Every one of us can benefit from functional strength training. Simply put— functional training is training that helps your body move better.
What is Functional Training?
Functional training can be helpful for sports, injury rehabilitation and building bone density. But most of all, it’s any exercise that helps mimic movements we use in our day to day lives.
Functional training abandons the idea that we should train specific muscles independently, and instead focuses on helping our bodies move in ways we require them to move.
Although hypertrophy (muscle building) and cardio plans are also powerful for achieving certain aesthetic and fitness goals, functional training helps us to be more equipped to move well in our day to day lives.
What Makes an Exercise Functional?
There is no magical formula that helps decide which exercises are functional. However, functional movements will very often mimic movements we see in our daily lives such as picking up a heavy object, pushing objects, pulling, jumping, carrying heavy things etc.
Another very critical component to functional training is that every exercise should not just target one specific muscle or group. Instead, functional exercises will require supporting muscles and stabilizers to kick in and assist the prime mover in completing the exercise.
Why is Functional Training so Effective?
Functional training is so effective because it forces our bodies to work in harmony. Some strength training regimens focus on growing and isolating certain muscle groups, while neglecting the important supporting muscles and stabilizers that are supposed to help.
Often, when these supporting muscles and stabilizers are neglected, injury is more likely to occur.
Imagine a crane that needs to lift a heavy piano to the top floor of a building— this will require a very strong crane, but if your rope is not strong enough as well, your crane is essentially useless in completing the task.
Functional training creates balance in the body. When one muscle contracts, another extends. When one tendon lengthens, another one shortens. Building strength in a way that our bodies are designed to move ensures that there is no overcompensation of certain muscles.
Best Functional Training Exercises
Here are 30 of the best functional training exercises you can add to your fitness program to ensure you remain injury and imbalance free.
Knee Dominant Exercises
Woman performing a barbell back squat.
The squat is a classic strength training move and is a compound exercise. Compound exercises are movements that require many major muscle groups to work together to complete the movement.
There are infinite variations of the classic squat such as front squats, back squats, zercher squats, split squats, goblet squats, landmine squats etc.
It is imperative that proper squatting form is learned because this movement is so integrated into so many everyday activities. If you have ever lifted a box from the ground— you have squatted.
Here is exactly how to perform the perfect body weight squat:
- Start with your feet shoulder width apart. Your feet can either face straight out or turn a few degrees outward. For most, turning your feet out about 15 degrees feels the most comfortable and natural.
- Sit back like you’re sitting in a chair. Your core should stay engaged and there should be no rounding of the back at any point.
- Drop down to at least parallel to the floor. Knees should make at least a 90 degree angle.
- To complete the exercise, push your weight through your heels to drive your body back up to the standing position.
The squat may look simple, but there are a ton of moving parts and movement issues that can prevent the movement from being completed well. Flexibility training is a great way to help your workouts overall, but some specific things you can do to improve your squat are:
Issue #1– Heels Lift From Floor
It is common for those with poor ankle mobility to have their heels lift from the floor as their body drops down into the bottom of the movement. Those that have this problem should regularly practice ankle mobility.
One very helpful trick is to place an object (such as a small weight plate) under your heels. This will ensure you can perform a squat with proper depth.
Issue #2- Knees Drop Inward
Another very common issue some people see is their knees pushing inward instead of staying over the toes. There are a couple ways to correct this problem.
Typically this issue is caused by an underactive gluteus medius, For a long term correction of the issue- an emphasis should be placed on lengthening the IT band and strengthening the gluteus medius. The gluteus medius is in charge of the internal and external rotation of the knee.
One easy temporary fix is to increase the angle your feet are facing outward. Also, place a fitness band on the top of your knees to ensure the gluteus medius engages.
Woman performing a static lunge
There are many different kinds of lunges, but we are going to talk about body weight front lunges. The steps to completing a proper lunge are:
- Start standing straight with your core engaged. Take a step forward and drop your body down until both legs make a 90 degree angle.
- Drive your weight through your front heel to push your body back up.
- Bring your back foot forward to the front foot and repeat with the other side.
Throughout the movement, keep your eyes facing forward to prevent the rounding of the upper back. Watch yourself perform the movement in front of a mirror and check that your knee stays out over your toes.
Body weight lunges require great balance and strength. If a body weight lunge is too difficult to perform, practice while holding a rail or wall. If you can not complete the exercise because you don’t have the strength to push your body back up, consider holding onto rings or TRX bands to help pull your body back up.
