Working out should not only make you feel and look better, but it should help you move better in everyday life. That is why functional fitness has become such a popular fitness trend.
So what are functional exercises?
Functional exercises are movements that strengthen your body in a functional way, not only moving you in every direction, but also by having you lift the types of awkward weights that we tend to have to carry.
When we lift and move in everyday life, we are simply picking up a barbell perfectly shaped for our hands. We aren’t only moving forward or backward.
We move, lift, twist and carry in every plane of motion with a variety of weights in all shapes and sizes.
So if you want to feel, look and MOVE better, try incorporating these 5 Basic Functional Full-Body Exercises!
1. Farmer’s Carry
Whether you’ve lived in a big city and have had to carry groceries home on public transportation or you’ve simply gone on a huge shopping spree at the mall, there is a chance you’ve already done Farmer’s Carries in your everyday life.
This is one of the best full-body functional movements out there and it strengthens your core, legs, back, shoulders, arms and even your grip.
To do the Farmer’s Carry, you can hold dumbbells, kettlebells, water jugs or any sort of weights in each hand. The more awkward the more fun! Use as heavy a weight as you can grip while maintaining a nice tall posture.
Holding a weight in both hands, stand up nice and tall with your arms down by your sides and your chest pressed out. Make sure your core is braced so you don’t feel your low back engaging. Draw your shoulder blades down and together to engage your back and use it to help you support the weights hanging down by your sides.
Then begin to walk forward, making sure the weights aren’t resting on your legs. Hold them just off your thighs. Do not let the weights make you wobble all over. Brace your core as you walk.
Walk around for a set distance or an amount of time, maintaining perfect posture. You want to use weights that challenge you and make you want to drop them just before the time or distance is out.
As you walk, do not let your head move forward or your shoulders round or shrug. Keep your core tight as you walk with your shoulders down and back and your head up.
You can also do a unilaterally loaded variation, carrying a weight on only one side. This will work your core even more and help you strengthen your body to prevent rotation.
2. Lunge and Reach
Most people get injured when bending over to lift something up or when rotating because we are handling weights in awkward positions where our low backs want to take over because our hips are tight from sitting all day. That is why it is important to strengthen your core with rotational movements that have you lift up and down as you rotate.
This is why the Lunge and Reach is such a functional move. It will strengthen your core and teach you how to recruit the muscles of your core correctly to prevent injury as you rotate and pick things up off the ground!
To do the Lunge and Reach, hold a weight in both hands down in front of you. Then pivot your feet and sink down into a lunge on one side, extending your arms with the dumbbell down outside your front knee. As you sink into the lunge, do not round forward so that you can reach the dumbbell lower toward the ground.
Keep your front heel on the ground and sink your back knee as you extend your arms toward the ground and slightly hinge forward at the hips.
Then from this position, pull the dumbbell in toward your chest as you stand up and pivot toward the opposite side. As you pivot toward the other side, press the dumbbell out and up overhead, extending your arms out completely. Make sure that as you pivot across and up with the weight, you pivot your back leg so that your hip, knee and ankle all extend. Stand up nice and tall at the top and make sure to brace your core and really feel the glute of your back leg squeeze.
Then lower back down, bringing the weight back down to your chest and then back down outside your knee as you pivot and sink back into a deep lunge. Make sure you pivot to lunge and press and then rotate back down. Complete all reps to one side before switching.
Do not round over to reach the weight lower. And when you stand up, make sure to engage your glute and stand tall with the weight pressed up and out. Learning to pivot and brace your core while using your glute is key to preventing injury!
Click here if you want more standing core moves like the Lunge and Reach to add into your routine!
3. Unilaterally-Loaded Reverse Lunge
Lunging is a great functional exercise and when you add in a unilateral load, you force your core to work even harder and make the move even more functional.
Often in everyday life we are carry, not only awkward loads, but also loads on one side of our body. By training with unilateral loads, we can strengthen our core to prevent rotation and be able to deal with heavy loads carried only on one side, which will reduce your chance for injury!
And a great move to train with a unilateral load is the Reverse Lunge. One of the best ways to load down the lunge is with a sandbag because then you are not only unilaterally-loading the lunge, but also loading with an awkward, uneven weight!
To do the Unilaterally-Loaded Reverse Lunge, place the sandbag over one shoulder. If you place it over your standing leg it will make the move slightly easier than if you place the weight over the leg lunging back. Stand up nice and tall and do not lean away or toward the side holding the sandbag.
