Do Functional Fitness Training for Practical Strength and Mobility

In recent years, there has been a rise in fitness training that prioritizes functionality in addition to or flat-out above aesthetics. More and more people are showing up to the gym not necessarily concerned about the size of their biceps or quadriceps but rather about what those muscles can do.

This training style is called functional fitness training, and the goal is to use specific strengthening and conditioning exercises to improve human performance. Ironically, this kind of training also happens to be a great way to improve one’s appearance because it challenges the body.

In a typically functional fitness workout, it is not uncommon to train most of the major muscles in the body in a single session. After a brief recovery, the next day, the exercise is repeated but with a different stimulus.

The use of multiple muscle groups and joints in coordination can have a powerful impact on daily function. As a physical therapist and CrossFit coach, I have seen this firsthand over the last 10 years.

This article will explore how you can incorporate functional fitness training into your workouts if you want to prioritize your movement and appearance.

I’ll also provide a framework to view functional fitness training through popular exercises that you can incorporate into your next workout.

“The human body is an incredible machine, but most people only get out of that machine what their mind allows them to.” —  Rich Fronning

What is Functional Fitness Training?

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Functional fitness training is an exercise approach that emphasizes exercises that mimic real-life movements. These movements are called compound lifts because they involve multiple muscle groups and joints.

This is in contrast to bodybuilding, which focuses on aesthetics and building your body to look a certain way. Bodybuilding primarily uses targeted isolation exercises with some compound movements sprinkled in.

Functional fitness training can drastically affect how you look, but that is not its primary goal. It is mainly focused on developing proficiency in your movement patterns and function to make everyday and not-so-everyday tasks easier to perform.

These could range from ascending stairs, standing out of a chair, or shoveling snow to preparing for an emergency where you have to lift something heavy off of a loved one, climb out of a burning building, or evade a threat.

How To Train Functionally

Functional fitness training involves a combination of resistance training and metabolic conditioning to build your strength and conditioning levels. Although it is possible to build strength in bodybuilding, it will typically involve slower, easy aerobic training with the intent of burning off excess calories.

However, functional fitness training aims to develop your energy systems so that each one is ready to be called upon when life demands it.

For example, you may want to play flag football during the holidays, which would prioritize the creatine phosphate system due to the game’s explosive nature. (1)

Conversely, your car may break down, and now you’ll have to walk or jog to the nearest gas station several miles away, which would require a robust aerobic system. (1)

The combination of strength training and metabolic conditioning allows you to be best prepared for the known and unknowns of life.

Functional Strength Training

Functional strength training is similar to typical strength training, with the exception that each movement should involve multiple joints. The more joints and muscle mass recruited, the more severe the hormonal response in the body. (2)

After a tough strength training session in which multiple joints and muscles have been taxed, the body produces a large amount of testosterone and human growth hormone. (2) These hormones enable the body to recover and come back the next day for more intense training.

They also provide the adaptations to exercise that you want, such as increased muscle mass and decreased body fat. (2)

Functional Conditioning Training

Metabolic conditioning for functional fitness training can take several forms. But, like functional strength training, the goal is to prioritize movements involving many joints to mimic real-life movements.

They could involve mixed-modal workouts, in which you combine several functional movements in a circuit-style fashion or only one cyclical modality, such as running or rowing.

You will also want to choose exercises that allow you to move large loads and long distances quickly or, in other words, require high power. Power is calculated as force x distance x time.

When you apply it to exercise training, the exercises that produce the most power will always be multi-joint compound movements.

Regarding metabolic conditioning for functional fitness training, power or intensity is important when evaluating a workout’s effectiveness. (3) The more power you can sustain for a set amount of time, the better the effect. (3)

A pull-up and a bicep curl involve the biceps muscle. But because the pull-up is done under a larger range of motion, moves more total weight, and can achieve a higher intensity, it will produce more power than a bicep curl. (3)

This makes it a better option for an exercise in a metabolic conditioning session versus a bicep curl.

6 Foundational Movement Patterns

Human beings can perform a wide variety of different movements. We can bend, lift, jump, squat, push, pull, etc.

This results from the complex movement system available to us through our various joints and muscles.

But when you break down any movement you can perform in the gym and in life, it will always stem from one of the six foundational movement patterns. These foundational movement patterns are also functional compound movements for the same reasons I mentioned above.

They are also considered core-to-extremity patterns, which further helps them mimic the demands of everyday life. (4) Core-to-extremity movements must first initiate at the body’s midline and finish at the arms or legs. (4)

For example, during a squat pattern, for the legs to produce force effectively, the core muscles must tighten and stabilize the spine to provide a good base of support for the legs to push off.

Without a stable core, you are essentially shooting a cannon out of a canoe.

Squat Pattern

The squat pattern involves descending towards the floor by flexing the hip, knees, and ankles while maintaining a vertical torso. Squatting targets the major muscles of the lower body, including the glutes, quadriceps, adductors, and hamstrings.

The squat pattern is found during activities such as sitting on a chair, crouching to reach a low surface, or sitting on the floor.