To make this exercise more difficult, consider carrying a barbell on your back, holding a kettlebell goblet style, or even carrying a sandbag.
3. Box Step-up
Two woman in gym standing on boxes.
Box Steps are a very similar movement as a lunge except, instead of dropping your knee down, you are lifting your body up.
To perform a proper box step up:
- Find a box that is no taller than your knee. The shorter the box, the easier this exercise will be to perform.
- Place one foot on the box and drive your weight into that heel to push your body up.
- Draw your opposite knee up to a 90 degree angle and balance for one beat before returning that foot back down to the floor.
- You can either alternate feet or complete all repetitions before changing sides.
4. Lateral Lunge
Man performing a lateral lunge
Lateral lunges are a fantastic body weight exercise for developing quads, adductors, abductors, hamstrings and glutes.
To perform a proper lateral lunge:
- Start with your feet together and take a big step to the side with one foot.
- Keep your stationary leg straight and drop your weight back.
- The leg that moved should bend at the knee as you drop your hips back like you’re sitting in a chair.
- Drive your weight though the heel of your front foot to push your body back up, and return back to standing position.
- Repeat on the other side.
5. Jump Squat
Jump Squats take all the benefits of a regular squat and add plyometric explosive power. Jump squats are highly effective in increasing our cardiovascular capabilities while also increasing strength and balance.
Before ever performing a jump squat, be sure your regular squat form is dialed in to prevent injury. Also, if jumping high is difficult, you can practice increasing your vertical jump. The steps to performing a jump squat are:
- Start in proper squatting form— core engaged, hips loose, feet slightly pointed out. Drop down into a squat.
- From the bottom of the movement, explode up toward the ceiling as you jump up in the air.
- To land back on the ground be sure your knees immediately start bending and keep your landing soft. This exercise should be very quiet.
6. Bulgarian Split Squat
Woman performing a bulgarian split squat in the gym.
The Bulgarian Split Squat is very similar to the lunge in form. The biggest difference is that your back foot will be elevated behind you.
- Find a box that allows you to place your foot comfortable up off the floor. This box should be no higher than your knee.
- Elevate your foot behind you and drop your front knee down toward the floor to create a 90 degree angle with your front foot.
- Just like the lunge— imagine your power being pushed through the floor with your heel to push your body back up.
Hip Dominant Exercises
Woman stretching their hips in a yoga class.
7. Banded Hip Hinge
The banded hip hinge is the perfect exercise to introduce hip dominant exercises. It is very common for hip hinges to feel unnatural for beginners, so getting comfortable with this movement will help across the board to better your deadlifts, hip thrusts, and even barbell cleans.
To perform a proper banded hip hinge:
- Find a long thick band and wrap it around a stable pole.
- Step inside the band and sit on your heels with the band comfortably pressed against your hip flexors.
- Push your hips forward as you lift your body up from your heels.
- Your glutes should fully activate at the top of the exercise, and your core should stay engaged as you return back to the floor. The band should provide constant resistance and should not whip you around. It is critical that this movement is controlled and your core stays engaged
8. Barbell Deadlift
Man Deadlifting at a gym.
There are many variations of a deadlift, and it is the basis of most hip dominant exercises. It is important proper form is established to ensure you do not injure yourself.
To perform a proper barbell deadlift:
- Start with your hips drawn back, chest wide, shoulders back and your chin up. It is important that there is a straight line drawn from the top of your head to the hinge of your hips. To check that your form is correct— place a PVC pipe or broom stick along your back. There should be 3 points of contact- your head, upper back and hips.
- Grab your barbell with both palms facing you. Your hands should be touching the outside of your legs.
- To pull the barbell off the floor, focus on pushing your hips forward. This will ensure you are not lifting with your back. The barbell should stay in contact with your body the entire movement.
- To return the barbell back to the floor, be sure your core stays engaged and your hips are moving back. This should be a controlled movement from start to finish, and the barbell should return gently back to the floor.
9. Barbell Hip Thrusts
A black barbell on a gym floor.
The hip thrust is the most effective exercise for developing strong glutes and hip flexors. To perform the perfect barbell hip thrust:
- Find a box or bench that allows your knees to create a 90 degree angle at the top of the exercise. Also, find either a thick mat or barbell cover to place between yourself and the metal bar.
- Start with your shoulders up on the bench or box and draw the barbell overtop of your hips. Your feet should be pressed firmly on the floor.
