- Functional fitness mimics how we move every day to help strengthen the muscles we use in daily life.
- Functional fitness is made up of six foundational movements: squat, hinge, row/pull, push, carry, and core.
Want to live life a little bit more comfortable and…functional? Of course you do. That’s the foundation of functional fitness—one of those buzzwords you’ve probably heard, but maybe have a hard time defining.
We talked to Patrick Jennings, MS, and owner of Athletic Ascension in Pembroke, Massachusetts, about what defines functional fitness (and what it’s not), who should do it, and how exactly you can start adding it into your fitness regimen.
What Is Functional Fitness?
“Functional fitness is about doing movements that help you better function as a human being,” Jennings says. “It’s a foundation of daily movements that a human should and needs to be able to do in daily life.”
Simply put, functional fitness mimics how we move every day to help strengthen the muscles we use in daily life. The foundational movements of functional fitness are squat, hinge, row/pull, push, carry, and core.
“We’re constantly squatting down and bending over, pushing something away from us, pulling something towards us, and we perform all these tasks in pretty specific motions. Functional fitness is about getting better at doing those things,” Jennings says.
Imagine this scenario: there’s a heavy suitcase on the ground that you need to pick up, carry across the room, and stack on a high shelf. Here’s a breakdown of the foundational movements you’d need to do to perform that task:
- Hinge and squat. Bend and squat down to pick up the suitcase, and stand up with the suitcase.
- Carry. Carry the suitcase by the handle across the room.
- Pull/row. Pull the suitcase to chest height.
- Push. Push the suitcase overhead onto the shelf.
- Core. Properly brace the core throughout the task in order to stabilize the body.
Who Should Practice Functional Fitness? And Who Shouldn’t?
“The only time you shouldn’t incorporate functional fitness is if you’re coming back from surgery, are injured, or if you’re really focused on a specific sport movement, like swimming or shot put throwing,” says Jennings. “Otherwise, the primary thing people are doing is living life, and functional fitness helps to make moving around as a human easier.”
Functional fitness is for pretty much everyone. If you’re unsure of a specific movement pattern because of a past or recurrent injury, or some sort of health issue, consult with a doctor or physical therapist first.
How Do I Do It?
Functional fitness isn’t actually a specific type of workout, but movement patterns that can be incorporated into a variety of workout styles.
“In fitness, people are always looking for a shortcut or a secret (to help meet their fitness goals),” says Jennings. “HIIT, heart-rate-based training, circuit or strength training are just tools. No matter what training style you’re doing, functional fitness movements should be integrated.”
Functional fitness is about moving better as a human, and that’s something everyone can benefit from.
What Moves Aren’t Functional?
“One of the biggest examples of a dysfunctional movement is the burpee,” says Jennings. “There is just no functional purpose.”
Not all hope is lost, burpee lovers. There are certain aspects of a burpee that could be classified as functional—the pushup and the squat, most notably. But combine it and, unfortunately, there are zero life scenarios where a burpee would be helpful.
It’s worth pointing out that defining what movements fall under functional fitness and which do not can be a bit of a gray area. Take the chest press. Some people may replicate that type of movement in their everyday life, and others perhaps not. For those who do, a chest press is a functional movement. For those who don’t, it’s not a functional movement.
Examples of Functional Fitness
Functional fitness is not just six different exercises. They are movement patterns. The squat, hinge, row/pull, push, carry, and core all have a huge variety of exercises that fall under each umbrella.
“There’s a wide range of variations of all of these exercises,” Jennings says. “The movement pattern is the important part; how you do it is up to the individual. There should be an amount of discomfort, but no pain. There’s no need to force a certain exercise if it’s causing pain, because each movement pattern has so many different options.”
“It’s important to work with a coach that can help you progress and regress certain training exercises,” says Jennings. “People can have different ranges of motion for a variety of different reasons, and a good coach will do a functional movement screen with you to evaluate what types of movements will work best for you.”
Check out Jennings’ list of exercises for each functional movement pattern, plus some home gym equipment to make the most of your workouts.
Functional Fitness Library
Explainer: Romanian deadlifts, or “RDLs,” are different from “regular” deadlifts in that the movement begins from the standing position.
Cue: Begin in a standing position holding weights/barbell with a soft bend in the knees. Keeping a long spine and tight core, think of pushing the hips back, initiating a hinge at the hips. Once tension is felt in the back of the legs, push the hips forward, maintaining an engaged core throughout.
