Even though there is a lot of buzz surrounding functional training and its effectiveness, transitioning to movement-based training and exercises will enhance your quality of life and have a better carryover to the sport you participate in.
Functional exercises are essential for developing a functionally strong musculoskeletal system without muscle imbalances, which is rare nowadays with regular weightlifting and CrossFit workouts.
As a Faculty of Sport and Physical Education student and a keen functional fitness practitioner and enthusiast, it took me over 25 hours to fully research, evaluate, and compile the list of best functional exercises.
After reading the article, you will know the best functional training exercises, how to perform them, why compound and free weight exercises are essential for a well-rounded physique, and the best functional training equipment to enhance your strength, mobility, and stabilizers.
- Functional exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, bench presses, bent-over rows, overhead presses, planks, farmer’s walks, jump squats, burpees, kettlebell swings, and many more.
- Compound and free weight exercises are the basis of the functional fitness training philosophy, and almost every exercise you select should either be compound in nature or be performed with free weights, but there are exceptions to this rule.
- The best functional training equipment includes kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells.
- Bench Press
- Bent-Over Row
- Overhead Press
- Farmer’s Walk
- Jump Squat
- Kettlebell Swing
- Ab Rollout
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Walking Lunge
- Bodyweight Squats
- Turkish Get Up
- Pallof Press
- Box Jumps
- Goblet Squat
- Straight Leg Deadlift
- Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row With Palms In
- Reverse Lunge
- Jumping Jack
- Kettlebell Deadlift
- Lateral Bound
- Lunge With Rotation
- Jump Lunge
- Box Step Up
Squats are a staple in any strength or conditioning program.
They primarily work your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings but also engage your core and lower back.
It’s a must-do exercise for anyone looking to enhance their lower body strength, power, and muscle mass.
Also, as a multi-joint movement, squats are great for burning calories and boosting overall fitness.
Read our guide on how to correctly do squats and their most important variations to maximize performance and minimize the possibility of injury.
How to Perform a Squat
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and put your toes slightly out.
- Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back, and engage your core.
- Lower your body down by bending at the hips and knees as if you were going to sit on a box or chair. Keep your heels on the floor.
- Push back up through your heels to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 repetitions.
The deadlift is a powerhouse exercise that activates your entire posterior chain – the glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles.
It also engages your core, forearms, and shoulders.
This compound exercise is vital for developing functional strength, improving posture, and enhancing athletic performance.
How to Perform a Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a barbell positioned over the middle of your feet.
- Bend at your hips and knees, grab the bar with an overhand grip (supinated), hands just beyond shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your back straight and core musculature tight, push hard through your heels to lift the bar up towards the ceiling.
- Once the bar passes the level of your knees, thrust your hips forward and assume a standing position.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position and to lower the bar back down. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 6-8 repetitions.
Lunges are a fantastic lower-body exercise that targets your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
They also challenge your balance and coordination, providing a functional exercise that mimics everyday movements.
How to Perform a Lunge
- Assume a starting standing position with your feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips.
- Take a step forward with your right leg and lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the ground and your left knee hovers above the ground.
- Push hard through the right heel to return to the starting position.
- Repeat with the left leg. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps on each leg.
Push-ups are a total body exercise that primarily targets your chest, shoulders, and triceps while engaging your core, glutes, and legs for stability.
They’re versatile, efficient exercises that can be done anywhere and tailored to any fitness level.
How to Perform a Push-up
- Assume a starting high plank position with your hands (palms) flat on the ground (about shoulder-width apart), and your feet together.
- Lower your body toward the ground, keeping your back flat and your eyes focused about three feet in front of you to maintain a neutral neck position.
- Push your body up, returning to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-15 repetitions.
Pull-ups target your back muscles, primarily the latissimus dorsi, and engage your shoulders, biceps, and core.
This exercise is a challenging bodyweight movement that develops grip strength and upper-body muscle endurance.
