When I evaluate an exercise, I immediately think, “what is the purpose of this? Is this a functional exercise?”

Functional exercises, help us to become functional fit.  Functional fitness is defined as having the physical capacity to perform normal everyday activities safely and independently without undue fatigue[i].  Therefore, a movement is functional if it will help us become better at daily activities, such as lifting groceries, doing yard work, etc.  Functional movements typically involve working multiple joints in coordination instead of  isolating one joint at a time. For example, when properly lifting a box you use many muscles, not just one muscle group. Therefore, you should be sure to include multi-joint exercises into your workout routine to improve your level of functional fitness. Among three of the best function exercises for fitness are squats, stair climbing, and push ups.

Functional Exercise #1 – Squats

The Squat is a simple multi-joint functional exercise that involves you lowering your body down to a seated squat position, and then rising from that seated position back to standing. Believe it or not, regularly performing squats throughout the day not only builds muscle, it also improve blood flow and digestive system health! Maybe this is why many countries in the world eat their meals in a squatting position!

The Squat should be practiced repetitively, at least twice per week,  to learn the proper mechanics of the movement.  You will be astounded how your strength and range of motion improve after a few workouts that include the Squat exercise.

Click here to learn how to perform the Squat

Functional Exercise #2 – Climbing Stairs

Stairs are everywhere and quite the workout!  In fact, climbing stairs at work or in public are an easy way to burn a few calories during the day, and I’d certainly say climbing stairs is a functional movement.  Everyone can find an accessible flight of stairs and there is no easier or cheaper way to get in a good workout.  In addition to taking the stairs when you can, you may want to design a stair workout routine to boost your fitness. Your best bet will be to use intervals to walk up and down stairs. For example, walk the stairs for 30 seconds, take a break, and then walk the stairs again for 30 seconds. Repeat this pattern 10 times for a complete workout!

Functional Exercise #3 – Push Ups

Finally, the Push Up is a movement all of us are familiar with.  We did them in gym class and we have seen plenty of movies with army recruits doing them in the rain and mud.  However, they are not to be feared. Push Ups help to strengthen muscles that help us get out of bed and the morning and can help us get up in the event of a fall. Push Ups are a wonderful full-body exercise—yes full-body(not just arms).  Remember to engage your abdominals and squeeze your glutes together to keep a stable core.  If performing a Push Up is difficult do, Modified Push Ups are a perfectly acceptable and beneficial alternative.

Click to learn how to perform the Push Up or Modified Push Up

Once we know the basic movements like the Squat and Push Up we can learn more and integrate these movements into high-intensity interval training routines like those mentioned here.  When I exercise I never get bored, I can run stairs and do Push Ups one day, do Squats and Burpees, sprints and kettlebell swings the next or a variety of other fitness-producing full-body exercises. The possibilities are endless! Learn to incorporate function fitness exercises into your workout routines and you can be sure that your workouts will be safe and effective

This guest post provided by Jeremy Zaks, a Tulane University School of Medicine M.D. Candidate.
Collins K, Rooney B, Smalley K, Havens S. Functional fitness, disease and independence in community-dwelling older adults in western wisconsinWMJ [functional fitness]. 2004;103(1):42-43-48.