- To press your hips toward the sky, think about driving your energy from your heels. If it feels difficult, pretend you are lifting your toes toward the ceiling.
- Your hips should lift up to slightly above the level of your knees to ensure your glutes are fully activated.
- As you return back down to the floor, think about bringing your hips back toward the bench or box. Like your “shutting the door” behind you.
10. Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift is a fantastic balance exercise and amazing for strengthening the posterior chain, just like the regular deadlift. This isometric exercise can be performed as a body weight exercise, however it can be difficult to stay balanced without a counter weight.
- Grab either a dumbbell or kettlebell and place it in the hand opposite to the moving leg. Start with a slight bend in your knees.
- As your hips hinge, one leg will counter balance out behind you as the other leg remains slightly bent and grounded on the floor. Your chest should remain wide open as it lowers toward the floor.
- Return back to standing and repeat.
11. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a fantastic power movement that engages your lower body and core. Just like the deadlift, this move is driven by the hinge of your hips.
- This move starts in proper deadlift form. Always ensure your deadlifting form is perfected before performing the kettlebell swing. Both hands should be placed on the kettlebell and your hips should be drawn back.
- The kettlebell should swing back between your legs before your hips push forward binging you to a standing position. Your arms should not be involved in moving the kettlebell toward the ceiling. It is imperative that the swinging motion is driven from the hips.
- Let gravity move your body back down after the apex of the movement. Always ensure your core is engaged throughout the entirety of the movement. Repeat.
The kettlebell swing is a very complex movement and can take even some of the most advanced athletes careful practice to perform properly. There are some helpful cues and tricks to consider if this movement is not feeling very intuitive.
One of the most helpful ways of teaching the kettlebell swing is to place a large, light band around the handle of the kettlebell and step inside the band. The resistance of the band will ensure you’re using the proper amount of power to effectively perform the exercise.
12. Barbell Cleans
Barbell power cleans are another power driven hip-hinge exercise. Again, it is imperative that anyone performing a barbell clean can properly deadlift first. To properly perform a standard barbell clean:
- Start in proper deadlifting form. Hands should be facing your body, core should be engaged and hips should be pushed back.
- Power should be driven through your heels as you draw the barbell along the front of your legs. It is important that the barbell stays tight to your body. Even the slightest bit of space can exponentially throw off the movement.
- There should be a moment of “weightlessness” that occurs at the top of the explosive movement. This will allow you a split-second to snap your body under the bar in a front squat position. Ensure your elbows land in front of your body, and the barbell should be touching your clavicle.
- After catching the barbell in a front squat position, reverse the barbell down to the floor. Once again, be sure the barbell is staying in constant contact with your body.
The barbell clean should only be performed after plenty of research and practice and preferably under the supervision of a trained professional at first. Although it is incredibly powerful, it can also be dangerous if not done properly.
Upper Body Push Exercises
Man doing pushups in a gym with a trainer.
One of the most iconic upper body exercises is the pushup. If you want to see where you stack up with your pushup strength, check out our pushup test calculator. There are several different variations of the push up such as military style, triangle, pike pushups, staggered hand push ups, etc.
There are also many different progressions and regressions of the pushup. This makes it accessible for all bodies of any size and capability.
If standard floor push ups are too difficult, the pushup can be modified by elevating your hand onto a box. The taller the box, the easier the push up will become. If box push ups are still difficult, they can be performed standing leaning into a wall.
Pushups can be made more difficult by elevating your feet up off the ground or even adding a weight to your back. Another way to increase the difficulty of the exercise is to add instability. This can be done by placing your feet or hands on a bosu ball or TRX band.
14. Sled Push
Sled pushes are powerful explosive movements that engage the whole body. They are commonly used for football training, but make a great addition to any functional program.They are most commonly performed on a prowler sled, however can also be performed by sliding weights or heavy boxes along the floor.
15. Chest Press
Bench press exercise.
There are plenty of ways to perform a chest press. The most common way of performing a chest press is by laying on a bench and pressing a barbell toward the sky.
Chest presses can also be performed laying on the floor in supine position and can be performed with dumbbells and kettlebells as well.
Another great variation of the chest press is to make it an iso-lateral movement. Isolateral is another word for single arm (or leg, depending on the exercise.)
Performing an iso-lateral chest press is a great way of balancing your strength out if you tend to push harder with your dominant arm.
16. Tricep Dips
Tricep dips are commonly performed on a specific tricep dip structure. This will require the ability to lift one’s body weight- which is not possible for everyone.