It’s particularly beneficial for activities that require pulling or climbing.
How to Perform a Pull-up
- Start by gripping the pull-up bar with your hands a little bit wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you.
- Hang at arm’s length with your arms fully extended and your ankles crossed behind you.
- Pull your body up until your chest reaches the bar and your chin is above the bar.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top position.
- Lower your body back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of as many reps as you can perform.
6. Bench Press
The bench press is a staple exercise for building upper body strength.
It primarily targets your pectoral (chest) muscles while working your shoulders and triceps.
It’s an effective exercise for developing pushing strength and enhancing upper-body muscle mass.
How to Perform a Bench Press
- Lie on a flat bench, feet flat on the ground. Grip the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing your feet.
- Lift the bar from the rack and hold it straight over your chest with extended arms.
- Keep your core tight during the whole movement.
- Lower the bar to your chest by bending your elbows.
- Push the bar back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
7. Bent-Over Row
The bent-over row is a compound exercise that targets your back muscles, particularly the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi. It also works your biceps, traps, and shoulders.
This functional exercise is essential for postural strength and can enhance performance in any activities that involve pulling.
Read our comprehensive guide to learn about dumbbell rows and the rules you should follow to prevent injury and maximize performance.
How to Perform a Bent-Over Row
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell or a pair of dumbbells with palms facing down.
- Start bending at your hips and knees, and lower your upper body until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight.
- Pull the weights up towards the middle of your stomach, keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 repetitions.
8. Overhead Press
The overhead press is an upper body strength exercise that primarily targets your shoulders and works your upper chest and triceps.
It’s an essential movement for developing functional pushing strength.
How to Perform an Overhead Press
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell or a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height with palms facing forward.
- Press the weights upward until your elbows are fully extended overhead.
- Lower the barbell or dumbbell back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
The plank is a full-body exercise that primarily targets your core but also works your glutes and hamstrings, supports proper posture, and improves balance.
How to Perform a Plank
- Start in a push-up position but with your forearms on the ground instead of your hands.
- Keep your body straight from your head to your heels.
- Hold this position, making sure to breathe, for as long as you can. Aim for three sets, holding for 30 seconds to a minute each.
10. Farmer’s Walk
The Farmer’s walk is a functional exercise that targets your grip strength, shoulders, and core while improving posture and stability.
How to Perform a Farmer’s Walk
- Stand straight, holding a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand with your palms facing your torso.
- Keep your shoulders and chest up, then walk forward for a specified distance or time.
- Remember to keep your core muscles tight during the entire movement.
- Upon reaching your endpoint, carefully turn around and return to your starting position.
- That’s one rep. Aim for three sets.
- You can also perform a unilateral farmer’s walk variation where you can hold one dumbbell, for example, in your left arm and change the working arms when you finish walking the specified distance.
11. Jump Squat
The Jump squat is a plyometric exercise primarily targeting the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
It also engages the core and calves, improving cardiovascular fitness and lower-body power.
How to Perform a Jump Squat
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Perform a regular squat, engage your core, and explode upward, jumping as high as possible.
- Upon landing, lower your body back into the squat position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-12 repetitions.
The burpee is a full-body, high-intensity exercise that improves muscle strength and endurance.
It targets your chest, arms, thighs, hamstrings, and abs.
How to Perform a Burpee
- Start in a standing position. Then lower into a squat, place your hands on the floor before your feet.
- Jump your feet back into a push-up position, then perform a push-up.
- Jump your feet back into a squat position, then leap as high as possible from the squat position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
13. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a dynamic exercise that targets your hips, glutes, hamstrings, lats, abs, shoulders, and pecs.
It’s great for developing power, strength, and endurance.
How to Perform a Kettlebell Swing
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell in front of you with both hands.
- Bend your knees slightly, then push your hips back while swinging the kettlebell between your legs.
- Stand tall and swing the kettlebell to chest height while thrusting your hips forward. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 12-15 repetitions.
