Updated: Mar 1, 2022
What is functional fitness?
Functional fitness consists of a mix of strength, power, muscular endurance, and cardio. The person who possesses functional fitness will routinely participate in a wide range of training modalities.
Another characteristic of functional fitness is the ability to transition through different training methods with relative ease. For example, a functionally fit induvial would have no problem completing this barbell complex after a gruelling set of hill sprints.
Why is functional fitness important?
Functional fitness is important for a whole host of reasons. However, instead of boring you with a long list, I’ll briefly outline two main reasons why functional fitness is important.
Firstly, because functional training incorporates a wide range of exercise methodologies, it develops strength, muscle endurance, and cardiovascular fitness. Consequently, by pursuing functional fitness, you will become a more well-rounded trainer.
Secondly, the physical functionality that this training approach promotes is more reflective of day-to-day tasks. As I’ve argued elsewhere, rare is it that we are required to execute a strict triceps extension, or slow lateral raise capped with a two-second ‘peak contraction’ squeeze.
Typically, daily tasks such as DIY, gardening, and household chores involve the whole body. Functional fitness training, which includes performing dynamic exercises like the kettlebell thruster and powerbag deadlift, is representative of the physical requirements of everyday life.
The benefits of functional fitness training
Improves whole-body fitness
Avoid fitness imbalances
Can make everyday tasks easier
Enhances muscular definition
Develops the main components of fitness
How to train for functional fitness
Training for functional fitness is easier than you might think. In fact, if you exercise regularly, chances are you already participate in some form of functional fitness.
To modify a pre-existing exercise regime to one that includes functional elements, often only requires a few minor changes. For example, if you currently train in a conventional manner – static weightlifting for sets and reps – by making a couple of alterations to your workout you could be on the fast track to functional fitness.
One simple way of training functionally is to make a circuit out of your static workout.
Circuit training is one of the most effective exercise methodologies for improving functional fitness. As we’ve previously discussed, to develop functional fitness you must train the main components of fitness equally. This is difficult to do if you primarily focus on one exercise method: resistance or cardio.
Because circuit training combines multiple exercise methods, it naturally promotes functional fitness. In a single circuit you could include strength, muscular endurance, and cardio exercises. Thus, in one workout, you could cover the entire training spectrum.
Related: Create your own circuit with our Complete Guide to Circuit Training
Other ways to improve functional fitness is to start CrossFit. By adopting the training principles of CrossFit, which includes regularly participating in every style of training and frequently exercising at high intensities, you will be well on your way to forging functional fitness.
CrossFit is the ultimate in functional training
Following on from above, CrossFit is one of the purest forms of functional fitness training. CrossFit athletes are the quintessential Jack of all fitness trainers.
It’s not enough for a CrossFitter to specialise in any one fitness component. The consummate CrossFit athlete must develop all aspects of their fitness and in relatively equal measures.
CrossFit training includes all components of fitness
Throughout the CrossFit games, competitors could be required to complete maximal Olympic lifts, row a marathon, conquer a calisthenics complex, and even tackle strongman-style events.
To stand any chance of surviving, let alone amassing enough points to get within a muscle-up of the podium, CrossFit athletes must forge complete functional fitness.
Related: Try these 21 CrossFit WODs
Functional fitness training plan
If you would like to develop functional fitness the following plan can help. The plan has been designed to provide you with an insight into how you could structure a training routine that promotes functional fitness.
You can either implement the plan as it is or tailor it to suit your exercise preferences and current training commitment.
You’ll notice that the plan has been organised into three levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced. This has been done to make it more accessible to a wider audience.
How to use the functional fitness plan
Select the level most appropriate to your current level of fitness.
Structure the workouts across your training week.
Ensure to complete a progressive 10-minute warm-up prior to every workout.
Conclude each workout with a cool-down and stretch.
4 functional fitness exercises
The lift (aka deadlift) is a terrific foundation functional strength builder. Powerbag deadlifting develops strength in the major muscle groups: the quadriceps, glutes, lower and upper back.
Related: 5 Best Powerbags
In addition, the powerbag deadlift offers multiple extensions. For example, from the deadlift you could extend the exercise by including a clean, or clean into squat, or full clean and press.
Powerbag deadlifting teaching point
Stand in front of the powerbag, your toes touching the body of the bag.
Bending at the knees, grasp the handles.
Eyes fixed fromward stand up out of the position, ensuring to drive through with the hips.
At the top position, either drop the bag or lower back to the start under control.
Watch the video demonstration of the powerbag deadlift.
