Editor’s Note: This post was updated on August 1, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on November 2, 2016.
We all know injuries can happen in the gym—but how many times have you heard someone say they injured their back carrying groceries? Or tweaked their knee walking up the stairs? Injuries from routines activities happen more often than people would like to admit.
That’s why functional strength training is such a hot topic these days.
Functional strength training is defined as: “Training that attempts to mimic the specific physiological demands of real-life activities.”
Functional training such as resistance exercises and body weight movements can help you become stronger, more flexible, agiler and better equipped to handle day-to-day feats of strength and athleticism that are often overlooked. Plus, it can help you become less injury-prone.
Still not convinced?
Here’s a scary stat: your muscle mass and strength will decrease 30 to 50% between the ages of 30 and 80. That means the average person starts losing the ability to perform everyday functions as soon as they hit middle-age. Despite this, only 6% of adults do resistance training workouts two or more times per week (the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation).
A common misconception is that you may be too old for strength training. But clinical data from a multitude of sources clearly shows the benefits of improving one’s functional fitness level, particularly for older adults.
Let’s dig into what the current research says.
It’s never too late to get started
Functional strength training is something all adults could really benefit from, and it’s never too late to reap the benefits.
A study of 87 adults aged 65-93 years published in the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that functional ability improved for functionally limited elderly people who participated in a 16-week structured exercise program consisting of thirteen different strength training exercises using a Thera-Band resistance band.
In another study, researchers tested the effects of 12 weeks of resistance training on the isometric strength, explosive power, and selected functional abilities of healthy women aged 75 and over, they saw statistically significant improvements in 4 out of 5 exercises measured.
The science is clear: functional strength training is something everyone can benefit from. Unfortunately, most aren’t doing it.
A common question is that in order to build functional strength, do you have to start benching, squatting, and deadlifting heavyweights? Not if you don’t want to, and for some, that might even a barrier to even getting started. That’s why we listed several exercises that don’t require weights to help you get started.
How to build real functional strength
There are several exercises you can do to improve your functional strength. Functional training expert Michael Boyle says in his book New Functional Training for Sports that it’s a good idea to focus on functional “stability training” that targets three specific areas:
- Deep abdominals (transversus abdominis and internal oblique)
- Hip abductors and rotators
- Scapula stabilizers
Here’s a good list of exercises that work one or more of these areas you can incorporate into your workout routine every week.
Pushup to arm and hip raise
Perform a normal pushup. When you reach the top of the movement, lift one of your arms up, turn your shoulder, and reach your arm up to the sky. Then lift your outside leg up as high as you can, holding for up to 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side. Do 6-10 repetitions on each side. This exercise builds shoulder, arm, and hip strength, engages your core and ab muscles, and improves flexibility in your shoulders, back, and hips.
Want more push up variations? Click here.
One of the best strength exercises for building all-around functional lower body strength is the mighty squat. Squats work nearly every muscle in your legs, while also building the necessary core strength to help you with day-to-day movements involving pushing, pulling and lifting.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to load a barbell full of heavyweights on your back to reap the benefits of this exercise. Using your own body weight is a great workout, and you can do several variations once you start building strength.
Focus on strict form for maximum effectiveness: feet shoulder width apart, bend at the hips and don’t let your knees go past your toes, lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
Here’s a video on how you can build up to a squat.
If you are looking to challenge yourself, try lunges.
Muscle groups worked: Back muscles, Biceps, deep abdominals, scapula stabilizers
This workout effectively targets your back muscles, spine and scapula stabilizers, and arms, making it easier to do every-day activities that include any type of pulling motion (lifting things off the ground, starting a lawn mower, etc.).
To do it, lie down flat on your back and grab a stable barbell or set of straps above you. Pull your upper body up as high as you can while keeping your back straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top. Complete as many repetitions as possible.
Here’s a quick video that shows how to do it.
Once you build enough strength and endurance, you can try a pullup.
Exercise ball hamstring curl
Muscle groups worked: Hamstrings, glutes, deep abdominals, hip abductors and rotators
Eccentric exercises like the hamstring curl are one of the most effective ways to build functional strength and endurance in your hamstrings and hips, and prevent injuries down the road.
To do this workout, lie on your back with your knees bent and lift your legs up so the bottom of your feet are resting atop an exercise ball. Roll your legs out until they’re straight, hold the position for a second or two, then return to the top of the movement while squeezing your hamstrings.
Working these muscles will help make any squatting, lunging, or bending motions easier.
Watch this video for a complete breakdown.
Exercise ball rollout
Exercise ball pikes are an advanced total body workout. They work your chest, shoulders, core, and legs. To do this exercise, start in a pushup position with your arms on the floor in front of you. Lift your legs so the tops of your feet rest on the exercise ball. Your knees should be bent to start the movement. Now extend your legs out as straight as you can. Hold the movement for a couple seconds, then return to the starting position.
Here’s a quick video on how to do the workout.
Band Lateral Raise
The band lateral raise is a great workout for your shoulders.
Grasp one band in one hand and step on the free end with the opposite foot (Right hand and left foot and vice versa). Slowly extend and raise your arm until they are parallel to the floor. Lower the arms in the same manner that your raised it.
Click here to watch how to do it.
If your shoulders are healthy enough, try adding dumbbells or kettlebells to increase the resistance.
The Final Verdict
Functional strength training is a proven way to slow down the effects of age-related muscle atrophy and decrease your risk for injury. Try doing several of the exercises noted above to work the important stabilizer muscles in your core/deep abdominals, shoulders, and hips.
By adding just 2-3 days of functional strength exercises a week, you should see improvements in your ability to perform your everyday activities and maybe even fat loss! That’s quite a return on a very small time investment.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.