14. Ab Rollout
The ab rollout targets your abs and lower back, building core strength and stability. It also works your shoulders and hip flexors.
How to Perform an Ab Rollout
- Start on your knees with an ab wheel in front of you.
- Slowly roll the wheel forward, stretching your body into a straight line.
- Roll back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-15 repetitions.
15. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
The bent-over dumbbell row is a back-focused exercise that targets the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius.
It also works the biceps and forearms.
How to Perform a Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, feet hip-width apart.
- Bend at the hips and knees, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor.
- Pull the dumbbells to your rib cage, keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 repetitions.
16. Dumbbell Chest Press
The dumbbell chest press is an upper-body exercise that primarily targets the pectoral muscles but also works the shoulders and triceps.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Chest Press
- Lie on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing towards your feet.
- Press the dumbbells up until your arms are almost fully extended.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
17. Walking Lunge
The walking lunge is a lower-body exercise that targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It also helps to improve balance and coordination.
How to Perform a Walking Lunge
- Stand tall with your hands on your hips.
- Take a step forward with your right foot and lower your body until your right knee is bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Push up through your right foot and bring your left foot forward, stepping into a lunge on the other side.
- That’s one rep. Perform three sets of 10-12 reps on each leg.
18. Bodyweight Squats
Bodyweight squats are lower-body exercises that target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
They also engage the core and can help to improve balance and flexibility.
How to Perform Bodyweight Squats
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips, or extended in front of you.
- Lower your body as if sitting back in a chair, keeping your chest up.
- Push back up to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 15-20 repetitions.
19. Turkish Get-Up
The Turkish get-up is a full-body exercise that targets almost every major muscle group, improving strength, stability, and coordination.
How to Perform a Turkish Get-Up
- Lie on your back with a kettlebell in your right hand, your right arm extended above you, and your right knee bent.
- Roll onto your left side and prop yourself on your left hand, keeping the kettlebell overhead.
- Push your left hand, then lift your hips off the ground.
- Swing your left leg back to kneel on it while the kettlebell remains overhead.
- Stand up, keeping the kettlebell overhead. Reverse the motion to return to the start. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 5-6 reps on each side.
20. Pallof Press
The pallof press is an anti-rotational exercise that targets your core, especially your obliques. It helps improve stability and resists rotational forces.
How to Perform a Pallof Press
- Stand sideways to a cable machine, holding the handle with both hands at chest height.
- Take a step away from the machine to create tension on the cable.
- Press the handle straight out before your chest, then return to the start position. Keep your torso upright and resist the pull of the cable. That’s one rep. Complete three sets of 10-12 reps on each side.
21. Box Jumps
Box jumps are a plyometric exercise that targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
They also enhance explosive power and cardiovascular fitness.
How to Perform Box Jumps
- Stand facing a sturdy box or platform.
- Lower into a half squat, then explode upward, landing softly on the box.
- Step back down.
- That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-15 reps.
22. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is a lower-body exercise that targets the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
Holding the weight before you also engage your core and upper body muscles.
How to Perform a Goblet Squat
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest.
- Lower your body into a squat, keeping your chest up.
- Push back up to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-15 reps.
23. Straight Leg Deadlift
The straight-leg deadlift targets your hamstrings and glutes, with secondary emphasis on your lower back and core.
It’s excellent for improving posterior chain strength and flexibility.
How to Perform a Straight-Leg Deadlift
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell or pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs.
- Keeping your legs straight but not locked, bend at the hips and lower the weights as far as your flexibility allows.
- Remember to keep the knees bent in the fixed position for the whole exercise.
- Squeeze your glutes and push your hips forward to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps.
24. Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row With Palms In
This variation of the bent-over row primarily targets your middle back while working your biceps, lats, and shoulders.
It is an effective exercise for improving pulling strength and muscle mass.
How to Perform Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row With Palms In
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your torso.
