What Is Functional Fitness? + The 26 Best Functional Fitness Exercises

Add functional fitness into your routine to see results in strength and performance.

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Functional fitness has become a buzzword in the fitness industry over the past decade or so, and while the term seems straightforward enough, most people aren’t entirely sure what the definition of functional fitness entails or the best functional fitness exercises to do.

So, what is functional fitness? What is the functional fitness definition? What are the best functional fitness exercises and functional fitness workouts?

In this guide, we will cover the basic definition of functional fitness and its benefits and provide tips for putting together the most effective workouts with the best functional fitness exercises to add to your routine.

We will look at: 

  • What Is Functional Fitness?
  • What Are the Best Functional Fitness Exercises?
  • Benefits of Functional Fitness Training
  • Examples of the Best Functional Fitness Exercises

Let’s get started!

A class of people doing a kettlebell squat.

What Is Functional Fitness?

Although many people have familiarity with the term functional fitness, the actual definition is usually harder to spout out when asked what it is.

Functional fitness, often called functional training or functional strength, is a style of strength training that prepares the body to handle everyday activities and daily movement patterns so that they become safer and easier and improve quality of life.

Essentially, rather than training your body for a certain sport or exercise, functional movement training is a type of exercise that trains your body to perform optimally in daily activities.

These movements include actions such as getting up and down off of the ground, carrying groceries, climbing stairs, taking things down from a high shelf, picking up children and chasing after them, walking around the community, stepping up and down off of curbs, squatting up and down out of a car or chair, etc.

Functional fitness classes help build strength, especially core strength, balance, range of motion, and flexibility, to handle daily movement demands outside of the gym, bodybuilding, or specific sports context.

In this way, functional fitness can be defined as being fit and strong for everyday life, and it can reduce the risk of falls and injuries and support lifelong independence.

A person carrying groceries.

What Are the Best Functional Fitness Exercises?

Functional Fitness Includes Bilateral and Unilateral Exercises

Given the functional fitness definition, the nature of functional fitness exercises tends to replicate movement patterns executed in the real world, such as squatting, bending, pulling, pushing, pressing, lifting, climbing, walking, and running.

Therefore, these workouts include functional training exercises that involve bilateral and unilateral movements, as well as some cardio. 

Bilateral exercises involve both sides of the body performing the same movement simultaneously, while unilateral exercises are performed on one side of the body at a time. 

An example of a bilateral exercise is a basic bodyweight squat, whereas a functional fitness unilateral exercise is a bicep curl.

Additionally, because real-life movements involve upper-body and lower-body muscles and full-body movement patterns, well-rounded functional fitness workouts should include exercises that work the upper body, lower body, and full body, respectively.

Step-up exercise.

Functional Fitness Focuses On Free Weights vs Machines

Another key consideration when determining the best functional fitness exercises to perform is the way in which you perform the exercise.

Because functional fitness training is designed to prepare you for everyday life by replicating real-world movement patterns in physical demands, the best exercises use your body weight and free weights, such as dumbbells, instead of reps using weight machines. Resistance bands are also commonly used to build functional fitness.

Weight machines operate in a fixed plane of motion. The construction of the machine and the various hinges and movable parts dictate its movement. 

This removes the need to activate smaller stabilizer muscles and core muscles because the weight machine has stability built right in.

While there can be benefits to using weight machines, this design does not mimic the demands of real-world obstacles and muscular recruitment patterns. 

When you are in the real world, and you need to squat down and pick up a big delivery box on your porch, you have to recruit all of the smaller stabilizing muscles in your glutes, hips, ankles, and core to ensure your spine is stabilized, your body is balanced as your center of mass changes position, and that you maintain proper posture. 

A bent over row.

Performing a deadlift on a Smith machine where the bar is guided by rails will eliminate the need to activate all of the stabilizing muscles you need in real life, and something like the leg press machine removes the need to use your car to balance your body as you move into the squat position.

Therefore, when doing functional training workouts, you should focus on using free weights rather than weight machines so that you are indeed replicating the actual neuromuscular demands of the true movement pattern.

Functional Fitness Focuses On Compound vs Isolation Exercises

Similarly, the most effective exercises are compound exercises rather than isolation exercises. 

Compound exercises are multi-joint exercises that involve multiple muscle groups working together simultaneously. In contrast, isolation exercises involve moving just one joint, and they target just one major muscle at a time.

Real-life exercises usually involve multiple joints and muscles moving together, which is why the best functional training exercises rely on compound exercises.

A push up.

Benefits of Functional Fitness Training

One of the main benefits of performing functional fitness exercises is not just that you will become stronger and more accustomed to the physical activities and movement patterns of everyday life but also that you will become more injury resilient when performing these real-life physical demands.

If you do your functional fitness exercises correctly, you will still employ the principle of progressive overload, so you will get stronger and build muscle.

Then, when you have to execute the movement in an everyday life scenario with only your body weight or with a lighter weight, the resistance will feel easy, and it will not overload your muscles.

For example, if you think about the everyday task of carrying groceries or carrying a toddler, you might be contending with 20 to 35 pounds of external weight, if that.

If, in your workouts, you work on farmers’ caries and other load-carrying exercises with weights up to 50 pounds, your muscles will adapt and become stronger, such that they can handle 50 pounds comfortably.

A person carrying a toddler.

Then, when you are outside of the gym in your everyday life carrying your 25-pound toddler, he or she will suddenly feel much lighter and will impose less stress, strain, and injury risk onto your body.

This will reduce the risk of pulling a muscle, straining connective tissue, or causing an acute overload injury.

Another way in which functional training workouts reduce the risk of injury is that reinforcing proper movement mechanics will help make these correct movement patterns become second nature.

Then, it will become natural to use proper form and technique for daily life physical activities such as lifting heavy objects or squatting down to pick something up off of the floor.

As a quick example, think about how often you see people bend down to pick up a heavy box, child, or piece of furniture. 

More often than not, you see people bending from the back by rounding their lower back instead of bending their knees and sitting their hips all the way back to perform a squat while keeping the back straight and chest up.

A lunge.

Lifting heavy objects by bending over and rounding your back greatly increases the risk of straining your lower back or even herniating a disc if you bend and lift while twisting your spine in one direction.

If you practice exercises like squats consistently in the gym, your body will become so programmed and comfortable with the proper squat technique that you won’t even have to consciously think about bending your knees and sitting your hips back when you pick up an object instead of rounding your back.

Your body will do it as if on autopilot. Just make sure you are squatting with the proper technique in your functional fitness workouts!

Many injuries occur in everyday life when poor movement techniques or economics are used, so ingraining the proper movement patterns through repetition with functional fitness workouts can help prevent some of these unnecessary injuries.

A single-arm, overhead press.

Examples of the Best Functional Fitness Exercises

Examples of some of the best exercises include:

  • Squats
  • Forward lunges
  • Reverse lunges
  • Single-leg balance
  • Single-leg hops
  • Lateral lunges
  • Bicep curls
  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Step-ups
  • Walking lunges
  • Lateral lunges
  • Farmer’s carries 
  • Deadlifts
  • Single-leg deadlifts 
  • Overhead presses
  • Bear crawls
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Pallof presses
  • Bent-over rows
  • Suitcase rows
  • Kettlebell windmills
  • Medicine ball chops
  • Box jumps 
  • Single-leg squats
  • TRX suspension straps inverted rows

To learn more about functional training exercises, check out our guide to functional training here.

A pistol squat.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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