All exercise has health benefits, yet functional strength exercises not only build strength but also make it easier and safer to carry out the tasks you do every day, like bending over to pick up something, cleaning the house, and carrying a bag of grocery up a flight of stairs. These exercises make you stronger but also improve the way your muscles work together. What good is it to have strong muscles if you can’t channel that strength into doing your daily activities?
Functional strength exercises work more than one muscle group at a time, meaning that they’re compound exercises, in contrast to isolation exercises that work only one muscle group. Isolation exercises, like biceps curls and triceps extensions, do little to improve functional strength. If your goal is to develop functional strength, these five standard, strength-training exercises will give you the most functional benefits.
No exercise works more muscle groups than the deadlift. When you do a deadlift, you activate your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, as well as the muscles in your core and back. Even your shoulders and the muscles in your upper arm get in on the action. If you sit at a desk all day, you need deadlifts to work the postural muscles that help keep your back and head erect. It’s not hard to see how the deadlift translates into functionality. Just think about it. The movement you do when you deadlift is similar to what you do when you stoop down or bend over to pick something up. If you’d like to do this with less risk of injury, keep deadlifting!
A close second to deadlifts in terms of functionality are squats, one of the most basic strength training exercises. Squats work the muscles in your legs and glutes as well as the core muscles that help you stay balanced. Again, it’s easy to see how squats are a functional movement. Think about how many times you squat to pick something up during the day. You also use the muscles that squats target when you rise from a chair. That kind of strength is important as you get older and need the strength to thrust yourself out of a seated position.
Squats are a versatile exercise with a number of possible modifications. The usual way is to use more weight when you squat or do more reps but you can also increase the depth of your squats. Doing squats on an unstable surface is excellent for core stability and balance. All of these variations build functional strength.
Lunges do more than just strengthen your thighs. Doing front to back lunges requires balance and coordination, all of which are useful in daily life. You also use a lunge motion when you walk, run, or climb a flight of stairs. Both forward and reverse lunges can improve your leg strength, balance, and movement patterns, thereby lowering your risk of injury when you walk or run.
Most of the movements you do when you train are in the sagittal plane. Movements in the sagittal plane involve flexion and extension or movement from front to back. For example, squats, walking, running, biceps curls, and triceps extensions are a few of the exercises you do in the sagittal plane. Front lunges and reverse lunges work your body in the sagittal plane as well.
What about the other two planes? These are the frontal and transverse planes. Movements in the frontal plane are from side-to-side rather than front to back. Examples of exercise that work your body in the frontal plane are jumping jacks and dumbbell lateral raises. Lateral lunges, a frontal plane exercise, allows you to work your body in a plane that doesn’t get as much training. The more planes you work your body in, the better your functional movement patterns will be.
How about the transverse plane? Working in the transverse plane involves rotation or twisting. An example of an exercise that works your body in the transverse plane is a cable wood chop. When do you move in this plane in your daily life? One example is twisting your body to get out of a car. Doing exercises that target this plane can improve your ability to rotate your body without injury. You can use lunges to work in the transverse plane by lunging out into a diagonal stance. So, using various lunge variations, you can work your body in all three planes. That’s good for your functional fitness!
Push-ups are an exercise everyone recognizes but can’t necessarily do. Fortunately, you can modify the move by doing them from your knees or placing your hands on an inclined surface until you build up enough strength and endurance to do them on your toes. Push-ups work the muscles in your chest and arms as well as your core and the stabilizer muscles in your back and trunk.
What makes push-ups a functional move? You use a push-up motion to push your body off of things, like your bed or to propel yourself off the ground. Should you fall and throw your hands out in front of you to break your fall, the functional strength push-ups give you may save you from injury.
Bent-Over Rows work the big muscles in your back, the trapezius, and the latissimus dorsi, as well as the smaller, supporting muscles, like your rhomboids and deeper muscles that support your spine. In addition, each time you row, you activate your posterior deltoids, a part of your shoulder that often gets neglected.
How functional are bent-over rows? Very. Bent-over rows mimic the movement you do when you bend over to pick something up. Plus, you’re strengthening all of the muscles in your back to help you avoid back injury when you pick up heavy items.
The Bottom Line
Doing these five compound exercises and their different variations will strengthen the muscles you use in daily life as well as increase joint mobility and stability. These exercises also improve functionality, how your muscles work together to help you do the tasks of daily living and avoid injury while doing them.
Rather than working muscles in isolation, functional exercises enhance the ability of your brain and muscles to work together. Plus, if you play sports, functional strength exercises are designed to improve your performance while helping you stay injury free.
As a bonus, compound exercises burn more calories than isolation exercises. Don’t give up isolation exercises that work a single muscle group, but focus mainly on compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups first. These are the exercises that deliver the most results for your efforts.
Boyle, M. “What is functional training? Functional Training for Sports” 2004. Human Kinetics.
ACE Sponsored Research Study. “Function Follows Fitness”
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