- Bend at your waist and keep your back straight.
- Pull the dumbbells up towards your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 repetitions.
25. Reverse Lunge
The reverse lunge is a lower-body exercise that targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It can improve balance, coordination, and hip mobility.
How to Perform a Reverse Lunge
- Stand tall with your hands on your hips or hanging by your sides.
- Step backward with your right foot, lowering your body until your left thigh is parallel to the ground and your right knee hovers just above the floor.
- Push through your left heel to return to the starting position.
- Repeat with the left leg. That’s one rep. Perform three sets of 10-12 reps on each leg.
26. Jumping Jack
The jumping jack is a full-body, plyometric exercise that enhances cardiovascular fitness and tones the calves, glutes, deltoids, and lats.
How to Perform a Jumping Jack
- Stand straight with your feet together and arms by your side.
- Jump up, spreading your feet wide and circling your arms above your head.
- Jump back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 15-20 repetitions or for time.
27. Kettlebell Deadlift
The kettlebell deadlift is a functional exercise that targets the entire posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles, and also engages the core.
How to Perform a Kettlebell Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, a kettlebell between your feet.
- Hinge at your hips and knees, and grip the kettlebell handle with both hands.
- Keeping your back straight, push through your heels to lift the kettlebell.
- Lower the kettlebell back down. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-12 repetitions.
28. Lateral Bound
Lateral bounds are a plyometric exercise primarily targeting the glutes, quadriceps, and adductors.
They also improve lateral power, balance, and coordination.
How to Perform a Lateral Bound
- Stand on your right foot with your left foot off the ground.
- Bend your right knee slightly, then push off your right foot to jump to your left.
- Land softly on your left foot, allowing your right foot to swing behind your left ankle.
- Repeat the movement, this time jumping to your right. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps.
29. Lunge With Rotation
The lunge with rotation is a compound exercise that targets the lower body, core, and obliques.
It improves strength, balance, and rotational power.
How to Perform a Lunge With Rotation
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a medicine ball before your chest.
- Step forward into a lunge with your right foot. As you do, twist your upper body to the right.
- Return to the starting position, then repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps.
30. Jump Lunge
The jump lunge is a plyometric exercise that targets the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
It improves lower body power, balance, and cardiovascular fitness.
How to Perform a Jump Lunge
- Start in a lunge position with your right foot forward and left back.
- Jump up and switch legs mid-air, landing in a lunge with your left foot forward.
- Repeat, switching legs again. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps.
31. Box Step Up
The box step-up is a functional exercise that targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It improves lower body strength and power and mimics real-life movements like climbing stairs.
How to Perform a Box Step-Up
- Stand facing a box or step. Place your right foot on the box, pushing through your heel.
- Push your body until your right leg is straight, then lower back down.
- Repeat on the left side. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps.
What Makes an Exercise Functional?
The things that make an exercise functional include the number of muscles and joints used and its similarity to real-life movements.
Functional exercises use multiple muscle groups and joints to perform movements similar to those required for everyday activities or specific tasks.
These functional fitness exercises improve strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and posture, often involving compound movements that engage the core .
They are called ‘functional’ because they directly contribute to improving your life function, whether lifting groceries, playing a sport, or just moving around comfortably.
What Are the Best Functional Core Exercises?
The best functional core exercises are pallof press, dead bug, bird dog, and many more.
Here are some additional core exercises you may consider:
- Bear crawl– Excellent for teaching your core to remain stable during quadrupedal movement.
- Plank – Planks teach your trunk to remain stable in the sagittal plane.
- Side plank – Side planks teach your trunk to remain stable in the frontal plane.
- Hollow hold – This exercise is an advanced anti-flexion variation that will further teach your core to remain stable in the sagittal plane.
What Are the Best Functional Upper Body Exercises?
The best functional upper body exercises are kneeling kettlebell presses, negative push-ups, inverted TRX rows, negative pull-ups, and many more.
