Cross-Training

6 Functional Fitness Exercises That Will Improve Your Everyday Life

These moves will do more than just increase your strength.

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A few winters ago, my hometown of Washington, D.C., was hit by a snowstorm. When it blew over, I layered up and stepped outside to begin shoveling. As I lifted each shovelful of snow and twisted to dump it to the side, I felt more and more energized. I realized that this movement mimicked an exercise that I do with a dumbbell. My body knew exactly how to do this movement efficiently and with great power, and though I won’t say that shoveling was as much fun as drinking hot chocolate afterward, it was much less of a chore than I thought it would be.

This is an example of functional strength, which I define as strength developed not for its own sake or for the performance of particular exercises, but in support of real-life activities. Whether you are kayaking or shoveling snow, moving furniture or trekking the Himalayas, this is the kind of strength that will make a difference to your quality of life in the long term. Functional fitness workouts are a key way to build this type of strength.

[Related: 5 Exercises to Improve Your Balance]

Do These Exercises for a Functional Fitness Workout

Combine the following exercises to make functional fitness workouts. Each exercise has different levels; practice them until you feel comfortable with at least the Level 1 form of each exercise. If you feel competent with that, try Level 2. Remember, there’s no set timetable for fitness and health. Move along at your own pace, and don’t rush your progress.

Walking Lunges

This exercise requires your body to balance itself in space and then challenges it to recalibrate that balance as you move forward and continually change the position of your limbs.

Primary Muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, anterior deltoids (in advanced form)
Secondary Muscles: Gluteus medius, transverse abdominis

Woman performing walking lunge functional exercises
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Locate a stretch of floor that is at least 30 feet long. Keep your eyes focused on a distant point that’s at about eye level, and hold your arms raised out to your sides. Take a long step forward with your right foot and sink downward, aiming to almost touch your back knee to the ground. Step forward with your left leg to meet your right, pausing slightly with your feet together, and then step forward with your left leg. This constitutes 1 rep.

Concentrate on sinking straight down with your shoulders back instead of leaning forward. That helps keep your front knee from passing in front of your front foot, which reduces strain on that knee.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Hold a dumbbell in front of you as you lunge, keeping your arms as straight as possible and your eyes on the dumbbell. This not only works your anterior deltoids but it also shifts your center of gravity forward. The weight challenges your lower back to work harder to keep you balanced and to combat falling forward.

LEVEL 3: For an even tougher challenge, try a walking lunge with a twist. Hold a lightweight dumbbell with both hands, and as you lunge forward, twist your upper body as you swing the dumbbell across your forward leg (as shown). Return to standing position, with feet together. Pause, and then swing the dumbbell to the other side as you continue lunging.

Woman performing advanced modification of walking lunge
Photo: Jason Innes

Step Ups

This exercise is a popular running drill in which a specific movement in the running motion is emphasized in order to build strength and coordination for running. The value of this exercise transcends running, however, since it incorporates a complex movement that engages several muscle groups while challenging your ability to keep your balance, so non-runners should include this exercise in their training.

Primary Muscles: Hip flexors, gastrocnemius and soleus
Secondary Muscles: Deltoids, transverse abdominis

Woman demonstrating step up functional strength exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Stand with your elbows bent, holding your left arm and right leg forward and your right arm and left leg back—basically, opposite arms and legs. Swing your right arm forward as you swing up your left knee. Reverse to return to the starting position. This is 1 rep.

Aim to swing your arms and legs forward and back on the same plane—that is, straight forward and backward, without any twisting movement or stepping out to the side. If you have trouble coordinating the moving parts of this exercise, visualize touching your elbow to your opposite knee. I don’t want you to actually twist to accomplish that, but it will help to cue your movement.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Squat and bend your knees even more during this movement (as shown). This motion engages your legs even more by incorporating a squat or lunge motion in the exercise.

Woman demonstrating advanced step up modification
Photo: Jason Innes

LEVEL 3: Perform this exercise with more intensity, letting the force of your raised knee lift you up onto your toes at the apex of each repetition. Another way to increase the difficulty is to start with your planted foot on a step or stair, forcing you to elevate even higher as you go through the motion. Alternatively, hold a medicine ball with arms straight out while you perform the lunge.

