You may already go to the gym or work out at home. And maybe you feel like you strike a good balance between aerobic exercise and strength training. But while you may be able to, say, run up a steep hill or bench press your goal, are your muscles specifically trained to carry the laundry basket or lift the groceries?
Such simple tasks don’t seem to warrant special preparation, but functional training is an area of exercise dedicated to just that. “Your functional fitness involves the ability to control your center of gravity and produce force in a biomechanically safe way,” says Richard Butler, M.S., U.S.P.T.A., senior exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “It’s the combination of balance and power that helps you swing a golf club or a tennis racquet, climb the stairs quickly, even hold your grandchild—and is essential to moving through your day with ease.”
Men and women under 50 may not specifically need functional training in order to move through their days comfortably and well. But if you’re already noticing that it’s tough to do certain things, like work in your garden or pick something up off the floor (especially if you are older than 50), you may want to practice functional strength moves more often.
“Confidence is a big part of seeing an improvement,” says Butler. “Maybe you’re hesitant going down the stairs because you saw your mother fall. Exposing yourself to some specific movements and circumstances—safely—is a great way to develop a comfort level.”
While using equipment like kettlebells and medicine balls is a dynamic way to work on functional fitness, many people aren’t ready to use these tools right away. To ease into things, try these five simple exercises:
If you avoid carrying a full watering can, luggage or shopping bags, try…
What It Does: Improves upper body power by strengthening your biceps
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft and a dumbbell in each hand. (Women: start with five-pound weights; men: start with eight-pound weights.) With your hands at your sides and your palms facing forward, bend your elbows and curl the weights up to your shoulders. Slowly lower the weights back to starting position, keeping constant tension on the muscle. Your abdominals should be engaged and your spine should remain stable throughout the exercise. Perform 12 to 15 repetitions for each arm; complete three sets.
Be careful not to…sway your whole body. To target the biceps and keep your back safe, only your forearms should be moving during this exercise.
What It Does: Works your deltoids, biceps and upper trapezius to help you lift heavy items
How to Do It: Hold a dumbbell in each hand a little less than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing your body, resting the weights on your thighs. Start with a slight bend in your elbows. Inhale, and as you exhale, lift the weights, keeping them close to your body, until they come close to your chin. Make sure your elbows are always higher than your forearms as you raise them. Then, slowly lower the weights back down to your starting position. Perform 10 reps; complete two sets.
Be careful not to…use weights that are too heavy. Choosing an appropriate weight will help you avoid bad form, which can lead to shoulder injury.
If you feel the need to hold the railing when going down stairs or a ramp or feel unsteady walking on a slope in your backyard, try…
What It Does: Improves lower body strength to help you feel balanced on unstable surfaces
How to Do It: Put a Bosu® ball on the floor in front of you so that you can stand on it and still reach the wall; as an alternative, use the bottom step of a flight of stairs. Place the fingertips of your right hand on the wall for support and your right foot in the center of the ball. Pressing down into it, rise up so your left foot comes off the floor and is suspended behind you. Hold the balance for three to five seconds and lower back down. Perform five reps and then repeat on the other side, turning around so the wall is now to your left.
Once you feel comfortable, try the same balance exercise without using the wall for support. Place your hands on your hips or hold them out to your sides. From there, try closing your eyes.
Be careful not to…lean into the wall. While it’s there to support you, your leg and core muscles should be doing the work to stabilize you.
If you tend to barrel down the stairs, instead of placing each foot quietly on the steps, try…
What It Does: Improves lower body power by strengthening your legs and glutes to help you move with more control
How to Do It: Stand up straight with your feet a little wider than your shoulders, toes slightly pointed out. Hold your arms out in front of you at chest height. Pushing your buttocks back and down, lower your body until your thighs are at a 45-degree angle with the floor, keeping your chest up. Concentrate on lowering your buttocks; your knees will bend naturally. Rise back up. Perform 10 to 15 reps.
Be careful not to…lean too far forward. Make sure your knees don’t go beyond your toes to avoid knee and lower back pain later on.
If you find it hard to crouch down to pick something up, try…
What It Does: Improves lower body power by targeting your quads, calves and glutes
How to Do It: Stand up straight with your feet a little wider than your shoulders, toes slightly pointed out. Hold your arms out in front of you at chest height. Pushing your buttocks back and down, and keeping your chest up, lower your body until your hamstrings come close to your calves. Then engage your core and jump up, raising your arms up overhead, so your feet are off the ground and your body is in a straight line. When you land, lower back down into a squat and then rise back up to a standing position. That’s one rep. Perform 10 to 15 reps.
Be careful not to…come down too hard on your feet. Maintaining control throughout the movement allows you to properly work your muscles and lower back into a squat effectively after jumping.
If you plop down onto a chair, instead of lowering your body with control, try…
What It Does: Improves lower body power by strengthening your legs and core
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. Keep your chest lifted and your shoulders back and down. Engage your abdominals. Step forward with your right leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at about 90 degrees; make sure your right knee is aligned above your ankle. Keep your weight in your heels as you push back up to the starting position. Perform 10 repetitions before switching legs. Complete two sets.
Be careful not to…lean your torso forward when you lunge to avoid straining your back and putting pressure on your front knee. Picking a point in front of you to focus on can help you stay upright.