Explainer: Good mornings are another great hinge movement that activates several muscles, especially in the posterior chain (the backside of the body). Good mornings have a bit more of a horizontal emphasis than deadlifts, and also have the load placed at the top of the body.
Cue: Place a weight on top of the back (as if you were doing a back squat). Keeping knees relatively straight (but not locked), spine long, and core engaged, push the hips back. Try to get the chest and spine as parallel to the floor as possible. Then, while keeping a tight core, push the hips forward to return to a standing position.
Explainer: The glute bridge is another hinge movement that does a good job of activating the posterior chain in a more supportive position (lying on the ground).
Cue: Start lying on the ground with knees bent, and feet roughly hip-width apart. Initiate the movement by first tightening the core and imagine tucking your hips underneath you (imagine there is a string attached to the back of the belly button and the string is pulling behind you). Squeeze the glutes, then press through the heels to lift the hips up toward the ceiling. Stop the movement when hips, knees, and chest are all in a straight line (be sure not to “arch” the spine).
Explainer: As the name implies, a box squat requires a box or a bench. The objective is to make contact with the box with your hips—this requires a big range of motion in the squat pattern and can help increase flexibility and help with squat form.
Cue: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and in front of a bench or box. Push the hips back slightly and squat down, reaching for the box with your glutes. Keep the chest tall and weight distributed equally throughout the feet. Make contact with the box, pause, and then press through the bottom of the feet to stand back up.
Explainer: The reverse lunge in a unilateral squat movement that activates a bit more of the glute and hamstring muscles than other squat movements. This can be done with a variety of different loaded positions, ranging from a barbell back rack (advanced) to bodyweight (beginner).
Cue: Start by standing tall and feet hip-width apart. Step back with one leg, maintain a tall and open chest, and keep the weight focused on the front foot while bringing the back knee down towards the ground. Press through the front foot to return to a standing position.
Explainer: The step-up in another unilateral squat movement that mimics a highly functional movement: walking up stairs. Similar to the reverse lunge, there is a large variety of loaded positions depending on current ability and fitness goals.
Cue: Stand in front of a low bench or box. Step up onto the bench with one foot, keeping the chest tall and open. Press through the top foot and think about pushing into the ground to bring the rest of the body up to the top of the bench.
Bench low row
Explainer: Ever have to reach down and pull something up towards you? Low rows help make that easier. The low row strengthens many muscles in the back and upper body and is great for posture, too.
Cue: Place one knee and the same-side hand on a bench. Position the other foot away and slightly back from the bench, getting into a position that keeps hips and shoulders level and spine straight. Grab the weight with the free hand, and drive the elbow up and back (think about bringing knuckles towards the bottom/middle of the ribcage), keeping the bicep close to the ribcage.
Standing high row
Explainer: The standing high row is a great functional exercise that helps to strengthen the biggest back muscle in the body: the latissimus dorsi. This is another exercise for improving posture.
Cue: Stand with feet hip-width apart and shoulders down and away from the ears. Hold a barbell or dumbbells in front of the hips, palms facing the body. Keeping the shoulders down and away, bring the weight up towards the chest by bringing the elbows out wide. Stop when the elbows are about parallel with the shoulders.
Explainer: Using the TRX for rowing movements adds an extra component of stability, which can help strengthen stabilizer muscles all over the body. This is not only great for preventing injuries but can help improve coordination and balance in everyday life.
Cue: Start from a standing position with both hands in the TRX straps. Once at the desired distance from the anchor point (the further back from the anchor, the lower the resistance), keep the feet planted and let the body fall back slightly until the straps are taut. Keep the hips pressed forward, as if in a plank position. For a low row, keep the palms facing each other and drive the elbows back, bringing the knuckles towards the ribcage. For a high row, start with the arms parallel with the shoulders and palms facing down. Keep the shoulders down and away from the ears and pull the body through the handles by keeping the elbows high and parallel with the shoulders.
Explainer: The pushup is an equipment-free push exercise that has several options for both progressing and regressing. This movement also doubles as a great core exercise.