Deadlift and Front Raises

This exercise combines two simple movements into a single exercise that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Primary Muscles: Erector spinae, rear deltoids
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis, gluteus maximus

Woman performing a deadlift and front raise with dumbbell
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Take a stance a bit wider than shoulder width. Bend forward from the hips, back arched, knees slightly bent, and grip a medium-weight dumbbell or medicine ball with both hands. Straighten up and swing the weight over your head toward the ceiling in one smooth movement. Hold it for just a moment, and then swing the weight back down. This constitutes 1 rep. Make sure that you engage your hips rather than your mid-back by tilting your pelvis backward and arching your back. Ensure your knees stay in a slightly bent position.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Increase the intensity by making the movement ballistic. Do this by swinging the weight quickly and coming to a hard stop at the top and bottom of the movement. The hard stop increases the challenge to your core muscles as they engage to stop the momentum. Note: This version presents a higher risk of injury than the Level 1 version, especially if you don’t use proper form, so be cautious and careful when performing this exercise.

LEVEL 3: Perform this movement while standing on the soft side of a BOSU. For a tougher challenge, flip the BOSU and stand on the hard side (as shown).

Advanced modification for deadlift and front raise
Photo: Jason Innes

Dumbbell Swings

This complex movement is highly functional, engaging your muscles in a movement pattern that’s similar to the way you would accomplish a number of real-life tasks, such as shoveling snow. This is a great cornerstone move for any functional fitness workout.

Primary Muscles: Obliques, deltoids, erector spinae
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, biceps, triceps

Woman performing dumbbell swing functional strength exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell with both hands against your outer hip. Keeping your arms as straight as possible, swing the weight up and out diagonally toward your other side until the weight is a little higher than eye level, and then return to the starting position. This constitutes 1 rep.

Be sure to swing the weight in front of and away from your body, not just to the side. Do not just swing the arms; think of your arms and shoulders as comprising a single unit so that your shoulders rotate as you swing. Cue this movement by following the weight with your eyes. (Some find that this makes them dizzy; experiment and see how you react.)

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Perform this exercise with your feet together (as shown), which decreases stability and further engages your lateral stabilizing muscles, including your gluteus medius, abductors, and adductors.

Woman doing advanced modification of dumbbell swing
Photo: Jason Innes

Engage your legs by bending your knees even more on the downswing and straightening them on the upswing. This will introduce a modified squat movement, which further engages your legs and hips.

LEVEL 3: Perform this exercise from atop the soft side of a BOSU.

Torso Twists

This rotation exercise builds strength very effectively for the sides and core.

Primary Muscles: Obliques
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis, front deltoids

Woman performing torso twist functional strength exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a medium-weight dumbbell straight out in front of you with both hands. Keeping arms slightly bent, swing the dumbbell evenly from right to left and back again, on a trajectory parallel to the floor. This constitutes 1 rep.

Follow the dumbbell with your eyes throughout the movement. This cues your body to rotate more and helps you avoid simply swinging your arms instead of twisting. Some people find this makes them dizzy. If that’s the case for you, avoid turning your head and focus instead on making sure that your body is moving correctly.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Keep your feet closer together—touching, even (as shown). This reduces your ability to distribute your weight across both feet, which in turn reduces your stability and challenges you to work harder to balance.

Woman demonstrating advanced modification of torso twist
Photo: Jason Innes

LEVEL 3: Make the exercise ballistic by swinging the dumbbell faster, with a hard stop on either side. The hard stop directly engages your obliques in a very apparent way.

Dumbbell Punches

This exercise effectively combines rotation with a chest and shoulder exercise.

Primary Muscles: Chest, anterior deltoids, triceps
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis

Woman doing air punches
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Assume a fighting position, with your left foot and left shoulder forward, right foot and right shoulder back. Your feet should be about a foot apart, with your left foot pointing forward and the right foot slightly angled for balance. Keeping your back slightly rounded, cock your right elbow back, with your forearm parallel to the floor. Position your left arm forward, perpendicular to the floor, with your fist near your chin. Rotate your shoulders as you push your right arm forward. As your hips turn and you follow through with a punch, allow the right foot to rotate. After straightening your arm, rotate back as you draw your right arm back to its starting position. This constitutes 1 rep.

This movement is all about rotation. To cue full rotation of the shoulders and torso, imagine that you’re trying to hit someone standing close to you with your shoulder. Push the arm forward only after you’ve committed to rotating that shoulder.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Perform this exercise as described, but holding a dumbbell in the punching hand.

LEVEL 3: Perform this exercise with a dumbbell in each hand (as shown). This puts an additional challenge on both shoulders, which will be engaged in keeping your now-heavier arms in position.

Woman performing dumbbell punches functional exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

Adapted from Ageless Strength by Jeff Horowitz with permission of VeloPress.

Ageless Strength