If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, and want to cover the lower and upper body, posterior and anterior with just 6 exercises, then the following list of 6 functional strength training exercises are your best bet.
This list covers everything in the lower and upper body, front and back from the perspective of being functional for everyday life of the generic person, that includes office workers, stay-at-home moms and dads, sports people, fighters, etcetera.
Without further ado, I present to you:
- Deadlift (hip hinge)
- Racked reverse lunge
- Floor chest press (unilateral)
- Standing shoulder press (unilateral)
- Bent-over row (narrow/wide)
Deadlift (hip hinge)
The deadlift can be performed with kettlebells, barbell, dumbbells, sandbags, or other implements that are heavy. The deadlift is a great exercise because it works a lot more than just the lower-body. It works the upper body because something is creating resistance and needs to be pulled up. First, you have your grip that’s worked, that’s your hands, wrists, and forearms already. Then you have everything around your shoulder area at the back, from the neck down to the shoulder blades, all this is just to pretty much hold on to the weight. Second, there is everything around your spine that needs to work to hold it upright, otherwise, you would just collapse and not even get the weight an inch of the ground. Third, comes the part that is going to power and pull the weight up, your gluteus maximum and hamstrings. These two are the major components to drive this exercise. Last, but not least, there are your calves, believe it or not, if they did not do their job your knees would fall forward. This is just a simple explanation, so you can imagine what’s really going on! When does one not need to be strong and have a good technique for lifting heavy shit?!
I mentioned ‘hip hinge’ because, with the popularity of CrossFit, the deadlift is now generally performed with a squat movement. That’s great for CrossFit because you want to lift heavier, and it transfers to snatching etcetera. But if we want to look at this from the perspective of working the posterior and core muscles more, then this needs to be performed with the hip hinge movement.
I can honestly say that this is one of the best functional strength exercises you can incorporate in your functional training regime! I’ve been advocating this exercise for a while, especially in CrossFit which still uses the explosive forward heavy weighted lunge as a strength exercise—enough on that! Take my word and include this exercise in your training, it’s safer and much more effective. Clean a barbell, two kettlebells (preferred), heavy sandbag, or anything else heavy for that matter, and lunge backward as slow as possible, gently brushing the ground with the hair on your knee (if you have any). Come back up. This is all done with the strength of your front leg, if not, then you should lower the weight till you can. The back leg is just for stabilization, nothing else. Stabilization is another great benefit you get from this exercise. You’ll also be working the gluteus minimus and medius for hip stabilization, which is not worked that much in other exercises. Rather than racked, you can also do this with the weight hanging if you use kettlebells or dumbbells, but my preference is racked reverse lunges with kettlebells, maximum weight pushing down!
The chin-up is one of my favorite exercises to work the elbow flexors, or to be more macho, the biceps! Preferably done with added weight. Being able to pull yourself up feels great. For a long time working the biceps was frowned upon, because it was THE thing to do for bodybuilders, and it meant you were vain etc. etc. but… We do so much in everyday life that requires us to curl something, so let’s drop all this shunning of the biceps, and include some chin-ups in your training. If you do this right you’ll not only work the elbow flexors but also the lats and rear delts, of course, plenty of more muscles to provide a stable base to pull from.
Floor Chest Press
Do these with kettlebells or dumbbells. What I absolutely love about these is that you can adjust the angle during the press, i.e. adjust for safety and your range of motion during the press. The part I like about the floor is that it stops you from going crazy deep and injure those beautiful breasts, I mean pecs. No need to go deep, go slow, find the heaviest weight you can control and go full range till above the shoulder. Make sure you go out and keep a 90° angle between your chest and elbow for maximum pec engagement. Use progression to get to this angle, don’t just pick up heavy weight and start pressing them like you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do this one at the time to truly focus on the rep and get some additional core stabilization benefits.
Standing Shoulder Press
Do these with kettlebells or dumbbells. I’m not going to write about this one, I already have, it’s in my book Master The Kettlebell Press which is available on our website and Amazon. I am however going to give you this 40-minute long video on kettlebell presses if you give us a like or share, not much for a goldmine of information.
- Buy a kettlebell workout book that is programmed with functional exercises
- Learn functional workouts with good form and technique
- Take our online course and learn over 70 kettlebell clean variations
- Become a certified kettlebell trainer
I really like this variation of the bent-over row as it gives you that thoracic rotation missing in most exercises, however, if you want to focus on strength, you’ll probably want to do the plain version, just thought I’d throw it out there, cause you need to vary your training a bit and work on areas normally neglected!
Here’s the version I like the most, unilateral with one kettlebell and dead to the ground, but the hang is also good if you want to keep longer tension on the muscles. Dead is good if you’re working with a really heavy weight (1RM). Hang is good for the weight that is heavy but you can control for up and down phase (eccentric/concentric).