Functional Training Guide + 18 Recommended Exercises To Try 

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Fitness trainers and avid gym goers often reference the importance of doing functional training, and in an interest in wanting to do the best types of workouts, people who hear this advice are usually keen on taking up functional exercises themselves.

But what is functional strength training?

Many beginners have never heard of functional strength training, and even people who have been training for a while may only have a vague understanding of functional training but little practical knowledge of how to do functional strength training.

In this guide, we will discuss what functional training is, the benefits of functional strength training, and specific functional exercises you can start incorporating into your workouts.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Functional Training?
  • Functional Training vs. Strength Training
  • 7 Benefits of Functional Training
  • Functional Training Exercises to Try

Let’s jump in!

Kettlebell plank, a functional training exercise.

What Is Functional Training?

So what is functional strength training?

Functional strength training, often just called functional training or functional exercises, is a type of fitness training that aims to mimic movement patterns that help you use in your everyday life. 

In this way, functional training helps you improve your “function” in daily life.

For example, a squat is a functional exercise because it helps you condition your neuromuscular system and strengthen the necessary muscles to pick up a box when you’re moving without injuring your back.

A farmer’s carry is a functional exercise because it helps you train your body to easily carry a heavy duffle bag while traveling without leaning to one side and perturbing your hips and spine.

Although these are just two examples, it can be seen that functional exercises can help prepare the body for everyday activities that require foundational movement patterns, which are essentially functional movement patterns.

Examples of functional movement patterns include pushing and pulling with the upper body, rotating and bracing with the core, hinging at the hips, stepping up, and squatting with the legs.

People in a lunge.

Functional strength training exercises are designed to support one or more functional movement patterns, helping optimize the ability of your muscles and joints to move through the necessary range of motion while being able to generate the required amount of force for whatever everyday life task you’re trying to accomplish, from picking up a heavy package to getting up off the floor when playing with your kids. 

Another reason that functional strength training exercises are becoming increasingly important is that we have become more sedentary, sitting for large portions of the day, whether for work or otherwise. In doing so, we lose the mobility, strength, and neuromuscular coordination that we need for some of these common movement patterns and physical demands.

When society was more primitive, humans were highly active—walking, running, hunting, squatting, lifting, carrying, lunging, etc. 

However, the sedentary modern lifestyle allows the muscles to become fairly weak unless you deliberately perform consistent functional exercise workouts to use your body more.

Even if you’re fairly active, performing functional strength training exercises can reduce the risk of injuries by building a greater amount of muscle mass and strength than you’ll need for the activities and movement patterns you perform in daily life, so they never pose a challenge or exceed the capacity of your muscles, tendons, and joints.

A person doing a plank.

Functional Training vs. Strength Training

So, what’s the difference between functional training and strength training?

There’s certainly a lot of overlap, as functional training is a type of strength training.

Strength training is a broader activity that refers to any type of resistance training that increases muscular strength or endurance.

Whereas functional training really focuses on multi-joint, compound strengthening exercises like squats and push-ups, strength training can include additional types of muscle isolation exercises like biceps curls or a leg extension exercise machine.

These types of strength training machines are not functional strength training exercises because while they do increase strength and can help you build muscle, a weight machine guides the movement within a fixed range of motion.

A person doing a renegade row.

This is not a “functional” exercise because, in real life, you aren’t moving along confined angles; you have to control your motion yourself.

Functional training workouts are almost always total-body workouts. You will perform exercises that target all of the muscles of the body during your workout.

In contrast, strength training workouts are often structured as split-body workouts.

For example, you might do upper-body/lower-body splits, in which you focus on the legs and core during one workout in the week and on the arms, chest, shoulders, and back in another.

The goal of functional strength training is to improve your ability to function or perform everyday life activities, whereas the primary goal of strength training is to increase muscular strength or size.

For this reason, bodybuilders will likely gravitate more towards traditional strength training than functional strength training, whereas everyday athletes are well served by functional training.

A person doing a kettlebell swing outside.

7 Benefits of Functional Training

There are numerous benefits of functional training, including the following:

#1: Functional Training Improves Movement Patterns

The primary benefit of functional training is that it improves your ability to perform foundational movement patterns that are called upon by everyday life activities.

Examples of these foundational movement patterns include pushing and pulling, lunging and squatting, twisting and rotating, and hinging at the hips.

By purposefully training these movements through functional strength training exercises, you help prevent muscle imbalances and weaknesses that can otherwise result in pain, injury, or tightness in daily life.

#2: Functional Training Makes Everyday Activities Easier

By strengthening the muscles you use in everyday life activities, functional strength training makes it easier to be active throughout your day without getting fatigued.

Essentially, functional training prepares your body to be able to function well in daily life.

People doing box jumps.

#3: Functional Training Reduces the Risk of Injury

By strengthening the muscles and improving the neuromuscular movement patterns necessary for daily life activities, functional movement patterns reduce your risk of getting injured picking up a heavy item with poor mechanics or lunging suddenly after your toddler.

#4: Functional Training Is Approachable 

One of the best things about functional training is that it is approachable to people of all fitness levels because it is scalable and adaptable based on your needs.

Beginners and deconditioned people can perform very basic functional exercises like sit-to-stand or press-ups against an elevated surface, while advanced athletes can add weight and perform progressions like renegade rows with dumbbells and squats to overhead presses.

#5: Functional Training Improves Fitness

Just because functional strength training is geared towards improving everyday function does not mean that it doesn’t also improve your athletic abilities, strength, and fitness.

As a form of strength training, functional training provides all of the normal benefits of strength training, such as increasing muscular strength and endurance, improving bone density, improving heart health, burning calories, elevating mood, decreasing stress, and improving markers of health.

People doing squats in a gym.

#6: Functional Training Doesn’t Require Equipment 

Depending on your fitness level, there are plenty of functional training exercises that can be performed with just your body weight or a few resistance bands.

Of course, the more resistance you can add, by way of dumbbells, kettlebells, or other weights, the more strength you can build, but even without exercise equipment, you can do several effective functional training exercises.

#7: Functional Training Is Efficient

Because functional exercises focus on compound movements, functional training is very efficient from a time- and calorie-based perspective.

You can get a total body strengthening workout with functional training exercises in 30 minutes or so.

Additionally, because the exercises utilize many major muscle groups working together, you will burn more calories than you would be performing isolation exercises.

People working out in a gym.

Functional Strength Training Exercises to Try

Because functional strength training refers to training that improves your ability to function in everyday life, functional training exercises are specific exercises that either mimic daily life movement patterns and activities or that prepare you for these movements and activities by training the necessary muscles.

Here are some of the best functional strength training exercises for beginners to advanced athletes:

  • Upper Body Functional Exercises: Push-Ups, rows, pull-ups, dips, overhead presses.
  • Lower-Body Functional Exercises: Squats, lunges, farmer’s carries, burpees, box jumps, deadlifts, split squats, step-ups, bridges, lateral lunges.
  • Core Functional Exercises: Planks, medicine ball chops, medicine ball slams.

If you are looking for an approachable, beneficial, and efficient way to strengthen your body and become better equipped to handle everyday life activities, consider incorporating functional training into your workout routine.

If you are looking to get started right away, we have some workouts you can do from the comfort of your own home. Check out our Bodyweight and Resistance Band Workouts today!

A person doing a kettlebell 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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