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The Complete Guide To Functional Strength Training +7 Exercises

Functional strength training exercises help prepare you for daily life activities such as carrying groceries or a child, bending down to pick something up, or getting in and out of a car. 

But, what is functional strength training exactly, and how can it improve your day-to-day life? What is the difference between functional vs traditional strength training? What are the best functional strength training exercises to perform?

In this guide, we will discuss the differences between functional vs traditional strength training, and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best functional strength training exercises so that you are fit and strong not just for gym workouts but in your everyday life.

We will look at: 

  • What Is Functional Strength Training?
  • Complete Functional Strength Training Workout

Let’s get started!

Step up.

What Is Functional Strength Training?

Functional strength training refers to resistance training exercises that are specifically geared towards replicating movement patterns that are required by everyday life activities such as pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging, bending over, lifting, etc. 

The primary difference between functional vs traditional strength training exercises is that functional strength training exercises focus on training your body for physical activities of daily living outside of the gym.

These include movements such as climbing stairs, getting up and down off of the floor or a low chair, squatting down, lifting boxes, carrying children, putting away items on a high shelf, walking around the community, etc.

In contrast, traditional strength training exercises focus more on building muscle and performing both compound exercises and isolation exercises to strengthen individual muscle groups.

A push press.

Although traditional strength training programs also use compound exercises, you will see the incorporation of more isolation exercises in traditional versus functional strength training routines.

Additionally, because functional strength training is preparing your body for real-life activities outside of the gym, functional strength training workouts usually use free weights and bodyweight exercises rather than weight training machines so that you have to actually balance and control your body.

Complete Functional Strength Training Workout

Here are some of the best functional strength training exercises to add into your workouts:

#1: Squats

Squats are a foundational functional strength training exercise.

Learning how to squat properly will help protect your back and knees from injury when you try to lift something up or lower your body to the floor or a low chair in everyday life activities. 

To this end, when doing squats in functional strength training workouts, you really want to focus on using proper form so that your body learns the proper squat movement pattern.

This will help ensure that proper squat form becomes automatic in real-life situations.

  1. To perform a squat, stand upright with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, chest up, core and glutes engaged, and back straight.
  2. Bend your knees and sit your hips all the way back like you are reaching your butt into a chair behind you as you lower down.
  3. When your thighs are parallel to the ground, pause and then press through your heels to stand back up. Use dumbbells held at shoulder height as you get stronger.
  4. Perform 15 reps.

#2: Step-Ups

One of the best functional strength training workout exercises is the step-up because we are always ascending steps in real life, whether around the home, town, up and off of curbs, etc.

  1. To perform a step up, stand facing a plyo box or aerobic step, holding dumbbells in each hand with your arms down at your sides.
  2. Keep your core tight so that you have a nice erect posture, step up onto the box with your right foot, place the entire foot onto the box, and press through the foot to lift your body up.
  3. Follow with the left leg.
  4. Step down with the right foot backward and then follow with the left foot.
  5. Perform 12 reps leading up and down with the right foot and then switch sides.

#3: Push-Ups

Push-ups are one of the best functional strength training exercises for your pushing muscles.

Beginners can start on their knees or even up against a wall.

Here are the steps for a regular push-up:

  1. Place your hands stacked under your shoulders and your toes on the floor behind you, making sure that your body is in a straight line from your head to your heels.
  2. Keeping your core and glutes squeezed, bend your elbows to lower your chest towards the floor, trying to keep your elbows tucked in towards your torso rather than flared out towards the side.
  3. When your chest is hovering just above the floor, pause briefly and then press through the palms of your hands to straighten your elbows back up.
  4. Perform 10 to 25 reps.

#4: Lat Pull-Downs

Functional strength training workouts should also include pulling exercises. Many beginners struggle with pull-ups, so the lat pulldown can be a good functional strength training exercise for beginners as well as those who want to build muscle.

  1. To perform the lat pull-down, sit at the lat pull-down station with your thighs secured under the pads, your knees bent to 90°, and your feet flat on the platform.
  2. Reach up and grab the lat pull-down bar with your palms facing away from your body and your hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Allow a slight backward lean in your trunk while keeping your back straight and core tight as you pull the lat pulldown bar down to your sternum.
  4. Pause and hold the squeeze at the bottom position and then slowly return the bar back up as you straighten your arms.
  5. Perform 12 to 15 reps.

#5: Farmer’s Carries

The Farmer’s carry exercise is one of the best functional strength training workout movements to replicate any carrying activity of everyday life, such as carrying a suitcase for travel or a reusable tote bag of heavy groceries or books.

Doing this functional strength training exercise as a unilateral exercise will further challenge your core muscles and train your body to protect your lower back and spine by using proper carrying ergonomics when you are carrying things outside of the gym and only one hand.

  1. To perform this functional strength training exercise, hold a heavy kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand.
  2. Keeping your core tight so that your shoulders and hips remain square, walk forward, holding the weight for at least 30 paces.
  3. Switch arms and walk back.

#6: Single-Arm Overhead Press

The overhead press is a functional strength training exercise that replicates lifting things over your head, such as putting away groceries on a high shelf.

Here again, doing this as a unilateral exercise best mimics real-life activities and requires better core strength and activation.

  1. To perform this exercise, stand up straight with a dumbbell in your right hand held at shoulder height with your palm facing forward.
  2. Brace your core so that your shoulders and hips stay square as you press the dumbbell straight up overhead until your elbow is locked out.
  3. Pause and then return the dumbbell to shoulder height, keeping your back straight.
  4. Perform 15 reps and then switch sides.

#7: Romanian Deadlift

The deadlift is a posterior chain exercise that helps train proper lifting mechanics such as when you have a heavy box delivered to your doorstep that you need to lift.

  1. To perform this exercise in your functional strength training workouts, set a barbell at mid-shin height on the squat rack.
  2. Face the barbell with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
  3. Hinge at your hips and keep your back straight as you sit your hips back and reach down to grab the barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Keeping your back straight and your chest up, pull the barbell off of the rack and take a step backwards so that you have room.
  5. Then, press through your heels to engage your glutes and hamstrings as you return to the erect standing position, simultaneously pulling the barbell all the way up towards your hips. Make sure to keep the barbell just in front of your legs, tracking along your shins and quads without touching your body. 
  6. When you are slowly standing upright, reverse the movement by hinging your hips and bringing the barbell back down towards your lower shins.
  7. Perform 12 reps.
A deadlift.

As functional strength training has become increasingly popular due to the growth in our understanding of its benefits, the availability of good functional strength training workouts has also increased, and fitness monitors have started incorporating functional strength training as a training mode on their platforms. 

For example, the functional strength training Apple Watch feature allows you to select the functional strength training mode on your watch when you are doing a functional strength training workout for your upper body, lower body, or full body using exercise equipment such as medicine balls, dumbbells, resistance bands, or just your body weight. 

This allows you to track functional strength training workouts just as you would any other type of exercise on the Apple Watch.

After you’ve completed our workout and are looking for more, check out our complete list of compound exercises, here.

Lat pull down.
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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