When I ask you, "What are FUNCTIONAL WORKOUTS"?...what comes to mind?

Many fitness "gurus" will try to convince you that "functional" workouts mean:

  • Balancing on a BOSU ball
  • While squatting a weight overhead
  • And juggling 6 kittens simultaneously.

But the TRUTH is about as UN-functional as it gets (unless you are literally a circus clown). 🤡

In this article, we will uncover the truth about functional workouts and give you some actionable advice so you can train for function without the circus tricks. Keep reading.


A Simple Definition of "Functional Workouts"

So, what are "functional workouts"?

The question is:

"Functional for what?"

  • Functional for my Grandma is different than functional for a Bodybuilder.
  • Functional for a gymnast is different than functional for a marathon runner.
  • Functional for YOU may be different than functional for ME.

For this article, written for the general population, "functional" is defined as the type of workouts that:

  • Best prepares you for daily life
  • Best prepares you for a wide variety of sports.

In other words, if you engage in these "functional exercises," you'll be well-prepared for life and sports. This aligns with the "general physical preparedness" concept or GPP.

It equips you to handle the physical challenges you will most likely encounter in everyday life and athletic activities. You are GENERALLY prepared for what you'll most likely encounter in life and in athletic activities.


Why Most "Functional Workouts" Miss the Mark

Right here, you can already see why most "functional workouts" are, in fact, NOT functional.

After all, when was the last time you found yourself balancing on a balance ball with 6 stretchy bands attached to every limb, hoisting a weight over your head?

What's that you say? You've NEVER done it in real life?
Well, then, maybe you should NEVER practice that in the gym!

Even if Tracey, the trendy YMCA fitness instructor, tells you it's part of the gym's new cutting-edge "functional fitness" program. If functional exercise isn't about circus tricks on a BOSU ball, what is it, specifically?

Even if the new fitness instructor tells you this part of the gym's new cutting-edge "functional fitness" program. So, if functional exercise isn't circus tricks on a BOSU ball, what is it, specifically?

World-renowned athletic development coach Vern Gambetta says it's an integrated training approach involving multiple body parts and planes.

In other words, it's about mastering basic movement patterns like squats, lunges, pushes, and pulls in a variety of directions.

These foundational exercises form the bedrock upon which more advanced functional exercises are built. 

In simple terms, most functional exercises fall into one of the 7 movement patterns:


The 7 "Functional Exercise" Movement Patterns

  1. Squatting
  2. Lunging
  3. Pushing
  4. Pulling
  5. Bending
  6. Core/Twisting
  7. Gait (walking, running, sprinting, etc)

When you do functional exercise, the goal is to prepare you for activities like:

  • Picking things up
  • Carrying things
  • Pushing and pulling things
  • Walking, running, and sprinting
  • Having the general physical preparedness (GPP) to play a variety of sports!

And, if you do these movements with a full range of motion (ROM...something we specialize in here at GotROM), you will also increase your flexibility & mobility.

Translating the 7 Patterns to Your Gym Routine.

So how do these 7 patterns translate into an exercise routine in the gym?

Can you pick up any old bodybuilder routine and start doing the leg curl and chest press machines until the cows come home?

Not so fast, bucko!  The heart of the functional exercise is not just those 7 patterns; it is:

  • Those 7 multi-joint movements
  • Done mostly with free weights
  • In multiple planes

Mike Boyle, another legendary sports performance coach, stresses this idea of training movements, not muscles, and emphasizes the importance of free weights for the balance and coordination benefits of using them.

In other words, instead of isolating specific muscles on machines, functional training focuses on:

  • Compound movements,
  • Pressing, pulling, and lifting in various directions
  • And includes an appropriate balance challenge.

This approach trains muscle groups in harmony, leading to better overall strength, mobility, and stability in real life.

With that said, there are always exceptions. Some isolated strength and machine work can be found in almost any functional exercise routine. It just shouldn't become the MAIN dish for the majority of people.

For example, if my Grandma doesn't feel comfortable deadlifting in the free weights section of the gym but is happy trying the leg curl machine to start, I'm not going to force her to do what I think is "technically" better. I'm AM going to start strengthening her muscles with some isolated machine work and gradually warm her up to the idea of free weights and more complex movement patterns.