Common Squat Exercises

Goblet Squat

Front Squat 

Back Squat

Hinge Pattern

The hinge pattern involves bending at the waist to essentially “bow” forward with slightly flexed knees. It targets the posterior chain, or back side of the body, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

The hinge pattern is seen when picking something heavy off of the floor, bending down to tie your shoes, or reaching out in front of you to grab an item.

Common Hinge Exercises

Romanian Deadlift

Conventional Deadlift 

Kettlebell Swing

Lunge Pattern

The lunge pattern is similar to the squat pattern in that you flex the hips, knees, and ankles to descend to the ground. However, it differs in that it is done on one leg only, which adds a layer of instability and increased demand for the core, glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings primarily. 

Common Lunge Exercises

Walking Lunge

ATG Split Squat

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Push Pattern

The push pattern can take two different forms. You can push horizontally, calling on the chest muscles more than the shoulders. Or, you can push vertically, emphasizing more of the shoulders than the chest muscles.

The horizontal push exercises are seen when pushing yourself up from the floor or pushing a car. Vertical push exercises can be found when lifting luggage into an overhead compartment or a stack of plates onto a shelf above your head.

Common Push Exercises



Bench Press

Strict Press

Pull Pattern

Like the push pattern, the pull pattern can also take two forms because the shoulder is versatile. You can pull horizontally, which emphasizes the scapular retractors, or vertically, which emphasizes the scapular depressor muscles.

Horizontal pulling is seen during movements like dragging something towards you, opening a car door, or starting a lawnmower. Vertical pulling is done when pulling yourself up onto a surface above your head or pulling a higher object down towards you.

Common Pulling Exercises

Dumbbell/Kettlebell Row


Lat-Pull Down

Core/Carry Pattern

The final pattern is the core/carry pattern, which emphasizes the muscles around the body’s midsection. The core can either create motion at the trunk or resist motion at the trunk, but functionally, most of its work is resisting motion.

You can see this when the core stabilizes to push yourself off or lift something off the ground. It is also important when you must carry an object from one place to another, such as a heavy tray or grocery bag.

Common Core/Carry Exercises

Forearm Plank

Suitcase Carry 

Farmers Walk

Benefits of Functional Fitness Training

Here are the advantages of functional training:

Increased Daily Function

Training functionally will help you look and feel your best and maintain or improve your ability to perform daily tasks. After someone turns 30, there is an average loss of strength, muscle mass, and function of 3-8% every decade. (5)

If you are 60 years old, you may have lost 24% of your daily function. But by training functionally and emphasizing compound movements, you can help mitigate this loss or reverse it altogether.

Increased Health Markers

Emphasizing function can do more for you than simply looking good and staying functionally independent. It can also have a profound effect on your health, including decreasing your risk of developing obesity, diabetes, and osteoporosis. (5)

Since functional movements incorporate a large amount of muscle mass, they can be powerful in increasing calorie expenditure and insulin sensitivity. (5) Both can help you maintain a healthy body weight and improve how your body metabolizes sugar.

Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by the weakening of the bones in your body.

By training with multijoint movements that can place relatively large loads on the skeletal system, you can encourage the bones to adapt to stress and grow stronger to either prevent Osteoporosis from developing or treat it once it has developed. (5)

Increased Athletic Performance

Much like how functional fitness training improves your daily function, it can also improve your athletic performance. At their core, sports are exaggerated demands of daily movements for points and prizes.

For example, running cross country is a higher-level aerobic task than walking. But they are both locomotion activities; one is scaled up, and one is scaled down.

Being proficient in the six foundational movement patterns can help bolster your performance and give you an edge over athletes training with only isolation exercises.

“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general.” — Mark Rippetoe

Final Thoughts on Functional Fitness Training

Functional fitness training can be powerful if you have goals beyond simply looking good. By ditching the emphasis on isolation exercises commonly found in bodybuilding, you can increase your daily function, improve your health, and enhance your athletic performance.

This is not to say that bodybuilding is bad. Many people use bodybuilding as a way to stay fit and love the way they look. It also provides a way to compete in a sport they enjoy. However, better training options are available if your goals are to move better and maintain your independence.

Use this article as a guide to help you inform your functional fitness training and develop your performance in the six foundational movement patterns. By emphasizing multi-joint movements, you can reap the benefits they offer and maintain your function and independence for years to come!


Fitness Volt is committed to providing our readers with science-based information. We use only credible and peer-reviewed sources to support the information we share in our articles.

  1. Gastin P. B. (2001). Energy system interaction and relative contribution during maximal exercise. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 31(10), 725–741.
  2.  Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2005). Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 35(4), 339–361.
  3. ​​Hughes, D. C., Ellefsen, S., & Baar, K. (2018). Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 8(6), a029769.
  4. Kibler, W. B., Press, J., & Sciascia, A. (2006). The role of core stability in athletic function. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 36(3), 189–198.
  5. Westcott W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(4), 209–216.

If you have any questions or seek further insights regarding the topics covered in this article, please feel free to leave a comment below.