- Functional fitness training entails exercises mimicking real-world movements like squats and deadlifts.
- Doing these exercises can help reduce the risk of injury, improve mobility, and build strength.
Fitness is typically associated with strength and muscle tone but there is another type of fitness that’s more important for your day-to-day: functional fitness.
Functional fitness refers to your ability to comfortably perform everyday activities like carrying groceries, picking up packages off the ground, or even walking your dog.
Furthermore, training to become functionally fit entails doing exercises that mimic those real-world scenarios, says certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of AIM Athletic, Jake Harcoff.
“Specific functional fitness exercises, like squats and deadlifts, are designed to better equip someone for the rigors and demands of everyday life,” he says.
Working out to be functionally fit has a host of benefits, including building strength, reducing the risk of injury, improving your cardiovascular health, and boosting your range of motion.
Examples of functional fitness workouts?
Usually, functional fitness routines include a combination of bodyweight and weighted exercises.
Most commonly, the weighted exercises are compound movements, Harcoff says, which are movements that use multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time. These include moves like deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, and push-ups.
That said, some fitness professionals argue that some isolation exercises — typically, seen as the opposite of compound movements — are also functional.
“Movements that work just one muscle group at a time can also qualify as functional movements,” Harcoff says. “So long as an exercise takes a joint through its full range of motion, or involves the muscle moving as it is structurally designed to, it can be considered functional.”
As such, isolation exercises like leg extensions, bicep curls, and front raises also count as functional.
Cardio activities are another exercise deemed suitable for functional fitness, says Harcoff. Whether it’s via jumping rope, running, rowing, or cycling, these all improve your cardiovascular capacity, which allows you to better complete everyday tasks like climbing stairs or just simply walking.
The benefits of functional fitness
Although functional fitness exercises vary, there are a few standard benefits you can expect should you add the moves to your weekly fitness routine. Those benefits include:
1. Reduced injury risk
One of the most important benefits of functional fitness is that it helps you do everyday tasks easier and thus, helps prevent injuries you may endure if you execute those tasks with suboptimal form.
People get injured doing daily tasks like climbing into their car, cleaning their toilet, or bending to the pantry bottom shelf all the time, explains physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, Grayson Wickham. Functional fitness training helps people perfect daily movement patterns at the gym, which allows them to replicate them automatically outside.
“For example, if you can perfect the ability to lift a barbell off the floor with the proper movement pattern at the gym, you’ll know how to safely pick up heavy objects from the ground outside the gym as well,” Harcoff says.
2. Strength gains
While functional fitness doesn’t always involve strength training, it usually involves bodyweight, compound, or isolation strength exercises. As such, functional fitness can help improve strength.
“Functional fitness routines that incorporate some variations of a hinge, squat, pull, push, lunge, and rotation will strengthen the entire body,” Wickham says.
3. Improved cardiovascular health
If you’re doing a typical cardiovascular exercise like running or cycling as your functional fitness routine, it will improve your cardiovascular capacity and health.
Similarly, if other functional fitness exercises get your heart rate up, they’ll improve your cardiovascular health, too, Wickham says.
“If you execute functional fitness exercises at varying intensities, you can improve your [cardiovascular] capacity,” he says.
This will allow you to improve things like how fast you run, your sprinting endurance, and your ability to comfortably move over short, mid-length, and long durations or distances.
4. Greater range of motion
Wickham says that a key component of functional strength movements is that they have you take your joints through their full range of motion. Or, more accurately, as full a range of motion as you can currently do safely.
“When you train your body to access a greater range of motion, you reduce your chances of getting injured in day-to-day life,” says Wickham. “When you have a limited range of motion, your odds of being physically unable to execute these tasks, or experiencing discomfort when trying to execute them goes up.”
Let’s consider one functional fitness move: The squat. If you can execute a low squat, you should also be able to physically lower yourself to a low-to-the-ground bench at a restaurant or lower set seat of a car. If you can’t, your odds of getting hurt doing those tasks is higher.
Functional fitness vs. weight training
Both functional fitness and weight training can improve your overall health and fitness. However, these two workout types are not the exact same — though they do share some similarities.
While weight lifting can always qualify as functional fitness, functional fitness may not always qualify as weight training.
For instance, weight training involves training with some kind of weighted implements, like a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell, says Wickham. Sometimes functional fitness uses these same weighted devices and thus is considered weight training.
But there are also functional fitness movements like bodyweight exercises and cardio that don’t include any added weight whatsoever, and therefore are not considered weight training.
Functional fitness can help improve your quality of life by making daily tasks easier and more comfortable to complete. It can also benefit your overall health and fitness by improving cardiovascular capacity and increasing strength, which offer their own set of health perks.
Plus, functional fitness exercises cover a wide range of movements like squats and deadlifts, as well as cardio-based exercises like running or cycling. Working on your functional fitness is a great idea for most people, particularly those who want to increase their range of motion, reduce the risk of injury, and build strength.