Functional training: 6 essential exercises that will improve your life

Are you functionally fit? Maybe you spend hours each week on a stationary bicycle, but can you stand up from a sitting position without assistance? Functional fitness focuses on strengthening and stabilizing the muscle groups you use to perform daily activities.

Your body has five fundamental movement patterns: pushing, pulling, bending, single-leg functions and rotating. Chances are, you don’t even realize how frequently you complete these movements until you hurt yourself while doing a simple task like picking an object up off the floor.

Not only does functional training help your body execute simple repetitive movements more efficiently, but it can also dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Fortify your figure with the following functional exercises:

The Movement: Pushing + Pulling. Activities like opening a door or pushing your child on a swing require strong opposing muscle groups to get the job done.

Toning Task (pushing): Push-ups.

  1. Begin in a plank position with your body forming a straight line from head to heels.
  2. Position your shoulders above your wrists and keep your core muscles tight as you slowly lower your body until it is hovering a few inches above the floor.
  3. Push through your hands to return to the starting position. Aim for 10-15 repetitions to start.

Toning Task (pulling): Single-Arm Row

  1. Start by positioning a light weight or kettlebell on a bench in front of your body.
  2. Hinge back at the hips to lower your body into a shallow squat. Keep your back flat with your body weight in your heels for the duration of this move.
  3. Grab the weight with your right hand. Plant your left hand firmly on the bench and pull the weight up toward your ribs. Squeeze your shoulder blade for 2-3 breaths.
  4. Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position and repeat 10-12 times on each side.

The Movement: Bending. Whether you are standing up from a chair or bending down to pick up clothes off the floor, squatting is very much a part of your daily life. Unfortunately, many people do not practice proper form when doing these activities which results in lower back pains and strains.

Toning Task: Chair Squats

  1. Using a sturdy chair, position your feet hip-width apart and sit down with both feet firmly planted on the floor.
  2. Recruit your core and posterior muscles by pushing through your heels to a standing position. Hold for 2-3 breaths, then slowly lower your body back to the seat.
  3. Avoid using your arms for momentum, this is strictly a lower body exercise. Repeat 20-25 times.

The Movement: Single-Leg Functions. Improving your balance is key in preventing fall-related injuries. Unilateral exercises help bolster the muscles responsible for stability.

Toning Task (beginner): Single-Leg Stands

  1. Stand next to a sturdy surface like a wall or chair for support.
  2. Carefully elevate your right leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Hold for 25-30 seconds, then lower your leg and switch sides. Complete five sets in total. Don’t worry if your ankle feels wobbly — this is a normal reaction for those lacking ankle stability, which will improve with practice.

Toning Task (advanced): Reverse Lunges

  1. Begin by standing tall with a straight spine and relaxed shoulders.
  2. Take a large step back with your right foot so your left knee is aligned over your left ankle and the joint is bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Keep all of your body weight in the front left heel and push through it to return to the starting stance. Repeat 10-12 times, then switch sides.

The Movement: Rotation. Core muscles must be strong in order to support and stabilize the spine and pelvis during physical activity. Exercises like the one below isolate the abdominal and oblique muscles.

Toning Task (intermediate/advanced level): Windshield Wipers

  1. Start in a supine position with your knees bent and your back firmly pressed against the floor.
  2. Press the palms of your hands into the floor for support and elevate your legs so your knees are above your hips.
  3. Keep your thighs and knees together as you slowly rotate your legs toward the floor. Do not let them make contact with the ground.
  4. Use your core muscles to pull your legs back to the starting position and repeat the same movement on the opposite side. Continue this back and forth rotation for 20 repetitions in total.

Functional exercises prevent dysfunctional muscles.

Ashley B. Greenblatt is a certified personal trainer and wellness coach. To learn more, visit ashleyblakefitness.com.