Similarly, if you are an athlete (and by the way, if you have a body, you are an athlete) and you have a weak point in the shoulder, core, or glutes, we might include some isolated work for those areas, in addition to your squats, deadlifts, lunges, pushups, pullups, running, jumping and core work.


Functional Exercise Makes You Harder to Kill (Anti-Fragile)

What's the purpose of all this functional exercise anyway?

Some people joke that it makes them harder to kill.

I like to think of it as simply making me anti-fragile.

Because I exercise in this way...

  • I rarely get hurt,
  • I get to enjoy lots of sports and
  • I live a very active life, healthy life

To give you 1 simple example...think about lifting a heavy box. If you do it incorrectly (because you haven't practiced squatting, deadlifting, or carrying heavy objects), you’re likely to overuse—and potentially strain—your lower back muscles. You might even rupture a disc and make yourself bedridden for a couple of weeks!

But if you’ve been focusing on functional movements in your training, you’ll be way more comfortable lifting that suitcase properly using your entire body with good technique.
You’ll walk over to it, squat or deadlift it from the floor, using all your muscles in harmony, like you've practiced 1,000x in the gym, and put it where it needs to go. 

I apologize in advance when all your friends ask you to help them move boxes, couches, and refrigerators.
But hey, at least you can take pride in knowing that you are also anti-fragile.


How To Build Your Functional Exercise Routine

To create a kick-ass functional exercise routine, let's start by honing in on your personal goals and identifying any weak spots in your body.

Are you after more strength or endurance? Are there any past injuries you should be mindful of? Once you've got that sorted, you can customize a routine that's totally tailored to you.

Most people should kick things off with the classics:

1. Warmup, Mobility, Speed, and Power (20-30 mins) 

  • Warmup: Walking, jogging, skipping, or running (Gait)
  • Flexibility and mobility drills (e.g., hip flexor stretch/lateral lunge)
  • Sprinting and jumping practice (5-15 mins)

2. Strength Training: (30-45 mins)

  • Dumbbell squats (3x8)
  • Pushups (3x10)
  • One-leg deadlifts (3x10)
  • Pullups or rows (3x10)
  • Split squats or lunges (3x10/side)
  • Bicep curl to overhead press (3x12)
  • Core and glute circuit (3x15)

3. Cardio (Heart and Lungs) Finisher (10-15 mins)

  • Jogging, running, hiking, jump rope, playing a game, etc.

TOTAL TIME: 60-90 mins, 3-4x/week

As you can see from the above routine, we include a lot of compound movements, with free weights, in multiple planes of direction, AKA functional exercise!

And, of course, if you've got any specific areas that need extra love, like those shoulders, core, or glutes, we'll throw in some targeted exercises to give 'em the TLC they deserve. This isolated work will not only amp up your overall strength by "talking to" some often undertrained areas but also keep those pesky injuries at bay. 

It can be fun to incorporate enjoyable activities at the end of a workout. Running, jumping, or playing a game can add a fun element to your routine and help you stay consistent in reaching your long-term goals.😉


Functional Exercise Conclusion + Action Steps:

In conclusion, hopefully, you've seen that functional exercise is not about BOSU balls and circus tricks. It's about getting multi-joint movements, AND you mostly use free weights IN multiple planes.
This makes you stronger, more resilient, and, yes, harder to kill. 😉

If you need help with functional fitness, injury recovery, or flexibility, check out our top-rated 45-day programs. And, if you’re looking for more personalized 1-on-1 coaching to fix a chronic pain/injury, book a free 15-minute call with me at 

And, as always, remember, you're just 1 step away from building or rebuilding your perfect body.


My favorite quotes about Functional Training: 

Mike Boyle:

"Functional training is best described in what it is not. It is not bodybuilding, and it is not Olympic lifting. It is training designed to improve function, to make daily tasks easier."
"Functional training is about improving function, i.e., the quality of movement. We need to think about making our clients better instead of just making them tired."

Gray Cook:

"Our job is to give the organism as many degrees of freedom as possible to perform the task in any given environment. That’s functional training. If we do not increase movement availability so the nervous system can select the movement pattern it needs in the given environment, then we haven’t done our job. That is our job: to give the organism as many degrees of freedom as possible so the nervous system can select its appropriate movement pattern given the task and the environment. That’s functional training."



About The Author

Shane Dowd, CES, CMP, is the owner/founder of He is also a sports performance & mobility coach specializing in injury prevention and flexibility for athletes.



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