How Functional Fitness Can Make You Stronger in Everyday Life

Use these five simple moves to prevent injury and boost confidence

Female exercise class doing lunges

When you’re working toward an exercise goal, like endurance or flexibility, you know to gravitate toward certain workouts, like running or yoga. But what if those goals are a bit less athletic, like not having to pause for a breath after walking up the stairs, or not getting winded carrying heavy grocery bags?

That’s where functional fitness (also known as functional training or functional strength training) comes into play. “It’s strength and movement training that makes you safer and [more] effective in activities of daily living,” says Adam Fawcett, owner/operator of Vibrant Fitness. In other words, functional fitness uses exercises (like, say, a squat) to help you be able to squat to pick things up off the floor or lift heavy boxes with relative ease and without injury. 

The benefits of functional fitness are countless, says Fawcett. They include a reduced chance for injury, increased muscle mass, a boost in mood and energy (Fawcett’s favorite), better posture, and more confidence.

“Functional fitness is really good for everybody,” says Fawcett, but adds that it’s particularly helpful for people 50 and older. He notes that, while you start to lose muscle mass in your 40s, it really starts to show in your 50s—and then by the time you get to your 60s and 70s, you’ve lost a lot of muscle mass.

What this means: Functional fitness has the potential to slow the aging process.

Fawcett explains that these types of exercises help us feel younger, and things that typically signify that we’re getting older—like lessened or worse strength, muscle mass, cardiovascular capacity, and cognitive function—can actually slow down or even be reversed.

Good news: It’s never too late to start reaping the benefits of a functional fitness workout routine. “Your 50s is your best decade to begin,” Fawcett says.

Here, he outlines five functional fitness movements designed to boost your strength, confidence, and agility in everyday life:

1. Squat

Exercises to perform: regular/bodyweight squats, kettlebell goblet squats.

Modification: hold on to the kitchen sink (or counter) as you go into the squat.

Useful for: getting things out of low cabinets, reaching for food on low refrigerator shelves.

Muscles activated: legs, hips, quads, and glutes.

2. Push

Exercise to perform: push-ups.

Modification: standing/incline push-up off of your kitchen counter. Make sure you’re leaning against the counter so that your arms form a 90-degree angle with your body, and your back is straight. Here’s how to set up the standing push-up and how to execute it.

Useful for: pushing open heavy doors, moving furniture.

Muscles activated: chest, shoulders, arms, pecs, delts, and triceps.

3. Pull

Exercises to perform: cable rows, dumbbell rows, elastic band rows, pull-downs, assisted pull-ups (work your way up to performing one unassisted).

Modifications: reduce weight for cable and dumbbell rows and pull-downs, or decrease elastic band resistance.

Useful for: pulling open heavy doors, walking the dog, moving furniture.

Muscles activated: upper- and mid-back, traps, lats.

4. Split

Exercises to perform: split squats, lunges.

Modifications: lean on the wall or hold onto a chair.

Easier exercise: step-ups.

Useful for: going up and down the stairs, picking items up off of the floor.

Muscles activated: legs, hips, and stabilizers.

5. Hip Hinge

Exercises to perform: deadlifts, good mornings.

Easier exercises: single-leg deadlifts, toe touches.

Useful for: picking items up off of the floor.

Muscles activated: lower back, hamstrings, and glutes.

(Fawcett cautions that you need some practice to do this move properly, so talk to a staff member at your gym before you incorporate it into your functional fitness routine.)