Today I want to share with you what I think are the 5 most functional exercises you can do during your workout. Before we get started, however, we have to define the term functional. As I have alluded to before, which you can read here, function depends entirely on the goal or desired outcome. So for the sake of today's article we will define a functional exercise as:
1. An exercise that uses multiple, large muscle groups in a coordinated fashion
2. An exercise that emulates common movement patterns seen in everyday life
3. An exercise that has a high degree of transferability to other activities
4. An exercise that is performed with no external support and requires dynamic stability
5. An exercise that safely promotes health and longevity.
So with the definition out of the way let's get to the list. Here are my Top 5 Functional Exercises.
1. Deadlift - This exercise is perhaps that most functional of all. I am willing to bet that every person does some form of a deadlift everyday. If you pick up baby, if you move a box, or if you rearrange furniture, you must first begin with a deadlift. It might just be the simplest, yet most functional, exercise there is. It uses the legs, hips, back, and shoulders in a coordinated fashion and is the best indicator of overall strength. Just by improving your mechanics and strength in the deadlift you can improve many aspects of your overall health, function, and appearance.
2. Push Up - This exercise uses primarily the chest, shoulders, and triceps, but also engages the core and hips(when done correctly) to provide stability. Getting better at push ups will help you get over obstacles, transfer force from your body to other objects, and will get you a nice looking upper body as well. Many people tend to skip pushups and go straight to the bench press, but the pushup is healthier for the shoulders and activates more muscles than the bench press. Sounds like a win-win to me.
3. Farmer's Carry - There is a reason that so many top coaches recommend this exercise, it is just plain effective. It promotes strong and solid posture, core activation, shoulder stability, and gorilla grip strength. Getting strong in the farmer's carry will definitely transfer over to other physical tasks. You can carry weights in both hands to work on overall strength, endurance, and toughness, or you can do one hand at a time to focus more on core strength and stability. To make it even more functional try carrying odd shaped objects such as rocks, animals, tree stumps, etc.
4. Pull Up - This exercise has long been a favorite of mine. It is completely functional as it transfers over to any type of climbing motion and it works pretty much all the pulling muscles of the upper body. It will give you a strong grip, solid arms, and a broad back. If all you did for the upper body was pull-ups you would still look pretty descent with your shirt off, it is that good. Being strong in the pull up ensures that you will always be able to hoist yourself out of a sticky situation if needed.
5. Step Up - This is a great exercise that intensely works the hip extensors, knee extensors, and balance all at the same time. It mimics the same movements you would perform walking up stairs or a steep hill. I chose this exercise over the squat(a great exercise as well) because during activities of daily living we spend more time in single leg or staggered stance positions than we do in symmetrical squatting positions. The key with this exercise is to keep the core tight and drive through the hips and knees. Do not simply lean forward and push off the opposite foot. Step ups lend very well to increasing your ability to traverse over uneven terrain with ease and confidence.
So there are my top 5 functional exercises. I am not saying that other exercises are not functional but I feel that these 5 best fit our definition of functional and will give you the biggest bang for your buck. You would have a pretty well rounded program if you just did these exercises alone but I would suggest mixing them into your current routine for variety and better carry over to other activities. To make these movements even more functional try performing them either on, or with, odd shaped objects. You can do pull ups on tree branches, pick up and carry heavy rocks, vary your hand and foot placement with pushups, run up hills, etc. The more variety you incorporate, the better you will become at adapting movements to different scenarios leading to increased function. Have fun.