Lunge back with one leg and sit back into your front heel as you drop your back knee down as close to the ground as possible. Keep your chest up as you lunge back and make sure to sit back in the heel of your front leg as you lunge back. You want to make sure to load the glute of the front leg. Also, do not lunge back so far that you are leaning forward or can’t bend your back leg.
Then drive through the standing heel and come back up to standing. Make sure you keep your chest up nice and tall and do not lean or round forward as you come back up to standing. Squeeze your glute at the top and then repeat, lunging back.
Do not lean to either side because of the unilateral load. Complete all reps on one side before switching.
Check out these other Functional Lunge Variations as well!
4. Turkish Get Up
Especially as we get older, one of the hardest things to do can be getting up off the ground if we are lying down or even seated. Training your core to work properly to begin with can be a great way to prevent this from happening.
That is why the Turkish Get Up is such a great move. It teaches core sequencing and helps you learn to recruit the muscles of your core correctly to help you stand up from lying on the ground, even if you are carrying a load. Plus this move can train shoulder stability if you hold a weight overhead.
To do the Turkish Get Up, you can either place a sandbag over one shoulder or you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell up overhead. All are beneficial in terms of building core strength while under an awkward load. If you do the traditional lift, use a dumbbell or kettlebell.
Start by lying on the ground on your back with your legs out straight and a weight in one hand. Press your arm with the weight straight up toward the ceiling not overhead behind you. Bend the same knee as the hand with the weight and place your foot flat on the ground. Straighten your other arm out to the side (not straight out at shoulder height, but not right by your body).
Keeping your arm with the weight straight up toward the ceiling at all times (it can even help to balance something on your knuckles to remind you of this while you are learning instead of using a weight), roll up onto your forearm. Press your chest out and don’t shrug your shoulders as you prop yourself up nice and tall on your forearm. Drive through your right foot on the ground to help you roll to your forearm. Do not simply try to sit straight up.
Once up on your forearm, press up onto your hand with your arm going straight. Sit up nice and tall. Do not shrug your shoulders. Make sure your arm with the weight stays straight up toward the ceiling and doesn’t fall forward.
Then from the seated position bridge up, lifting your hips up as high as you can. To bridge, drive down through your hand and the heel of your straight leg as you press off your flat foot. Do not let either heel come up. Really squeeze your glutes and drive straight up.
From the bridge position, slide your straight leg back and under you so that you are in a half-kneeling position with your hand on the ground. Make sure you swing your leg back enough so that you are in a strong supported half-kneeling position that will allow you to lift your hand up off the ground.
Staying nice and tall, lift your hand and hinge up t come to a half-kneeling position. Do not lean forward or slouch as you lift your hand up off the ground.
Keeping your arm straight up toward the ceiling, stomp your front foot into the ground and come up to standing, stepping your back foot in forward.
Once standing, you will reverse the steps until you are again lying on your back. Standing up is only half the move!
Beginners can start by balancing something on their hands if they struggle to keep their arm straight up toward the ceiling with a weight.
If you ever lift something up off the ground and have slung it over your shoulder, you’ve done shouldering. And if you ever plan to pick something up off the ground even if you don't throw it over your shoulder, this is a must-do move!
Shouldering is not only a functional move, but also an important one for anyone with a desk job because it will strengthen the glutes and work on hip extension after sitting in hip flexion all day.
To do Shouldering, a sandbag works best, especially because it is an awkward, unstable weight, which will most likely be similar to whatever you pick up in everyday life.
Place a sandbag in between your feet and grab it in both hands around the middle. Sink your butt and hinge forward so you are in a conventional deadlift position. Make sure to sit your butt back as you lean forward from your hips and keep your back flat.
Then stand up, swinging the sandbag up and over one shoulder, using your glutes to power the explosive move to stand up.Keep your back flat as you swing the sandbag up and squeeze your glutes at the top of the motion.
Then lower the bag back down to the ground and repeat, swinging the bag up over the other shoulder next time.
Beginners, or anyone with slightly limited mobility, may not be able to start the bag on the ground.
When you do this move, you do not want your back to round so you can start the bag higher off the ground or simple swing it like a kettlebell from between your legs to over your shoulder. Just make sure that whatever variation you do, you keep your back flat and power the movement with your glutes.
If you feel this in your low back, make sure you are sitting your butt back and driving through your heels to come up to standing. You may also want to start with a lighter weight and really focus on bracing your core.
Start feeling and moving better today by incorporating these 5 moves into your workout routine!
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.