4 functional exercises that will test your whole body
From the bus to the bathroom, some of our most common everyday activities have one thing in common…
They all require foundational movements – which can be improved through functional strength training exercises.
But what functional training exercises should you start with, and how do you know if you’re doing them right?
Let me introduce you to four of the best functional strength exercises, which come together to form the functional test in Centr’s Functional Movement Challenge: a push-up, the prayer squat, a reverse lunge + Romanian deadlift + knee drive, and bear crawls.
I’ll talk you through each exercise so you can put yourself to the test – first assessing your current levels of functional strength, mobility, balance and coordination, then checking your progress as you train to improve. Don’t worry, this will definitely be more fun than your high school gym class!
If you want a program that teaches you new ways to move, join Luke Zocchi, Maricris Lapaix, and myself for the full 6-week Challenge on Centr.
What makes these functional exercises?
The easiest way to describe a functional exercise is that it’s a movement that benefits you in everyday life. And most of these exercises I’m about to show you combine more than one functional benefit.
An exercise is considered functional if it:
increases joint mobility, muscle stability and full-body strength
helps to prevent injuries during everyday tasks
improves speed, agility and coordination
boosts cardiovascular health
Picking up a toddler. Catching the bus. Weeding the garden. Reaching for something on a high shelf… Whatever comes your way each day, you’ll want these moves under your belt.
Functional benefits of the push-up: The push is one of the most recognizable functional movement patterns – using your chest, shoulders, and arms to exert force on an object to push it away from your body. Push-ups mimic the movements used when you push open a heavy door, get up off the ground, or push around a heavy object.
Push-ups aren’t just a great strength exercise for your arms. They also require full-body engagement – from strong and stable wrists and shoulders to a rock-solid core. When performed correctly, they can also improve your posture by protracting (spreading apart) and retracting (pulling together) your shoulder blades. This can help you maintain proper upper-body alignment, and avoid back and neck pain.
How to do a push-up
Kneel down, then place your hands on the mat, directly under your shoulders.
Make sure your shoulders are down and back, away from your ears, and your elbows are tucked in at a 45-degree angle to your body.
Activate your core, squeeze your glutes, and keep your head neutral (that means in line with your spine).
Lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping your arms close to your body. Stay in control as you lower yourself (no sudden drops), and stop when your chest is just above the ground.
Pause briefly at the bottom of the push-up, maintaining tension in your muscles. Your body should still be in a straight line, with your core engaged.
Exhale as you push back up from the floor, rising until your arms are straight.
Progression: You can place a Centr sand bag on your upper back to make push-ups more difficult.
Prayer squat rotation
Functional benefits of the prayer squat rotation: The squat is a functional movement pattern you use every day to sit down and stand up. As well as strengthening your legs and glutes, this variation introduces a rotation to engage your obliques and improve dynamic strength through your core.
It will also challenge and boost mobility in your spine, hips, ankles, shoulders, and lower to mid back. You can do this move every day to maintain mobility, and I definitely recommend including it as part of your warm-up routine before going running or doing a workout.
How to do a prayer squat rotation
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, your chest up and core engaged.
Sit back and down into a squat – as far as you can lower yourself.
In this position, bring your hands together in a prayer position in front of your chest.
Now swing your left hand away to reach up above your head, rotating your torso in the same direction. (If it helps, imagine someone has thrown a ball at the back of your head, and you need to catch it before it hits!)
Once you’ve rotated as far as you can go, bring your hands back together in the prayer position in front of your chest, then repeat the reach and rotation with your right hand. Take note of how far you can rotate your torso and if one side is more mobile than the other.
Progression: Hold a light weight in each hand to increase the difficulty.
Reverse lunge + Romanian deadlift + knee drive
Functional benefits of a lunge + Romanian deadlift + knee drive: This exercise combines key unilateral movements – including a Romanian deadlift – to develop mobility, balance, and strength through your lower body. Balance isn’t just great for staying upright on the bus, it’s also crucial for strengthening the stabilizer muscles around joints, keeping them healthy, and reducing the risk of injury.
How to do a lunge + Romanian deadlift + knee drive
Stand tall, with your feet slightly apart and your eyes fixed on a single point for balance.
Step your left leg back into a lunge, dropping your knee until it is close to the ground.
Rise up from the lunge and, after slightly tapping your left foot back at its starting position, swing your left leg back and up in a controlled motion.
As your leg swings back, hinge at the hips until your chest is almost horizontal with the ground.
As you bring your torso back up to standing, swing your left leg forward and up into a high-knee position in front of your chest. Try not to let your left leg touch the floor on the way through.
Bring your left leg back to the floor to resume a neutral standing position, then repeat the lunge, dip, and drive movement on your right side. Take note of whether one side feels more steady or mobile than the other – this is something you’ll want to keep track of as you work to improve your balance.
Regression: I’m holding dumbbells in this demonstration, but you can start without them. Once you’re confident with your balance in the bodyweight variation, you can add weight to up the difficulty.
Benefits: You learned to crawl when you were a baby, but how long since you’ve brushed up on your technique? Practicing this foundational movement will improve your mind-body connection and help you better control everyday motions. It engages your shoulders, arms, core, hips, and legs to build strength, endurance, mobility, and coordination.
How to do a bear crawl
Start on all fours, your wrists under your shoulders, knees under hips, and your back forming a flat table top position.
Engage your core and raise your knees so they are hovering just above the ground.
Keeping your core tight and your back straight, move your right hand and left foot forward at the same time.
Then, move your left hand and right leg forward, continuing to alternate as you crawl forward in a straight line.
Progression: Place a weight, like a Centr sand bag, on the ground in front of you and push it with each forward movement.
Ready to bring all of these functional movements together and put yourself to the test? Start your free trial and join us for the 6-week Functional Movement Challenge, only on Centr.
HIIT HIRT • STRENGTH
Ingrid Clay will get you lifting strong and burning it up with bodyweight in HIIT HIRT Strength workouts. Ingrid is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and plant-based chef who draws on her physics and engineering background to sculpt bodies through exercise and nutrition. She’s also an NPC National qualifier bodybuilder and author of The Science of HIIT.
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