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What is Functional Fitness?

You bend down to lift a heavy bag from the floor, and snap, crackle, pop—you’ve thrown out your back. Everyday movements can leave even marathon runners and muscle-bound weightlifters writhing in pain, which is why incorporating functional fitness training is so important. “Functional fitness focuses on exercises that mimic everyday life movement patterns,” says Ashley Borden, celebrity trainer and fitness expert in Los Angeles. “This includes squatting, reaching, rotating, picking things up from the floor, and putting things away over your head.” Functional exercises condition your body to move more efficiently through real-life activities and help prevent injury.

Functional training is less about spot-training specific vanity muscles like biceps and abs, and more about getting stronger at compound movements you can use in real life, explains Jay Cardiello, celebrity fitness trainer and creator of JCORE system. These types of exercises put less wear and tear on muscles and joints, and help improve coordination, balance, and stability. (Search: Best ways to improve balance) “Bicep curls don’t transfer to the real world, but do a bicep curl with a squat and it’s like picking up your kid,” explains Cardiello. “It’s the best way to transfer what you’re doing in the gym to the real world.”

To keep your body in top shape, it’s important to incorporate functional fitness into your workouts. Here are some basic functional movements and exercises that help strengthen your body. (Video: Easy Workplace Stretches)

Everyday Activity: Squatting

Lowering yourself onto a chair, sliding into or out of a car, and any other move that requires sitting and standing is essentially a squat, explains Cardiello. While it seems like a basic movement, bending down requires core strength—especially in the lower abs—and strong glutes and quadriceps. To strengthen the core and lower-body muscles, practice these functional exercises to help with the squatting movement:

Overhead Dumbbell Squat

Jump Squats

Everyday Activity: Picking Heavy Items Off Floor

Whether it’s a purse, a box, or even your toddler, lifting items from the floor engages the lower back, core, shoulders, and hip flexors, explains Cardiello. It’s common for people to pull muscles in their backs while trying to lift heavy items because they have poor form. To help protect your back, imagine ice water was just poured down your spine—keep your shoulders back and your spine straight, he says. To learn the correct lifting habit and movement, practice these functional exercises:

Single-Arm Deadlifts

Kettlebell Straight-Leg Deadlift

Everyday Activity: Placing Things Overhead

On just about any flight, you’ll see people struggling to lift their suitcases into the overhead compartment. Many people lack the core strength to do this, says Borden. When you lift items over your head—like placing a heavy box onto the top shelf in a closet—you use your abs, glutes, and quads. Learn how to properly lift items over your head with these functional exercises:

Dumbbell Squat and Overhead Press

Medicine Ball Slam

Everyday Activity: Reaching and Rotating

Anytime you back your car out of the driveway, or turn to grab a bag in the back seat of the car, you are rotating your body. The reaching and rotating action fires up the abs, specifically the obliques, as well as hip flexors and quads, says Cardiello. To train your muscles for this movement, do these functional exercises:

Dumbbell Chop

Medicine Ball Cross Body Chop

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