Functional Fitness: How To Build The Best Workout

Functional Fitness Workout Design | EMAC Certifications

Functional Fitness: How To Build Workouts

A functional fitness workout includes exercises and training to support the needs of everyday activities. In everyday life, people have to squat, balance as they step from one foot to another, push or press things over their head, and pull objects. So, regardless of someone’s fitness goal, functional fitness training is for everyone. It’s applications vary, however. What’s functional for one person may not be functional for another. Consider the difference between a collegiate football player and a 70 year old retired adult. 

Therefore, even though functional fitness has a widely agreed upon definition, it’s applications in fitness program design vary more than any other goal. Further, one might wonder why anyone would not want to include functional fitness as part of their program. Here, we’ll explore what should go into a functional fitness training session and how it applies to any fitness level. You’ll learn:

  • What functional fitness is
  • Areas and movements to focus on
  • How to build a functional training workout

If you want to know it all and build workouts for yourself or others, check out this EMAC personal training course.

Defining Functional Fitness

Although functional fitness is different for each person, the activities of daily living have common threads. For example, walking, squatting, pushing, and pulling are all everyday movements. Therefore, the better someone is at these movement patterns, the more functional they are. When developing a functional fitness program, it’s best to recall the five components of fitness to see how they fit into daily living and, ultimately, a functional fitness workout. The five components of fitness are:

  • Flexibility 
  • Cardiorespiratory Endurance
  • Muscular Endurance
  • Muscular Strength
  • Body Composition


This is the ability to take a joint through a full range of motion. People commonly think of flexibility as a static position, like being able to touch your fingertips to the ground.However, moving a joint through its entire range of motion is dynamic. In daily living, flexibility needs are dynamic.

For example, you need to reach down and tie your shoes. This calls for flexibility through the hips and spine. If you need to reach up and get something off a shelf, you need range of motion through the shoulder. Even walking and running requires flexibility at the ankle and hip. For example, if you’re walking and  lack flexibility in the ankle, with the calves being tight, you’ll change your movement patterns. You might turn your feet out to make up for the lack of flexibility. In everyday life, the body will try to find a workaround to still move. 

Similarly, you might have tight hip flexors from sitting all day. If this is the case, you might have a tough time getting a full stride when walking. So, your hips will rotate outward or your back may arch. When there isn’t good flexibility, the body will change how it uses a muscle group and this can cause pain or worse.  Therefore, dynamic range of motion is necessary as an activity of daily living and included in functional training. 

Cardiorespiratory Endurance

Also called cardiovascular endurance, this component of fitness is necessary for everyday life. It requires the cardiovascular system and respiratory system to efficiently work together. These systems bring oxygen to the tissues and remove waste products. If you have good cardiorespiratory endurance, you won’t get tired from daily activities. Further, this activity can help you prevent chronic disease. The American Heart Association recommendations for cardio exercise include 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise spread throughout the week.  

There are several ways to determine the intensity at which you should work. Some convenient ways include:

Heart rate reserve method. This is a calculation based on your maximum heart rate (220 – age) and your resting heart rate (60 second pulse count at rest). The calculator is:

Target Heart Rate = [(Maximum Heart Rate) – (Resting Heart Rate) x Desired Intensity] + Resting Heart Rate 

Karvonen formula. This is a simpler calculation and is the maximum heart rate multiplied by the desired intensity.

Target Heart Rate = (220 – Age) x Desired Intensity

Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion. This method is commonly used in group fitness settings as a quick, subjective scoring of effort. Originally, the Borg Scale measured 6 to 20 and was then revised to a more relatable scale of 0 – 10. The following table represents the scale.

Difficulty ExperienceScore
No Exertion0
No Exertion1
Almost No Effort2
Easy Effort3
Breathing More4
Medium Effort5
Somewhat Uncomfortable6
Hard Work7
Heavy Breathing8
Labored Breathing9
Maximal Effort10

Talk Test Method. This is one of the most simple ways of measuring intensity during cardiorespiratory exercise. If, during the exercise,you can’t carry on a simple conversation, then you’re working at too high of an intensity level. Studies show a correlation between heart rate and the talk test to confirm its applicability in a fitness setting. 

Muscular Endurance

The importance of muscular endurance in activities of daily living shouldn’t be isolated to resistance training exercises. For example, being able to curl a hand weight for 25 repetitions doesn’t translate well into everyday activity. Instead, think of it in terms of postural control and balance. 