Here are some additional upper body exercises you may consider:
- Push-ups – These work the chest, shoulders, and core. They can be modified to fit different fitness levels.
- Pull-ups – They are excellent for working the back, shoulders, and arms. Beginners can do variations like assisted pull-ups.
- Dumbbell press – This exercise works the chest and arms and can be performed standing to engage the core as well.
- Renegade rows – This exercise simultaneously works the back, shoulders, and core.
- Medicine ball slams – Great for working the shoulders, arms, and core while also providing a cardiovascular benefit.
What Are the Best Functional Leg Exercises?
The best functional leg exercises are back squats, front squats, good mornings, and Romanian deadlifts, among many others.
Here are some additional leg exercises to consider:
- Lunges – Great for working the entire lower body and improving balance.
- Deadlifts – A powerful exercise for the glutes, hamstrings, and back.
- Step-ups – These mimic the action of climbing stairs, a daily activity for many.
- Jumping rope – It’s excellent for building lower body power and cardiovascular fitness.
What Are Functional Movement Patterns?
Functional movement patterns are common movements that are fundamental to our daily life.
- Pushing – Used when opening doors or pushing objects away.
- Pulling – Used when opening drawers or bringing objects closer.
- Squatting – Used when sitting down or picking something up.
- Lunging – Used when stepping up onto a platform or climbing stairs.
- Hinging – Used when bending over to pick up something or performing a deadlift.
- Rotating – Used when turning the body or moving objects across the body.
- Gait – Refers to walking and locomotion.
Functional exercises often replicate these basic movement patterns to improve our ability to perform them efficiently.
Why Should I Focus On Compound Exercises?
You should focus on compound exercises because they work multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously, making them highly efficient.
Compound exercises offer several benefits:
- Caloric expenditure – As they recruit more major muscle groups and multiple joints, they burn more calories.
- Balanced muscle development – They encourage full-body development and prevent muscle imbalances.
- Functional strength – They improve strength in ways that translate into daily life.
- Time efficiency – You can activate more muscle groups in less time.
- Increased flexibility – The full range of motion in these exercises promotes flexibility.
Why Are Free Weight Exercises the Most Functional?
Free weight exercises are more functional because they closely mimic real-life movements and activities.
They require balance and coordination and allow for a natural, unrestricted range of motion.
This results in improved muscle activation, proprioception (awareness of your body’s position in space), and functional strength, all critical for performing everyday activities safely and efficiently .
What Are the 7 Basic Functional Movements?
The 7 basic functional movements are push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, rotation, and gait. These functional movement patterns are essential when programming for functional fitness exercises.
What Is Functional Exercise?
A functional exercise is a movement-based exercise that resembles everyday life or sport-specific activities. Functional exercises usually target multiple muscle groups, are compound in nature, and allow for the most significant carryover to sports and fields of action.
What Is the Most Important Functional Movement?
The most important functional movement is the squat. The squat movement pattern is essential for most day-to-day activities and will build leg and hip strength for sports and regular daily activities.
How Do I Start Functional Fitness?
You can start with functional fitness by transitioning to movement-based training instead of a muscle-oriented one. The main difference is in the quality of movement, where functional strength training enhances all movement patterns necessary for daily functioning and will help you have better carryover for your sport if you are an athlete.
What Is the Difference Between Functional and Strength Training?
The main difference between functional and strength training is the goal of the workout. Functional fitness aims to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of daily movement patterns, while the sole purpose of traditional strength training is to achieve great feats of strength, regardless of its usability and functionality in real-life scenarios.
What Is the Best Functional Training Equipment to Use for Functional Training?
The best functional training equipment for functional training includes kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells.
However, you should also consider other functional training equipment examples as they are equally effective.
For example, medicine balls, suspension systems, and gym rings are also excellent for building functional strength and muscular physique.
Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on functional training exercises and how you implement them in your weekly workout schedule.