If you want to focus more of the lift on the lower back, consider the stiff leg variation of the powerbag deadlift. The teaching points are almost the same as above, the only difference being is you lockout at the knee joint and hinge at the hip only.
Remember, when performing the stiff leg powerbag deadlift to focus on maintaining perfect form. Also, it is good practice to start with a light weight when performing an exercise for the first time.
Dos and don’ts of powerbag deadlifts
Do maintain control over the exercise at all times.
Don’t round the back at any point during the movement.
Do keep your eyes fixed forward – this improves posture.
Don’t lean back at the top position.
The kettlebell thruster is an awesome functional whole-body fitness builder. When executing this exercise more or less every muscle in the body is engaged.
In addition, if you AMRAP the kettlebell thruster, even for just a couple of minutes, your heart rate will shoot through the roof. This exercise is like an all-in-one fitness conditioner: strength, muscle endurance, and cardio.
Kettlebell thruster teaching points
Standing over the kettlebell, take a reverse grip of the handle. In one clean movement swing upturn the kettlebell and hold it in front of your chest. In this position, the base of the kettlebell should be facing the ceiling.
Keep your back straight squat until your knees are at a 90ᵒ angle.
Power out of the squat ensuring, as you do so, to push the kettlebell high above your head.
From the outstretched position lower the kettlebell back to your chest while simultaneously sinking into the next squat.
Dos and don’ts of kettlebell thruster
Do keep the kettlebell close to your chest when squatting.
Don’t round your back or hold your breath.
Do perform one smooth movement.
Don’t bounce out of the squat.
Dumbbell farmer’s walk
The farmer’s walk is a quintessential functional fitness exercise. It possesses all the qualities that functional movements should include. They are:
Engages one or more major muscle group
Requires the coordination of multiple body parts
Transitions through multiple planes of movement
Is representative of everyday activities
Dumbbell farmer’s walk teaching points
Before performing the farmer’s walk, you first need to mark out a runway. Unlike conventional exercises, when farmer’s walking volume isn’t calculated in the number of reps you perform, but by the distance travelled. You could say that 1-metre equates to 1 rep. So, to be able to measure performance, space two cones or objects a set distance apart – 5, 10, 15, or 20-metres. Walking 5-metres would be the equivalent of strength training, while 20-metres is more muscular endurance. Select weights accordingly.
Standing with two dumbbells on either side of your feet, bend down and pick them up.
With the dumbbells positioned at your hips, arms straight, start walking.
Once you’ve covered the set distance, place the dumbbells down ensuring to observe the correct squatting technique.
Dos and don’ts of the farmer’s walk
Do keep the arms straight when walking; bending at the elbows wastes energy and quickly tires the arms and shoulders.
Don’t run! If you feel like you can no longer keep a grip of the dumbbells, stop and place them down. When the burn in the forearms has subsided, pick up the dumbbells and start walking again. This is part of the exercise and helps to develop fitness and mental resolve.
Do maintain a slow, controlled walking pace.
Don’t try and rest the dumbbells on your upper thigh throughout the walk. This is a cheat that is employed to compensate for weak grip strength.
The kettlebell swing is the king of functional exercises. As well as activating all the muscles of the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, trapizus), the kettlebell swing is easy to master making it a perfect beginner’s exercise.
Related: Need a kettlebell? Check out these best competition bells.
Another attribute of the kettlebell swing is its multiple extension options. For example, if you want to increase the intensity of the foundational movement (explained below), you can either swing the kettlebell above your head or swing with a single arm. For more kettlebell swing variations and fitness benefits, see our article: Kettlebell Swing | The Perfect Exercise.
Kettlebell swing teaching points
Standing directly over the kettlebell – and not a foot behind it – execute a flawless squat as you pick it up.
Now you should be holding the kettlebell between your legs, palms facing inwards, feet a little over shoulder-width apart.
Keeping the back straight pull the bell back between your legs and, using your posterior chain muscles, propel the kettlebell forward until it’s level with your shoulders.
Ensuring to keep your core engaged throughout the movement, allow the kettlebell to return to the start position and repeat.
Watch the video demonstration of the kettlebell swing.
Dos and don’ts of the kettlebell swing
Do keep the arms straight when swinging.
Don’t hinge excessively at the hips as the bell passes between your legs.
Do keep the eyes fixed forward throughout the movement.
Don’t try and swing with the shoulders: the bell is propelled forward from the hips using glute, lower back and core strength. The shoulders only guide and control the trajectory of the bell.
When you've perfected your swinging technique, pit yourself against the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge.