Functional Strength Training

Article by Kari Fry with Hannah Groves

We use our bodies every day in a myriad of ways, such as lifting and carrying, bending, sitting, and stretching. But how often do we think about those muscles and how we might better support them? This is where functional strength training can play an active role. So, we sat down with Study Active Assessor and Personal Trainer Hannah Groves to get her insight into functional strength training exercises and the benefits they can bring.

IMPORTANT: The ideas in this article are the views of the interviewee and are intended purely for information only – they are not intended as bespoke exercise advice. Please do not start an exercise programme until you have completed a PAR-Q and if necessary, received medical clearance. Always warm up and cool down and never do any exercise that you are unsure of without the support of a qualified professional.

Can you explain to us what functional training is?

Functional training is a training system that uses exercises to help you perform activities in everyday life more easily. These exercises typically use the whole body, multiple muscles and emphasise core stability. By mirroring the movements of your daily life, like reaching squatting, or even carrying a heavy object (or heavy shopping bags), building functional strength can help increase your quality of life and reduce your risk of injury.

What are the benefits of a functional workout?

Functional exercises teach your body to work as whole rather that training specific parts. Let me share a couple of examples of how functional training can help different types of people in everyday life:

  • Functional training is useful for older adults as by mimicking everyday movements, it addresses uneven muscle balance and asymmetries that more likely to lead to injury. For example, an older person might practice bodyweight squats to improve their ability to stand up from a seated position.
  • Functional exercises are particularly good for anyone sat working at a desk for prolonged hours of the day as most functional training works the muscles that help keep your posture strong. Functional training also improves mobility through the hips and shoulders, which are the typical areas of discomfort for those sat at desks.

Could you talk us through some of the best examples of functional strength or functional bodyweight exercises for different areas:

Functional Bodyweight Leg Workout

For a functional bodyweight leg workout, I would recommend the following exercises:

  • Squats
    Begin by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. Have your heels in and toes pointing out slightly. On an inhale, start to bend your knees and sit back like you are going to sit in a chair. Keep the chest lifted and the core engaged. Exhale to stand back up. See if you can keep the weight in your heels and drive through your heels when you come back up to stand.
  • Walking lunges
    Start by standing with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Inhale to take a big step out with your right foot, bend your knee towards 90°, hovering your left knee a couple of inches above the ground. Exhale to step your left foot to meet your right and stand up. This time, take a big step out with your left foot on an inhale. Bend your left knee towards 90° and hover your right knee a couple of inches above the ground. Exhale to step your right foot to meet your left.
  • Curtsy lunges

Begin standing with your feet together and hands in front of your chest. Inhale and with your right leg, take a big step back to “curtsy” behind your left leg, bending your knee towards 90°. Keep your core engaged as your hover the right knee about an inch above the ground. Press into your left foot on an exhale to stand back up to start. Next, inhale and step your left foot back to “curtsy” behind your right leg. Press into your right foot and stand back up to the starting position.

  • Squat thrusters

Start by standing in a squat position with your hands in front of your chest. Make sure to keep the weight in your heels, sticking your booty back. Lean forward on your toes and place your hands on the ground, shoulder-width distance. Lean the weight onto your hands and inhale to jump back into a high plank position. Keep your core and glutes engaged as you exhale to jump your feet back into the squat position, lifting your chest back up.

Functional Strength Leg Workout

For a functional strength leg workout, I would recommend the following exercises:

  • Kettlebell goblet squat
    Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, clasping a kettlebell in each hand in front of your chest with palms facing each other. Bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat, keeping the kettlebells in the same position and ensuring you don't round your black by tensing your glutes throughout. Drive back up and repeat.
  • Barbell deadlift
    Squat down and grasp a barbell with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look straight ahead as you lift the bar. Focus on taking the weight back onto your heels and keep the bar as close as possible to your body at all times. Lift to thigh level, pause, then return under control to the start position.
  • Barbell sumo deadlift

With your feet wider than shoulder width apart, squat down and grasp a barbell with your hands almost touching. Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look straight ahead as you lift the bar. Focus on taking the weight back onto your heels and keep the bar as close as possible to your body at all times. Lift to thigh level, pause, then return under control to the start position.

  • Dumbbell step ups

The higher the bench or box you use, the harder this move will be. Do not use a box that is too high. If you have to push off the foot on the ground or if you really lean forward to propel yourself up, the box is too high. Stand facing the box. Step your right foot up on top of the box. Drive up through the heel of the foot on the box until you are standing on the box. Drive the left knee up as you lift up onto the box. Then step back down and repeat. Keep your chest up as you drive up. Do not lean forward or let your heel on top of the box come up. Complete all reps on one side before switching.

