You want to get fit or lose weight, or both! You don’t have to do the standard exercises using the weight machines that you see everyone do in the gym there is another way.

Functional exercises include exercises that mimic natural movement, the type that your body does to carry out real life activities, there are functional movements though that do not replicate real life movement but do work multiple joins and muscle groups at the same time. Most of the movements people do in real life involve more than one muscle group being used at a time so it make sense to work out your body to enable it to do those activities. Your body needs to carry out the activity while controlled and balanced and doing isolating exercises on gym machines may not help you with these. Yes you will make the individual muscles stronger but whilst you are on the machine it is assisting you to do the movement, your back will be supported and the core and stabiliser muscles are taken out of the exercise.

The machines may help build strength but will not increase balance or stability in the body and that is what we need when doing real life activities. This could be the reason why someone who is strong can leg press a large number of lbs but they cannot squat with weight, stand on one leg or they may hurt their back doing something simple like picking something heavy off the floor this is because they don‘t have much core strength or stability.

In this post I will be explaining just a few functional exercises that will improve your agility, strength and ability to carry out real life activities and limiting the risk of injury.

To begin with I suggest you startfunctional exercises using your body weight only before moving on to using weights or stability balls etc as you want to ensure you can complete the exercise with your own bodyweight first, you will be surprised how many people have little core strength and stability and this can have a big effect on your balance. Your core consists of all the muscles around your mid section and plays a big part in keeping you upright but just because you are able to stand up straight doesn‘t necessarily mean you have good core strength.

I will discuss each of the exercises in turn but if you wish to intensify them then you can do so in a number of ways either by:

  • Adding weights: (use your body weight to begin with until you are able to complete the exercise with the correct form) dumbbells, medicine balls, kettle bells etc.
  • Using other equipment: Stability ball, resistance bands, wobble board or bosu ball (looks like half a stability ball).

Exercises:

Squat

The squat is a full body movement and works your quads, hamstrings, glutes (your butt), adductors (inner thighs), hip flexors and your core (all the muscles around your trunk which includes your abs and lower back).

How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes can be angled out but should not be angled at more than 30 degrees. Slowly bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor, as if you are sitting on a chair, your knees should aligned over your toes. Keep your back straight and your abs tight. Now push down through the heels and return to standing position.

Make them harder: Once you can squat with your own body weight can you squat standing on 1 leg? Try squatting with your hands over your head, arms straight up, can you still balance? Have you added weights? You can also progress the exercise by including further movement and engage more muscle groups.

Squat and press

This exercise will not only use the lower body as per above but also include your upper body so your middle and front shoulders (anterior and medial deltoids), triceps and upper back (trapezius).

How to do it: If you are using dumbbells then hold them with your hands facing forwards and level with your shoulders. Squat down as per the instructions for the normal squat above and then as you return to your standing position push the dumbbells upwards and straighten your arms, hold for a count of 1 and then lower the dumbbells slowly back to starting position and continue down into your squat, the movement should be fluid so one movement continuing into the next.

Stair climbing

This is a great cardio workout so you will be burning off fat but it is also going to be increasing your muscle density in your legs giving you nice toned and firmer legs and butt unlike working on the treadmill which does not work the legs in the same way.

Mot gyms have stair machines so if you don’t have any stairs at home or nearby then you should still be able to do these. Stairs are a common obstacle in daily life it is not often you never have to go either up or down stairs, although some of you may take the escalator or elevator instead but if you want to lose weight or get fit take the stairs.

Make it harder:

To make the exerciser harder take some weights with you and either just hold them or add some bicep curls to give your arms a good workout at the same time. If you are going up and down stairs I suggest you only bicep curl on your way up not your way down as you want to keep your balance and concentration so you don’t slip or fall.

Diagonal Woodchop

The woodchop can be done in a variety of ways, there is the standard woodchop, horizontal woodchop and diagonal woodchop. Here I will just look at the diagonal woodchop. The diagonal version can be done with a dumbbell, medicine ball or cable machine, depending on how you do it you can get other muscles activated as well as your core.

How to do the exercise: Watch the video for instructions on how to do this exercise.

Pushups

This is a great chest exercise but it also uses other muscle groups such as your triceps and deltoids (shoulders), your core will also be working to keep you from dipping your back.

How to do the exercise: Lie flat on the floor and raise yourself up on to your hands and balls of your feet,  your hands should be shoulder width apart and your feet should be together. Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself down to the floor, keeping your back straight, your chest should be a couple of inches off the floor and then raise yourself back up by pushing the ground way from you. There should be a straight line from your head to your heels don’t let gravity take over causing you to dip your back, use your Abs and core to maintain that straight line.

Do them with your own body weight, how many can you without resting, your chin must touch the mat/floor, do not let your stomach touch the floor?

Lets see how you did compared to the guidelines for fitness testing by the American College of Sports and Medicine.

Women  (modified push ups i.e knees on the floor)

Age20-2930-3940-4950-5960-69
Excellent3027242117
Very Good2926232016
2120151112
Good2019141011
15131185
Fair14121074
108552
Needs Improvement97411

Men (full push ups)

Age20-2930-3940-4950-5960-69
Excellent3630252118
Very Good3529242017
2922171311
Good2821161210
221713108
Fair21161297
17121075
Needs Improvement1611964

Source: American College of Sports Medicine. (2006). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

These figures are based on women being in the modified position but I believe men and women should be able to do full push ups. If you are unable to do 1  full push up then start by doing them in the modified position but work towards doing the full ones, it may take time but you will be getting a great work out whilst working to achieving that goal.

Make them harder: If you are confident with your push ups how about making them harder  – do them on the bosu ball. How about adding a stability ball as well under your feet.

Some other great exercises, if you have access to the equipment, are a sledge push, climbing ropes, using a mallet to hit a large tyre and also undulation ropes.

Functional activities involve:

  • Pushing
  • Pulling
  • Lifting
  • Balancing
  • Reaching
  • Carrying

If you do any particular sports think about the movements you use (swinging a golf club, baseball bat, tennis racquet, squash racquet, throwing a ball etc) these should be the movements you have in your exercises or at least exercising the same muscle groups together so that you can increase endurance, strength and power etc.

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