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5 functional exercises to master


Written by

Personal Trainer Paul Joseph

Functional fitness has become something of a buzz word over the past few years. What is it? In simple terms, I like to define it as full body exercises based around movements and activities you do every day and which work through multiple plains. These can be replicated in the gym, with or without added weight.

Functional exercises includes movements such as:

  • Squatting
  • Lunging
  • Pushing
  • Pulling
  • Twisting

Incorporating functional exercises into your standard routine allows the entire body to work together to produce optimal movements. There are many benefits of adding functional training exercises to your workouts including: improved balance, better posture and coordination, increased strength, and decreased chance of injury. Tt is important that we include these into our routine, particularly as we age, so that we can stay mobile and to perform everyday activities.

If you want to improve your ability to perform everyday tasks, build overall strength and balance, and develop your resistance to injury then the following exercises are must-haves.

1. Deadlift


Purpose: This move will help strengthen all your whole body, particularly the pull muscles required to perform this movement, including your back, quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

Real-life applicaiton: The deadlift works every muscle to perform an essential movement - picking something up.

How do deadlift:

  1. To perform the deadlift correctly, start by getting your foot position correct. The easiest way to do that is to start in your normal standing position, jump up and down a couple of times and your natural landing position is your ideal deadlift stance.
  2. Stand close to the bar with your shins approximately 2 fingers width away from the bar and your shins as vertical as possible.
  3. Hip hinge and reach down to touch the bar just wider than the leg width. You can either use a double overhand grip or a 1 hand reverse grip - whichever you prefer.
  4. Keeping the lower back straight, start the lift by engaging your glutes, hamstrings and lower back (in that order). Keep your shins straight and vertical throughout the lift. Stand fully erect and that is the deadlift.

Tip: If you are having trouble getting the glutes to fire first then there are a couple of glute activation exercises you can do. The one easiest with no equipment is to lay on your back with the knees bent and thrusting the hips upward.

2. Power Clean to Overhead Press

Clean and press

Purpose: To improve total-body explosiveness and build upper-body and core strength.

Real-life application: Jumping and standing up fast. The ability to extend your hips, knees, and ankles powerfully is pivotal for applying force. Unlike the bench press, the overhead press has you on your feet, making you work on stabilising your body as well.

How to perform a Clean to overhead press:

  1. Take hold of the bar with about a shoulder-width grip.
  2. Hinge your hips while keeping your knees bent. Extend your legs and thrust your hips forward.
  3. The bar should explode off from the ground. As it continues up, shrug your traps until it reaches about chest height.
  4. Flick your elbows forward and under the bar catching the bar across your collar bones. Settle the bar there (if necessary, widen the grip a little). With a slight dip of the knee, continue the momentum up and thrust the bar overhead.

Can’t do the power clean and press? Replace it with this easier substitute: Dumbbell clean to press or kettlebell press.

3. Squat


Purpose: To strengthen your lower body and enhance athletic posture.

Real-life application: Jumping and pushing. Standing from a seated position

How to perform a  squat:

  1. For the general squat position, start with the bar in the rack, just below shoulder height. Grab the bar just wider than shoulder width (wider if this is not possible), flex the elbows backwards and you should feel a ridge forming where the traps tighten. This is the perfect position to rest the bar and will avoid you needing a barbell pad or a towel (both of which make for an unstable bar).
  2. Pick the bar off the rack and take a step backwards.
  3. Position your feet just wider than the deadlift position with the toes turned out a little further (this will allow for a better hip position).
  4. Keeping the bar pulled down into the traps, flex your lats and keep tight as you descend till your hips are positioned below the knees. You should go as low as your body will comfortably allow for a full range of motion but avoid going so low that you get what they call “Butt Wink”. At the bottom of the squat pause for a second then drive hard back to a standing position.

Can’t do the squat? Replace it with this easier substitute: Step up or split squat (static lunge). These two strengthen your quads, glutes, and hamstrings thoroughly.

4. Chin up

Chin up

Purpose: To build upper body strength and relative strength.

Real-life application: Climbing, dragging, and wrestling - chin ups force you to master your own body weight while working the entire upper body.

How to perform a chin up: A chin up can be performed safely in many ways. There’s wide grip, narrow grip, palms forward, palms backward, and palms neutral - all will work the back muscles.

  1. Start by taking hold of the bar. You can use a palms towards you grip or a palms away from you grip. I prefer the palms facing me as I find I get a fuller range of motion through the lift.
  2. From your handing position, engage your shoulder muscles, and pull yourself up to the bar by concentrating on flexing your lats and pulling my elbows down and back behind you, as if you were elbowing someone behind you. 
  3. Once you get your chin or chest to the bar, you can reverse the movement. Try to lower yourself slowly back to starting hanging position and keep the lats engaged.

If you struggle with this move use a step to get into the top position and work on the decent. This is one of the best ways to get stronger at chin ups.

Can’t do the chin up? Replace it with this easier substitute, a bent-over row or one-arm dumbbell row. Strong pulling movements helps improve posture and prevents shoulder pain.

5. Farmers walk

Farmers Walk

Purpose: To build and strengthen the core whilst moving and improve posterior chain stability.

Real-life application: Walking, carrying, climbing stairs.

How to perform a farmers walk:

  1. The farmers walk is relatively easy to perform. Pick up a weight in each hand and walk with it. If you want to perform this with much heavier weight some technique is necessary – The Worlds Strongest Man walks over 150kg per hand!
  2. Make sure to keep your chest up and your core tight.

Can’t do the farmers walk? Start with a static lunge or a lighter weight farmers walk.

Doing the above 5 moves regularly 2 to 3 times per week for 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions will help you through daily life long into old age. These are the movements we start to struggle with as we age such as getting up out of a chair, and walking with loads, so performing these exercises now will be beneficial in helping you stay healthy and strong.


Here is an additional exercise if you can’t perform the deadlift or clean:

Hip Hinge

Hip hinge

The hip hinge when performed correctly is very important in both the deadlift and the clean – here’s how to perform it correctly.

The first thing to understand is the difference between a hinge and a squat:

  • Squat: Maximal knee bend and maximal hip bend
  • Hinge: Minimal knee bend and maximal hip bend

When first learning the hip hinge, most people will want to bend at the knees when, in fact, they need to simply focus on pushing the butt back.

How To Hip Hinge:

  1. Start as close to the wall as needed (about 6-8 inches away fromt he wall). Begin by standing tall with feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up, shoulder blades retracted in toward the spine and head up and facing forward. I like to have people “feel the hinge” by placing their hands palms-up and gently pressing on the crease of the hip flexors just below the hip bone.
  2. Brace the abs and focus on moving the hips back until your butt touches the wall. You should feel the hips fold down on the hands as you hinge forward and remember, there should be very little bend in the knees!
  3. As you become more comfortable with your hinge you can slowly move further away from the wall.

If you have any questions or would like to contact me, please email me at: [email protected].

For more step-by-step guides on how to perform exercises you can do in and out the gym, check out our Exercise guide.

Want to try more functional training? We asked one of our members to share with you their favourite exercises in the gym. Marsha trains at Manchester Spinningfields after doing Aikido for many years and her motivation lies with trying to keep up with the younger generation. See what Marsha's favourite exercise are below.

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