Functional Core Workout

For a functional core workout, I would recommend the following exercises:

  • Side plank left lifts

Start by lying on your side, leaning on your right forearm, and placing your left hand on your hip. Flex your feet and stack your left foot on top of your right. Press down through the edge of your right foot and your forearm to lift your hips and torso off the ground into a side plank. Keeping your side plank, exhale and lift your left leg in the air as high as you can without sinking your hips. Inhale to slowly lower your left leg back down, keeping your side plank position, squeezing your thighs and knees together.

  • Russian Twist
    Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Lean back slightly, keep your back straight, and lift your feet off the ground. Hold a weight or medicine ball with both hands and twist your torso to the right, then to the left, tapping the weight on the floor beside your hip each time.
  • Superman
    Lie face-down on the floor with your arms extended in front of you and your legs straight. Simultaneously lift your arms, chest, and legs off the ground, engaging your lower back and glutes. Hold for a few seconds, then lower back to the starting position.
  • Bicycle crunch

Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your knees bent. Lift your head, shoulders, and feet off the ground. Bring your right elbow to your left knee while extending your right leg. Switch sides, bringing your left elbow to your right knee, and continue alternating.

Functional Upper Body Workout

For a functional upper body workout, I would recommend the following exercises:

  • Battle ropes
    Start by standing facing the secured ropes with your feet shoulder-width apart. With your palms facing inward and your arms outstretched in front of you, grasp one rope in each hand. Start off by raising and lowering both ropes simultaneously to form a wave-like action.
  • Slam ball slams

Start with holding the slam ball in both hands at chest height while standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lift the slam ball up and away from your body by engaging your core and raising your arms above. When you’ve reached the peak of the movement, smack the ball forcefully against the surface in front of you. When the ball rebounds, grab it and bring it back up to your chest.

  • TRX row

Walk your feet forward until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the ground, at which point you should grab the TRX handles with an overhand hold. Pull your body toward the TRX handles, pushing your chest nearer your hands while maintaining a squeezed core and a straight back. Repeat the movement.

  • Push ups
    To do a push-up you are going to get on the floor on all fours, positioning your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Don't lock out the elbows; keep them slightly bent. Extend your legs back so you are balanced on your hands and toes, your feet hip-width apart. Once in this position, here is how you will do a push-up: Contract your abs and tighten your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor, until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Exhale while contracting your chest muscles and pushing back up through your hands, returning to the start position. 

What might functional circuit training look like for a full body functional workout?

A functional circuit training is a workout that combines several functional exercises, completed in a specific order. An example would be 6 exercises repeated one after another for 45 seconds on each exercise, then rest for 2 minutes and repeat for 2 more sets. This would be a good example of a functional circuit workout:

Station 1: squats - 45 seconds
Station 2: walking lunges – 45 seconds
Station 3: deadlifts – 45 seconds
Station 4: slam ball slams – 45 seconds
Station 5: push ups – 45 seconds
Station 6: Russian twists – 45 seconds

You could also perform 12 reps on each exercise rather than 45 seconds. The same process of completing one exercise after another until the circuit is complete, rest for 2 minutes and repeat for 2 more sets.

What about functional weight training? How might someone incorporate this into a functional strength workout?

Most functional exercises can be adapted to use free weights. For example, a squat can be adapted to be a barbell squat and dumbbells can be used for walking lunges.

Finally, what would you recommend to a beginner looking to follow a functional strength training program?

If you have medical clearance to exercise, then anyone can participate in functional strength training. For a beginner I would suggest keeping the %1RM and sets low. For example, 67%1RM for 12 reps and 2 sets. Completing some dynamic stretches (squat into an overhead reach, arm circles and lunge into rotation) and static cool down stretches (shoulder, glute, and quad stretch) will ensure a safe warm up and cool down to prevent injury. A good example of a functional strength session would be:

1. Barbell squats 67%1RM, 12x2, 1 minute rest after each set
2. Kettlebell goblet squats 67%1RM 12x2, 1 minute rest after each set
3. TRX row 12x2, 1 minute rest after each set
4. Press ups 12x2 1 minute rest after each set
5. Bicycle crunch 12x2 1 minute rest after each set

Conclusion - Functional Strength Training 

Thank you, Hannah for taking the time to talk to us in such detail about functional strength training. This deep dive has given us a fantastic insight into the benefits of functional strength in everyday life and it has the added bonus of being suitable for almost anyone. With such a vast range of exercises to choose from to help your body work as a whole, it is a system that can not only improve fitness but help improve your quality of life.


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