Cue: Start in a high plank position, with feet about hip-width apart and wrists directly underneath the shoulders. Keep hips tucked underneath and pressed forward. Keeping palms in the same position, lower the entire body down towards the ground as one solid unit, pausing when the elbows are bent at about 90 degrees. Push through the palms to return to the high plank position.
Explainer: The overhead press is a great movement for strengthening the shoulders and back, and another highly functional exercise, as there are all sorts of daily tasks that require lifting the arms over the head.
Cue: Start with feet hip-width apart, shoulders down and away, and weight loaded either in a front-rack position or dumbbells on the shoulders. Tuck the hips underneath and tighten the core. Then, press the weight overhead, keeping the elbows slightly in front of the shoulders.
Explainer: The chest press is a push exercise that, as the name hints, engages many of the muscles in the chest. While there aren’t as many everyday tasks that require the movement of pushing a weight off of one’s chest, this movement can help strengthen muscles needed for more functional push movements, such as the pushup.
Cue: Start lying flat on a bench. Position a barbell or dumbbells directly over the shoulders. Tuck the hips underneath and brace the core, then press the weight straight up towards the ceiling, keeping the weight parallel with the shoulders.
Explainer: Does anyone else dream of just taking one trip from the car to the house with groceries? Farmer’s carries will help get you there. A farmer’s carry requires carrying two weights, one in each hand while walking a certain distance. Farmer’s carries work a plethora of muscles, requiring core engagement to keep the chest upright, arm and grip strength to hold the weights, and all sorts of leg muscles working to carry the load.
Cue: Grab two equal weights, one in each hand, by squatting or hinging down and standing up with the weights (maintaining an engaged core throughout). Keep the shoulders down and away from the ears. Tuck the hips and walk, focusing on taking patient, controlled steps.
Explainer: The suitcase carry is similar to the farmer’s carry, but only requires holding one weight on one side of the body. This slight change fires up the obliques and is another posture-improving exercise.
Cue: Grab one weight by squatting or hinging down and standing up with the weight (maintaining an engaged core throughout). Tuck the hips and walk, focusing on keeping shoulders and hips level by squeezing the outside of the core. Take patient, controlled steps. Switch sides.
Explainer: This is an advanced carry movement that asks a bit more of the lower body than the other two carries, and can help improve balance and coordination along with building lower body strength. Walking lunges can be performed with either a farmer’s or a suitcase carry, or without weight.
Cue: Grab two equal weights, one in each hand, by squatting or hinging down and standing up with the weights (maintaining an engaged core throughout). Step straight forward with one leg and lunge down, keeping the chest upright and shoulders down and away from the ears. Press through the front foot to return to a standing position, and swing the other leg straight through and into the next lunge. Make sure to walk on “train tracks” and not a “tightrope” with your feet.
Explainer: The deadbug is a core exercise that’s especially good for helping to alleviate low back pain by strengthening deep core stabilizer muscles in a way that takes the pressure off of joints.
Cue: Start lying prone on the back, both arms extended straight in front of shoulders and knees bent at 90 degrees, with the lower legs lifted. Tuck the hips underneath and extend one arm and the opposite leg, focusing on keeping the spine and low back in contact with the ground by squeezing deep in the core. Return arm and leg to starting positions, and switch sides.
Explainer: The plank is a classic core movement for a few reasons—it’s simple, effective, easy to do, and highly functional. It’s hard to think of an everyday task that doesn’t require the core to be braced when done optimally.
Cue: Start in the top part of a pushup position or down on the forearms. Focus on keeping a straight line from each anchor point in the body: from the top of the head to the shoulders, to the hips, to the knees, and to the ankles. Make sure to keep the hips tucked underneath. Engage your core and just hold.
Bear position hold plank
Explainer: The bear plank is another stability exercise that targets the deep stabilizer muscles in the core, which can help prevent and reduce low back pain and injuries, among lots of other benefits. The bear plank is a variation of the plank and has progressions and regressions for every ability.
Cue: Start in a tabletop position. Make sure that the wrists are underneath the shoulders and the knees are directly underneath the hips. Tuck the toes, tuck the hips, squeeze the core, and lift the knees off the ground, maintaining the straight and stable line between the shoulders and wrists and the knees and hips.
The Bottom Line
Overall, functional fitness is the practice of incorporating movement patterns into a fitness regimen that mimics what we do in everyday life. It makes daily life easier by strengthening and preparing our bodies for whatever life throws our way.