Practically speaking, a lot of the strength training we do at the gym isn't all that useful. Sure it makes individual muscle groups stronger (and you look leaner), but how often do you stand perfectly still and lift a gallon of milk a dozen times?  How often do you do isolated squats or perfectly formed lunges?  Probably not as often as you grab your suitcase and hoist it into the car or as often as you pick up the laundry and hulk it up the stairs.

In reality, most people need a fitness program that will strengthen and stretch the muscles they use the most. That's what functional fitness is all about. 

What is Functional Fitness?

Functional Fitness-a 2013 top fitness trend according to the American Council of Exercise (ACE)-is a way of exercising multiple muscle groups and multiple joints that naturally work together. For example, picking up a toddler involves muscles and joints in the arms, back, core and legs. In functional fitness, exercises that mimic natural body movements and normal activities of daily living help strengthen those muscles to work in harmony.

Those muscles get stronger, which means you won't yank your back out of alignment the next time you pick up your grandchild.

What Research Says About Functional Fitness

According to research published by the ACE, this approach works-especially for older adults.

Exercise scientists at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program recruited 24 men and women between ages 58 and 78, each with some type of cardiac, metabolic or orthopedic condition and each already participating in an exercise program. 

Each person was randomly assigned to either an experimental group that did functional training exercises, or a control group that participated in traditional strength training. After four weeks of training, the participants in the functional fitness group reaped greater gains in muscle strength compared to the control group.

Try it for yourself. Here are few functional exercises that are designed to kick your real-life muscles into shape.

The Real-Life Activity: Picking up a heavy box (or laundry basket) from the floor.

The Functional Exercise: Squat and lift

This exercise works your legs, arms, back, glutes and shoulders. It also helps with balance. 

To Do: Start by holding a 5- to 8-pound kettle bell or medicine ball in front of you and stand with your feet wider than your hips. Dip into a squat by moving your butt back. Keep your knees over your ankles and lower the weight to the floor. Keep your head upright and your back straight. Slowly stand back up and lift the weight over your head. 

Do three sets of 10 - 12 repetitions.

The Real-Life Activity: Carrying a jug of milk up the stairs.

The Functional Exercise: Step up with bicep curls 

This exercise works your arms, legs, back, shoulders and core. 

To Do: Hold 5-pound hand weights or dumbbells in each hand and either step up on a low platform or climb a set of stairs. Do bicep curls when you step up or climb and hold weights still as you descend. Repeat 10-12 times.

The Real-Life Activity: Vacuuming, lawn mowing or pushing a stroller

The Functional Exercise: Multidirectional lunge

This exercise works all the muscles in your legs, arms, back, core and shoulders.

To Do: Stand, feet hip-width apart. Keep one leg stationary and step into a lunge with the other-first to the front, then to the back, and side. When lunging, keep your knee over your ankle. Return to start after each lunge, before changing directions. Lunge in all three directions; then switch sides.

The Real-Life Activity: Reaching for a high cupboard or putting luggage in an overhead bin.

The Functional Exercise: Standing press

This exercise works your arms, shoulders, chest and back.

To Do: With your feet hip-width apart, hold 5- to 10-pound hand weights or dumbbells at shoulder height with palms facing forward. Bend slightly at the knees and push weights overhead to extend your arms fully. Return your arms to shoulder level and repeat 10 -12 times.

Ben Greenfield reviewed this article.



American Council on Exercise. ACE-Sponsored research stud. "Function Follows Fitness." Mark Anders. ACE Fitness Matters July/August 2007.