An easier way to perform tricep dips is by using a smaller box and placing your feet out in front of you. The taller the box, the harder the exercise will be, Also the farther out your legs are extended, the more difficult it will be as well.
If regular tricep dips are too easy, you can consider progressing the exercise by adding weight to a weight belt or slowing the movement down.
17. Overhead Press
Woman performing an overhead press in a gym.
There are many ways of performing an overhead press, and many different variations as well. A standard overhead press can be difficult to perform for those who suffer from shoulder injuries or instability.
Some overhead press variations to try are:
- Barbell overhead presses
- Kettlebell presses (also known as L- Presses)
- Arnold Presses
- Alternating overhead presses
If you do suffer from shoulder pain, exercises like the kettlebell press and Arnold press will help keep your shoulders more stable as you push up. The closer your elbows are, the more stable your shoulders will stay.
18. Wall Pushaways
Wall pushaways are a power driven exercise and are great for adding explositity to your workout.
Start by placing your hand on a wall and trying to push the wall way from you. The act of trying to push the wall away from you will move your body away from the wall.
These wall pushaways should be performed with your hands at chest level and in quick powerful movements.
Upper Body Pull
19. Pullups / Chinups
Pullups and chinups look very similar from the outside, however work entirely different muscle groups. Both variations are commonly performed on a straight pull up bar and with body weight, however can be easily progressed and regressed for any skill level.
The easiest regression of a pullup and chin up is to add a band under your feet that wraps around the bar. The resistance of the band will assist in removing the pressure from your body’s weight. The thicker and stronger the band, the easier the exercise will become.
To progress this exercise you can add weight or slow the movement down. One popular way of progressing a typical pull up or chin up is to count the number of beats you are pulling up, holding, or lowering yourself back down.
20. Renegade Row
A woman performing a renegade row in a gym.
Renegade rows are performed in pushup position and most commonly with dumbbells. To properly perform a renegade row:
- Grab two dumbbells and grip them in a pushup position. Keep in mind- dumbbells that are circles will be much more difficult to work with than dumbbells that are hexagons. It is recommended that you start with hexagon shaped dumbbells if they are available.
- Once in the pushup position, widen the stance of your feet. You will need them to be wider than a typical pushup to keep a stable triangle shape in your body.
- Draw one elbow up toward the ceiling as you contract your back muscles and “row” the dumbbell. Control your movement as you return the dumbbell to the floor.
- You can either perform all repetitions on one side before switching or alternate between every rep.
Renegade rows are commonly performed with pushups in between. To do this, the pattern should be left row, right row, push up.
21. 3-point row
Woman performing a three point row.
A 3-point row is another variation of a back exercise that requires core strength and primarily works your upper body.
This exercise is called a 3-point row because your body will always have three points of contact as you perform it.
- Find a box that is between hip and knee height and place one hand firmly on the box.
- In your opposite hand, grab either a dumbbell or kettlebell and draw your elbow tightly toward the ceiling as your lats contract.
- Draw your weights back to the floor while remaining in control and repeat before switching sides.
22. Kettlebell Deadlift High Pull
To properly perform a kettlebell deadlift to high pull— first ensure you are comfortable performing a proper deadlift. Your weight selection should be much lighter than your standard deadlift weight. To perform a Deadlift to high-pull:
- Perform a standard kettlebell deadlift.
- At the top of the exercise draw elbows out to your side and bring the kettlebell up to your chin. Your shoulders should stay rolled back and your core should remain engaged.
- Just like a regular deadlift, always remember to keep your kettlebell tight to your body. This is true for the high-pull portion of the exercise too.
- Slowly return the kettlebell back down and finish your deadlift. Repeat
23. Banded Tricep Pull Downs
Man doing cable tricep pulldowns.
Banded Tricep pull downs are powerful for engaging your core while you work your upper body. One benefit of performing them with a band instead of a traditional cable machine is that the resistance gets stronger as you move toward the bottom of the exercise.
Another benefit is that the band will provide resistance as you return back to your starting position. This will require constant control of your movement.
24. Inverted Row
Inverted rows require your body moving instead of a weight moving. They are great for improving grip strength.
You will need to find a squat rack and place the barbell much lower to the ground than a squat. Keep in mind that the lower to the ground you place your barbell, the more difficult the exercise will be to perform. Similarly, keeping your legs straight out in front of you will be much more difficult than having your knees bent.
To perform a proper inverted row:
- Have your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and keep your elbows tucked into your sides. Your palms should face toward you.