In functional fitness, you should ask yourself if you can maintain good posture throughout the day. Posture is ideal alignment throughout the entire body. 

  • Better movement
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Ideal dynamic range of motion
  • Improved mood

During any gym workout, good posture is just perfect exercise technique. However, areas requiring the most work and even a dedicated part of a general fitness program include core training. Given the extensive research on the benefits of core training and its influence in injury prevention and performance, we’ll use “core training” as part of posture improvement.


In addition to being able to activate the core to support movement, you need to balance. Balance is in everyday movement, even walking. Further, balance training has received more recognition as part of fall prevention programming. Therefore activities of daily movement require balance, or the ability to maintain one’s center of gravity. Balance during movement, however, includes the ability to move and change direction without falling. 

Muscular Strength

In the five components of fitness, muscular strength is the amount of force a muscle can produce in a single voluntary effort. This is helpful for activities of daily living so you can lift boxes and chairs, or move large items around. It’s also helpful when applied to reacting and responding to gravity. 

To know your true muscular strength, you’d need your one rep max (1RM) for the major functional movements. For most, this isn’t realistic to test or even train for maximum strength. Instead you can improve muscular strength through lower intensity (or weight) and for more repetitions. This type of exercise, in a general fitness workout, would constitute the resistance training portion. The exercises you use should involve multiple muscle groups, since that is part of everyday life. The most important functional movements you should work at improving muscular strength include:

Body Composition

Training for improvements in body composition involve decreasing body fat by either fat loss or increasing lean body mass. You should pursue these fitness goals separately and as part of a different goal such as a weight loss program or muscular development plan. Because of this, body composition strategies aren’t specifically part of programming for functional fitness. However, through the development of muscular strength and improvements in cardiorespiratory endurance and muscular endurance, body composition will improve with programming for functional fitness regardless. This will occur as you burn more calories during exercise and build muscle with muscular strength strategies.

Developing Functional Fitness Programs

Based on the focus areas in the five components of fitness, a functional fitness program should include and be structured in this way:

  • Flexibility training
  • Cardiorespiratory training
  • Core training
  • Balance training 
  • Resistance training

As with any program, you should go through a comprehensive fitness assessment. Each of the elements of a functional fitness workout are important for activities of daily living. However, starting with a fitness assessment will help get baseline metrics. Further, it will help identify areas of strengths and weaknesses. This will direct how much time should be spent on the components of fitness. Once you’re well rounded from a general fitness perspective, your workout can become more rounded. This is where you can spend similar amounts of time to each area. 

Because a functional fitness program encompasses more than one primary goal, a fitness assessment should likewise address each area. Assessments to include are:

  • Static postural assessment
  • Dynamic movement assessment
  • Upper body endurance test like a pushup test

Next, we’ll explore how to apply protocols and acute variables for the functional fitness workout segments.

Flexibility Training

To achieve the best movement and range of motion throughout the workout, it’s best to do flexibility training before the workout. Assuming the intention is to improve range of motion and prepare for the upcoming workout, you should do SMR, static stretching, and dynamic stretching activities. Do these in sequence to achieve the best range of motion.

Self Myofascial Release

Studies show SMR improves range of motion especially in areas that tend to restrict normal range of motion or become problematic from a sedentary lifestyle, pattern overload, or injury. Common areas that should receive attention include:

  • Calf complex
  • Biceps femoris, short head
  • Adductor complex
  • Hip flexor complex
  • Piriformis (deep gluteal muscles)
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Pectorals

You should find a tender area on the muscle, as this is an indicator of muscle adhesion, and hold for 30 seconds. Focus on areas that seem to be the tightest or where you have difficulty moving.

Static Stretching

The lengthening techniques of static stretching work better when performed after SMR. This is because the overactive muscle has been inhibited. Therefore, include static stretches in line with the areas targeted during the SMR portion of the workout. The static stretch should be held for 30 seconds.

