Functional Fitness: Physical Therapists Explain What It Is, Why It Matters, and Exercises to Try

Learn what functional fitness is all about, plus get tips from physical therapists to make functional fitness a part of your exercise routine.

Published Date: Apr 24, 2023

When you’re doing pull-downs or leg presses on machines at your gym, or holding a gallon of milk over your head while you squat in your living room, do you ever wonder why you’re doing it? Sure, you want to build muscle or look better in your favorite jeans. But it can be hard to see how these exercises fit into your everyday life. Enter functional fitness. This is a type of exercise program that trains your muscles to help you do day-to-day activities safely. “It’s all about exercises that replicate the movements you need to function in the ‘real world,’” explains Vanessa Matos, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. 

Here's more about what functional fitness is, why it matters, and how to know if your exercise routine could use more of it. 

Our Hinge Health Experts

Vanessa Matos, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Matos is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in treating orthopedic injuries in athletes and patient education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Functional Training?

Functional training, or functional fitness, mimics the movements that you do in everyday life. As a result, it trains your muscles to work together, and prepares them for your day-to-day activities, says Dr. Matos. “It’s really any exercise that can be applicable to life outside the gym or working out,” she explains. 

What’s unique about functional training exercises is that they use several different muscles at the same time, and they often require core engagement, too. “Traditional weight training focuses on isolating certain muscles to make them stronger,” says Dr. Matos. (Think: bicep curls and bench presses.) “But functional exercises use a variety of muscles, tendons, and ligaments to help people do the things they need to do in life with more ease.” 

When you train your muscles to work the way they do during daily tasks, you prepare them to be ready for a variety of situations — everything from lifting groceries to picking something up from the floor to grabbing something from an overhead shelf.

Functional Training: Top 5 Benefits

Functional training takes a more holistic view of fitness. It focuses on how your entire body works to do its daily activities since it promotes multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises. Here are some functional training benefits: 

  • Makes everyday activities easier. The focus is to train the muscles that you use in daily life, which helps reduce your risk of injury or fatigue, says Dr. Matos. Research shows that this improves the ability to do activities of daily living, especially in older adults.

  • Improves balance. Older adults who do functional training have a better sense of balance, according to a review published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. This is important since the risk of falls rises with age. “It’s also important if you’re recovering from an injury,” adds Dr. Matos.

  • Protects against injury. Practice makes perfect — and it also protects you against getting hurt. “If your muscles are trained to do movements that mimic getting up from a chair or picking something up off of the floor during exercise, it can transfer over to real life,” points out Dr. Matos. A 2021 review found that functional fitness training among athletes led to lower rates of injury.

  • Boosts your fitness level. Research shows that functional training makes you faster, stronger, and more agile — all things that can benefit you, whether you’re on the playing field or taking a brisk power walk. “Since functional fitness involves multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises, it forces your body to work harder, and to do things it doesn’t normally do,” says Dr. Matos

  • Saves time. Since you’re working multiple muscle groups at the same time, you can get the benefits of a full-body workout without having to do as many exercises.

Functional Fitness and Pain

If you have a condition such as chronic back pain or arthritis, or you’ve had an injury recently, functional fitness may make you a little nervous. But it’s important to know that it can help relieve pain and prevent it from worsening. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation found that women with chronic back pain who did functional fitness moves twice a week for 12 weeks reported significant improvements in physical function and pain, as well as balance and overall physical fitness. Another study found that functional fitness sessions twice per week for 18 weeks helped relieve pain in women with fibromyalgia.

"Movement is medicine, and this is particularly true for functional fitness training since it teaches people ways to move that are less likely to trigger discomfort."
Vanessa Matos, PT, DPT

“If you have back pain, for example, we can do functional fitness moves that show you how to lift things or bend in ways that won’t hurt.” Since it can be hard to figure out functional fitness moves on your own, Dr. Matos does recommend that if you have pain, you seek out an experienced physical therapist who can evaluate you and come up with an exercise program that can get you back in motion again. “The goal is to make it easier for you to go out and do the activities you want and need to do,” she says. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Functional Fitness vs. CrossFit

Maybe this is the first you’re hearing about functional fitness. Or maybe you’ve heard of it before but always associated it with a high-intensity fitness regime, such as CrossFit. It’s easy to confuse the two. “Functional fitness and CrossFit are really closely related: They both focus on training your body as a whole using compound movements, versus isolating individual muscles,” explains Dr. Matos. But there are differences to be aware of. 

CrossFit itself is a brand name for a type of functional fitness. It’s a strength and conditioning system built on a variety of different functional movements done at high intensity. It’s important to remember that while CrossFit falls into the functional fitness category, not all functional fitness programs are CrossFit. Here are two important distinctions:

  • Intensity. “In general, CrossFit has a focus on intensity, which means it can be more physically demanding than general functional fitness,” notes Dr. Matos. Functional fitness, on the other hand, is designed for everyone, including older adults and those who are new to exercise or just getting back into it. 

  • Exercise equipment. Most CrossFit programs have you work with gym equipment such as weights and kettlebells. As a broader category, functional fitness requires nothing but your own body weight. While you can certainly ramp it up with dumbbells, bars, resistance bands, and balls, it’s not required, says Dr. Matos.

Functional Fitness Training Exercises for Beginners

+ Functional Fitness Training Exercises for Beginners

Not sure where to start? Here are a few functional fitness training exercises for beginners recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Weave Functional Fitness into Your Day

“My patients often enjoy functional fitness because it doesn’t feel like exercise in the same way as, say, going to the gym,” says Dr. Matos. She recommends adding in short bursts of it to start — for example, if you stand up from your chair to go into the kitchen for a snack, do 10 sit to stands at your chair before you walk to the next room.

Learn More About Hinge Health for Joint Relief

We’ve got a full team of clinical experts to help you move past your pain. Click here to see if you’re eligible to join our free digital clinic for back and joint pain.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  2. Stenger, L. (2018). WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL/NEUROMOTOR FITNESS? ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal, 22(6), 35–43. doi:10.1249/fit.0000000000000439

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