- Pull your chest toward the bar while keeping your core tight. Your chin should not press forward, and should remain in alignment with your neck and back. Focus on squeezing your lats to perform the movement instead of solely engaging your biceps.
- Lower your body back toward the ground and repeat
Working out your core is an essential part of any workout regime.
25. Farmers Walk
The farmers walk is a fairly straightforward exercise to perform. Essentially you’re walking in a straight line carrying heavy weights in each hand. The purpose of this walk is to remain completely in control without letting the weights swing your body around.
You can either choose to use dumbbells or kettlebells. To perform a farmers walk you will:
- Start with either weight down beside your feet on either side.
- Squat down (with correct squatting form) and lift the weights so that they are by you side completely standing.
- The weights should not rest at your sides— instead, aim to keep them about 1 inch out from your sides.
- Walk in a straight line, avoiding letting your feet cross as you move.
If you’re tired of sit ups, try deadbugs instead. Deadbugs are performed laying on your back and are a great core workout.
- Start laying on your back with both arms up and legs extended up (holding a kettlebell if you’d prefer to add weight).
- Lower both arms and one leg so they almost touch the ground.
- Return arms and your leg back up, and repeat with the other leg. This is one repetition.
Anti-rotations are performed with a rubber resistance band. The purpose of the exercise is to utilize your core muscles to prevent the band from rotating you. To do this:
- Tie a band at chest level to a stable structure such as a pole or bar.
- Grab the band in both hands and draw it into you chest. Take several steps away until you feel resistance.
- Extend your hands away from your body. You should feel your core engage as the band tries to rotate you. Resist by keeping your core tight.
- Return hands back into chest and repeat for your desired number of repetitions. Switch sides.
28. Bear Crawl
Bear crawls are a very controlled movement while crawling on all four limbs. The important thing to remember about bear crawls is that they are not a race. This movement is much more about precision of movement. To perform a proper bear crawl:
- Start with both arms shoulder width apart with your shoulders relaxed. Try to pull your shoulders away from your ears. Your knees should remain directly below your hips and should rest 1 inch off the ground.
- Start by moving one arm forward at the same time as your opposite foot.
- Alternate sides as you crawl to a certain destination across the floor. Always be sure that your left arm is moving with your right foot, and vice versa.
To increase the difficulty consider dragging a weight below you, or tying a weight belt around your waist.
29. Turkish Get-up
Man performing a Turkish Get up
Turkish Get-ups are perhaps the most complex movement on this list. There are 7 steps to performing this move properly, and again, precision is the most important part of completing this move. To perform a Turkish Get up:
1 Start with your back on the floor and one arm directly above your shoulder and extend toward the ceiling. Your same side leg should be bent with your foot firmly planted on the floor. You can choose to hold a kettlebell, or perform the movement as body weight only. Be sure to watch your upper hand (or hand holding the weight) the entirety of the movement.
- Next, draw yourself up onto the elbow of your supporting arm. From your elbow, you’ll want to lift even higher, so you’re holding yourself up on your wrist.
- Next you’ll want to bring your hips up toward the ceiling into a bridge position. Keep as much distance as possible between your body and the floor.
- Draw your extended leg backwards between your hand and opposite leg.
- Swipe your back foot around so you’re in a kneeling position.
- Push up straight to a standing position.
- Reverse with the same form as before.
Woman doing a high plank on a yoga mat.
A plank is a fantastic full body core centered static exercise. Perfect if you want to get rid of some extra muffin top. There are many variations of the plank, but we are going to focus on the most standard version.
- Start with your hands and elbows below your shoulders. Your hands should be flat on the floor as you try to pull the floor gently toward you.
- Your body should be extended out behind you as your core muscles engage.
- Focus on drawing your shoulders away from your ears, and pulling the floor toward your body. This will keep you in correct alignment
- Hold as long as you can.
If a regular plank on the floor is too difficult, place your arms up on a higher surface such as a box or bench. If it is too easy, consider adding a weight or placing your feet on a taller surface.
Jacky has a degree in Sports Science and is a Certified Sports and Conditioning Coach. He has also worked with clients around the world as a personal trainer.
He has been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of people from very different ends of the fitness spectrum. Through promoting positive health changes with diet and exercise, he has helped patients recover from aging-related and other otherwise debilitating diseases.
He spends most of his time these days writing fitness-related content of some form or another. He still likes to work with people on a one-to-one basis – he just doesn’t get up at 5am to see clients anymore.