Functional exercise is a popular term in the fitness industry. But, what exactly does it mean and why should we be implementing it into our client’s training? In this article, we’ll be discussing what functional exercise is and why it’s so important. 


What Is Functional Exercise?

Think back to the primal days, our ancestors had to do pretty much every task manually. They had to hunt and gather to survive. To quote Darwin, it really was survival of the fittest. If you weren’t strong or fast enough to acquire food or water, you would die out. Thanks to evolving technology we don’t have to be the fittest to survive anymore. This is both a blessing and a curse.

When our ancestors chased down prey they were performing exercise that was helping them live their everyday lives. The modern era has seen a rapid decline in physical activity. Consequently, more people are living a sedentary lifestyle. This has led to many health problems for our current generation. Some of the population has become too unfit to even perform everyday tasks such as sitting, bending, or picking things up off the floor.

That’s where functional exercise comes in. Functional exercise mimics the movements of everyday tasks and activities. Exercises that stimulate the same muscle groups and movement patterns you need for everyday life. Of course, everyone’s day-to-day life is different, so each individual will need to focus on what’s specific to them.

What’s the Difference Between Functional and Regular Exercise? 

So, what’s the difference between functional and regular exercise? Put simply, functional exercises prepare you for everyday tasks, not just athletic performance. A functional training plan will help your client perform everyday tasks with ease. A regular training plan often has a specific goal such as running a marathon, or deadlifting 150kg. There’s no denying exercise of this kind isn’t beneficial. But, it’s not well-rounded to everyday life. For example, say your training plan is focused on lifting a 150kg deadlift. All the training will most likely be based on strength and injury prevention. Your lifter might be able to lift 150kg off the floor, but they might not be able to climb a set of stairs without getting out of breath. This might be because their cardio was neglected. 

Benefits of Functional Exercise

For everyday health and wellbeing, functional exercise should be a priority. Here are the top benefits of functional exercise: 

  • Specific to everyday life: Functional exercise stimulates the exact muscle groups and movement patterns needed for everyday tasks. Consider isolation exercises. They’re great for targeting a specific muscle, but it’s very rare we perform an isolation movement in the real-world. It’s more common to recruit a range of muscle groups to perform a task. 
  • More bang for your buck: Functional exercise often includes more than one component of fitness. Many exercises will improve your coordination, balance, flexibility, strength, agility, speed, and endurance. 
  • Reduced risk of injury: Performing everyday tasks at high intensity within an exercise session makes the client more prepared for life outside the gym. There shouldn’t be too many shocks to your client’s body in everyday life. Therefore, there’s less risk of being injured. Imagine this scenario. You’re on a plane and you have to place your relatively heavy suitcase into the overhead storage locker. You’ve only ever performed single-joint isolation exercises and have rarely trained to move a weight from the floor to an overhead position. Consequently, when you try and lift your suitcase overhead you put your back out because your body isn’t used to this type of movement. Functional exercises such as the snatch replicate the movement of moving weight overhead. Therefore, if you’d done this type of training maybe you wouldn’t have hurt your back. Now, I’m not saying functional exercise will make your client injury-proof, but it definitely helps. 

How to Add Functional Exercise to Your Sessions

The seven basic movements of the human body are; pull, push, squat, lunge, hinge, rotation, and gait. Therefore, the aim of a functional training plan should be to ensure your client is proficient in each of these areas. However, as we mentioned earlier, everyone’s day-to-day life is different. Every individual will also have their strengths and weaknesses. A good functional exercise program should focus on your client’s individual needs and requirements according to their everyday lives and weaknesses. 


In short, functional exercise helps your client get better at life. Exercise is too often focused on a specific athletic goal such as lifting heavier, running faster, or burning more calories. They’re all great goals to have, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of struggling through day-to-day tasks.