to-day life can be helpful for preserving the ability to carry out general activities of daily living, like carrying the groceries or walking up the stairs," says Siobhan Milner, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
They can also help people engage in recreational activities without common physical limitations or pain, says Tom Holland, CSCS, a certified sports and conditioning specialist, exercise physiologist and author of The Micro Workout Plan.
Put simply, functional strength training helps you live life to the fullest, and on your terms.
To help you stay strong in both your workouts and life, try these seven best functional exercises. Bonus: They all happen to be low-impact, so they're easy on the joints and can get you moving freely without pain.
1. Goblet Squat
- Hold a heavy dumbbell by one end at chest-height.
- Begin with your feet just wider than hip-distance apart. (Toes can face forward or turn out slightly.)
- Keeping your chest tall and core tight, hinge your hips back and down to sink into a squat so your upper legs are parallel with the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
- Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
As simple as this exercise sounds, it “supports our ability to sit down and stand back up in any situation with ease,” says Selina Hinojosa, CPT, a certified personal trainer and owner of LIFT by Selina. That's something you want to be able to do as you age.
You can swap the goblet squat for the body-weight version or try doing the exercise with a sturdy chair. Stand in front of a chair with your feet hip-width apart and your back facing the seat. Once you sit into the chair, press through your feet to stand back up.
2. Farmer's Walk
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Choose a weight that's heavy enough to challenge you yet light enough that you can maintain good posture while walking.
- Engage your core, pull your shoulder blades down and back and stand tall.
- Take a step forward and begin walking. Walk quickly while still keeping your spine tall, shoulders back and head up.
- Continue walking for a specified time or number of steps.
If you’ve ever hauled a bunch of groceries from the car to the kitchen, then you’ve performed a carry exercise. One of the best functional exercises, it improves your ability to stay strong on your feet by strengthening your core, Hinojosa says.
After all, the farmer’s walk is essentially a walking plank, Holland says. Expect them to fortify your shoulders and back, which tend to be problem areas in your later years.
3. Dumbbell Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink enough to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you using your glutes and hamstrings, to pull the weights up and return to standing.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.
Chances are you have performed a deadlift more times than you know: Scooping your grandchild up, picking heavy packages off of your doorstep and hoisting up your furry sidekick.
Unfortunately, folks often use their backs to lift items rather than hinging over and putting the weight in the legs and butt. Deadlifts force you to engage your glutes, hamstrings and core, helping to protect your back.
4. Dumbbell Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Shoot your hips back and hinge forward at least 45 degrees (as much as 90 degrees), keeping your back flat. Start with your arms extended toward the ground, palms facing each other.
- Draw your elbows up toward your ribs and pull the weights up alongside your lower abdomen.
- As you lift the weights, focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
- Lower back down to the start with control.
“Strengthening the upper back can really help us keep an upright posture,” Milner says. “The more we hunch, the harder it is to breathe; we're literally cutting off our airway.”
The dumbbell row is especially great for older adults because it is a pulling motion, which mimics the act of opening doors. If you don't have a pair of dumbbells, you can also perform this exercise seated with a resistance band.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your hands on your hips.
- Keeping your back upright and chest proud, take a big step forward with one leg, aligning your front knee with your ankle.
- Lower down into a lunge until both your front and back legs form 90-degree angles.
- Drive through your front heel to stand back up and repeat with the other leg.
“Not only are lunges great for strengthening the quads, which help look after the knees by keeping the kneecap tracking properly in the femoral groove, Milner says, “but they also can provide a bit of a balance challenge.”
Exercises that challenge your balance, “are proven to not only reduce the odds of falling, but they also reduce the odds of sustaining fall-related injuries,” Hinojosa says. This unilateral exercise not only helps corrects muscle imbalances, but it naturally reinforces the movement pattern that's key in everyday acts of living like walking and taking the stairs.
Want to make your lunges more challenging? Add a bicep curl or walk forward with each rep.
6. Standing Cable Chop
- Tie a resistance band to a sturdy anchor taller than you and stand with your right side facing the anchor, feet hip-width apart, and a slight bend in knees. Extend your arms overhead and hold the band with both hands
- Keeping your arms straight and abs tight, pull the band diagonally across your body to rotate your torso to the left side, pivoting on the ball of your right foot. Finish with your hands outside of your left leg.
- Reverse the motion to return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
It is highly functional and mimics the act of putting on a seatbelt: You reach over your shoulder to grab the belt and then pull it across your body to secure it into place.
If you don't have a resistance band, try a low-to-high dumbbell wood chop. It can be likened to retrieving dishes from the dishwasher and then placing them into a cupboard overhead. Raise and lower the dumbbell diagonally over your body with both hands.
7. Dumbbell Bench Press
- Lie on your back on a weight bench (or the floor) with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the weights with straight arms above your chest. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and tighten your abs.
- Bend your elbows and lower the weights as far as comfortable or until they are in line with your chest.
- Press the weights back up over your chest.
When the sudden urge to rearrange your home hits, you’ll likely be pushing heavy things — a dresser, couch or TV console — across the room. That’s where the bench press comes in. It builds upper-body strength through the chest, shoulders and triceps.