How to Improve Your Functional Strength

Strength training

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The term "functional strength training" can be confusing. What is functional about triceps extensions or chest presses? These are not moves that you perform in everyday life and work.

But while you may not do those exact exercises every day (or even every week), you do use those muscles every day. That's where functional strength training comes in: It means training your body to better perform the types of movements you use for everyday life.

When you work to develop dynamic strength, flexibility, and agility through fitness training, you help make your daily activities a little bit easier and more comfortable. In one study, for example, a basic 16-week exercise program targeting functional fitness helped participants make big improvements in strength, coordination, agility, and aerobic capacity. Other research demonstrates the positive relationship between functional fitness level and health-related quality of life.

Everyday Functional Movements

Our bodies go through a variety of motions every day as we accomplish routine tasks, including:

  • Lifting: Laundry basket, grocery bags, kids, etc.
  • Reaching and pulling: Opening the refrigerator or clothes dryer, putting dishes away, or picking things up from the floor
  • Power: Standing up from a chair, going up stairs, or walking up a hill
  • Balancing: Walking, holding multiple bags of groceries while navigating stairs, carrying a baby while making a lunch

Many of the things we do require combinations of several types of movement, and that's part of what "functional" means too: A functional exercise or motion involves coordination with multiple body parts and/or styles of movement (such as stability and strength).

Essential Functional Exercises

To get better at these daily movements, strength training is a must. Four basic functional exercises can help you get the most out of your body. Performing these several times a week will enable you to do more daily tasks with less effort and more confidence. And you can do them anywhere, anytime; you don't need a dedicated workout time, space, or outfit.

Push-Ups

Start with wall push-ups and progress to placing your hands on the kitchen counter. You can do five or six while waiting for the microwave to finish. This exercise firms your chest, arms, abs, and back.

Squats and Lunges

Most reaching, lifting, and bending movements involve an element of squatting or lunging. When you squat, remember to push out your tush. In both squats and lunges, don't let your knees go farther out than your toes. Incorporating squats and lunges help you strengthen your knees, quads, and hips.

Weight-Free Weight-Lifting

Pick up a heavy pet food bag or laundry basket by squaring your feet shoulder-width apart, squatting down, grabbing hold and pushing up with your legs. Put it down and do it again. If your knees hurt, practice lifting from a chair until you get stronger.

Bicep Boosts

Each time you go grocery shopping, strengthen your arms by lifting a bag six times each to the front, side, and rear. You can also do a modified bicep curl. Keep your shoulders, back, and abs tight while working your arms.

The Best Equipment for Functional Training

You already have the best equipment around to make your workouts more functional: your own body. But there are other tools you can use to challenge your body with more resistance.

  • Dumbbells: Begin with 3 or 4 pounds and progress to 8 to 10.
  • Exercise balls: Use to add challenge to lunges (hold the ball in front of your chest while you lunge) and push-ups (place hands or feet on the ball to make balancing harder).
  • Resistance bands and loops: Use for a variety of curls, extensions, and presses.
  • Medicine balls: This alternative to dumbbells helps you add upper-body work to standing exercises.

Just as athletes train for their specific sport, we have specific household or recreational activities to train for. Make your training count!

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Article Sources

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  1. Neves LM, Fortaleza AC, Rossi FE, et al. Functional training reduces body fat and improves functional fitness and cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women: A randomized clinical trial. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017;57(4):448-456. doi:10.23736/s0022-4707.17.06062-5

  2. Chung PK, Zhao Y, Liu JD, Quach B. A canonical correlation analysis on the relationship between functional fitness and health-related quality of life in older adults. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2017;68:44-48. doi:10.1016/j.archger.2016.08.007