Common static stretches to include are:

  • Standing calf stretch
  • Supine hamstring stretch
  • Supine piriformis stretch
  • Standing adductor complex stretch
  • Kneeling hip flexor stretch (rectus femoris)
  • Standing hip flexor stretch (tensor fascia latae)
  • Kneeling stability ball latissimus dorsi stretch
  • Standing doorway pectoral stretch

Dynamic Stretching

After SMR and static stretching provides the lengthening outcomes around the joint, it’s time to move the joint through a full range of motion faster. This is dynamic stretching. As part of a functional fitness program, follow the guidelines below.

Up To 10 Stretches1 – 2 Sets3 – 10 Reps

Dynamic stretching will help increase the heart rate and blood flow and can therefore be part of a cardiorespiratory warm up. Just make sure the exercises aren’t exceeding a mild to moderate intensity. While you can use a variety of different movements as part of the dynamic stretching protocol, the below is a list of common selections.

  • Prisoner Squats
  • Walking Lunges
  • Lunge WIth Rotation
  • Tube Walking
  • Plank
  • Push Up Variations
  • Chops
  • Hip Bridges
  • Knee Hugs

Core And Balance

Core and balance training are mainstream in fitness training because of their prevalence in injury prevention and sports performance. As part of a functional fitness program, they offer the same benefits.


Core training can be divided into core stabilization training and core movement training. The primary difference is whether the focus is on the stabilization musculature or the movement musculature.

Core stabilization exercises involve little to no movement of the spine whereas core movement exercises will have visible movement. Example exercises include:

  • Core Stabilization Exercises
  • Table Top (Quadruped Stance)
  • Single Arm, Single Leg Table Top
  • Plank (Hand Plank or Forearm Plank)
  • Plank With Extension (Shoulder or Hip)
  • Cobra
  • Core Movement Exercises
    • Crunch
    • Reverse Crunch
    • Cable Rotations
    • Medicine Ball Chop

Since core activation and use is needed on an ongoing basis, the goal is to build muscular endurance. Therefore, the sets and reps adhere to this type of programming.

Up To 5 Exercises (Both Stabilization And Movement)1 – 4 Sets12 – 20 Reps


Balance exercises are part of fall prevention strategies. However, balance training is important for all types of movement. Balance declines in older adults and a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, to keep balance mechanisms in place, this type of training should be a part of your functional fitness programming. Balance exercises rely on proprioception which is sensory information that tells the nervous system where the body is in relation to space and other environmental factors. Therefore, balance training involves the creation of an unstable environment and should progress according to what you can safely control. Below is a list of how to progress balance safely.

  • Floor
  • Seated Stability Ball
  • Half Foam Roll
  • Balance Foam Pad
  • Balance Disk
  • BOSU Ball

However, there are other ways to choose exercises that challenge the body’s balance. This includes body position and planes of motion. For example, performing an exercise with one arm instead of two will provide a slight balance challenge. Likewise, performing a single leg squat will be more challenging than a squat with both feet on the ground.

Resistance Training

Strength training is an important part of functional training. It helps to build muscular endurance and muscular strength. The exercises you choose should be those that mimic movement patterns in everyday living. Typically this will focus on more than one muscle group since you rarely move just one joint at a time. For example, think of a rowing exercise rather than a simple biceps curl. Further, most stationary machines you’ll see at the gym won’t help you build your functional fitness. This is because they are stable and have a fixed location. While these gym machines are good for developing muscle size or maximum strength, they aren’t the best functionally. So, choose free motion movements as much as possible. Keeping in mind your common functional movements:

Perform two to four sets of the exercises. Depending on the type of workout, choose a higher or lower rep range. For example, to build endurance, choose 12 – 25 reps. Whereas to build muscular strength, choose 6 – 10 reps. You can separate the workouts based on body part (like upper or lower) or you can do a total body training session.

To learn more about building functional fitness programs and seeing results, learn the secrets trainers know. Check out the EMAC Certified Personal Trainer course to improve your own fitness level or to change others’ lives.


Persinger, R., Foster, C., Gibson, M., Fater, D. C., & Porcari, J. P. (2004). Consistency of the talk test for exercise prescription. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 36(9), 1632–1636.

Veenstra, L., Schneider, I. K., & Koole, S. L. (2017). Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cognition & emotion, 31(7), 1361–1376.

Chaabene, H., Behm, D. G., Negra, Y., & Granacher, U. (2019). Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats. Frontiers in physiology, 10, 1468.

Behm, D. G., Blazevich, A. J., Kay, A. D., & McHugh, M. (2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 41(1), 1–11.

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