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Dan’s Top Ten ‘Most Functional’ Resistance Exercises

Here are ten great exercises for helping your personal training clients to lose weight, firm up, add size and get stronger - sort of covers the major goals of most fitness club members doesn't it?

Building on the article where we examined 'what the heck functional training actually is', here's a list of 10 of the most functional resistance training exercises available for you personal trainers.

Now first things first – this is my ‘personal’ list and not to be taken as gospel!  Remember that for an exercise to be ‘functional’ for your personal training clients it must achieve their goals, the client must be capable of performing it and comfortable enough performing it in a public arena that they’ll feel good about coming back and doing it time and time again.

With those guiding points in mind my ‘most functional’ list is based on exercises that I consider best for achieving the major goals of most gym based personal training clients, namely; weight and fat loss, muscle gain and strengthening.


1. Squats

personal%20training%20functional%20squatsThe Squat is quite possibly the ‘Mac-daddy’ (i.e. the best) of all resistance training exercises.  It uses all the major muscles in the lower leg, thighs and hips and when performed correctly uses numerous muscles in the upper body to help protect the spine when load is rested on the upper back and/or shoulders.  As it uses lots of muscle it is great as a calorie burner to help weight loss and toning, and when progressively heavier loads and greater training volumes are used it is possibly the best exercise for building strength and size in the lower body muscles. 

Squats replicate a primary movement pattern that most people use variations of everyday whether it’s getting in and out of a chair, using the toilet, or picking items off the ground.  There is a version of squats available to suit every client – whether its supported bodyweight squats for the beginner or heavy barbell squats for the more advanced client – the movement is the same, the only variance is the way the movement is loaded and the depth which is safe for each client.


2. Lunges

personal%20training%20functional%20training%20lungesUsing the same muscles as the squat, the lunge also replicates a primary movement pattern – whenever you walk up and down stairs, up and down hills or even if you’ve just simply walked you’ve used a version of the lunge. 

Like squats, there is a version of the lunge that is suitable for most clients, limited depth supported lunges for beginners and full depth lunges loaded with dumbbells or barbells for more advanced clients.  Lunges can be used to help burn calories and firm or tone muscles, or they are also a great exercise to build strength and size in the lower body. 

One point with lunges though – as they are essentially squats being performed on one leg you should be very weary about adding too much load too soon with your clients.  As the majority of the clients weight goes through one leg during the lunge, as opposed to both legs with the squat then there is much more loading with a lunge than with an equivalently loaded squat. 


3. Deadlifts

personal%20training%20functional%20deadliftsAlong with squats, the deadlift is a serious contender for the ‘Mac-daddy’ of all resistance exercises award.  The deadlift actually combines two primary movement patterns – the squat and the pull, as a weight is pulled into the body, and lowered at the same time as a squat is performed. 

When appropriately loaded the deadlift uses more muscles than any other resistance exercise – all the lower body muscles, and the majority of the upper body muscles.  As such it is great for burning calories, firming, toning and developing muscles, building strength and size and losing weight – all depending on how it is performed.

The deadlift is certainly more complex than the squat and as such may make it unsuitable for beginners, but nevertheless it can be modified to suit different clients – for beginners the bar can be raised off the ground to lessen the depth the client needs to squat down to reach the bar, and for more advanced lifters progressively more load can be added to full range deadlifts.


4. Chin Ups / Pull Ups

personal%20training%20functional%20chins%20upsUsing all the big pulling muscles of the body – all the back muscles, the shoulders and the arms, the chin or pull up is a great exercise for firming, toning, building and strengthening all these muscle groups. 

personal%20training%20functional%20pull%20up%20on%20barAs chins also use a lot of muscle then they are a great exercise for burning calories and assisting weight loss.  And like the previous exercises the chin or pull up can be modified to suit most clients’ abilities.   Stronger or more experienced clients can perform full chins as shown above and weight can be added to make the exercise even harder.  Less experienced clients can perform pull ups onto a lower bar and shown here, keeping their feet on the ground and thus minimizing the total amount of bodyweight they have pull directly upwards.


5. Lat Pulldown

personal%20training%20functional%20lat%20pulldownA great alternative to the chin or pull up is the lateral pulldown which works all the same pulling muscles, and is probably more suited to beginners as the load is easily adjusted. 

The lat pulldown is known as an ‘open chain’ exercise as opposed to all the previous exercises which are known as ‘closed chain’.  Closed chain exercises are exercises where you push or pull against a fixed or immovable object, whereas open chain exercises are when the resistance that is being pushed or pulled against actually moves. 

Closed chain exercises have the edge over open chain exercises in terms of effectiveness – as the body cannot overcome the fixed object in closed chain exercises the neuromuscular system actually works a little harder to try to overcome it than it does with open chain exercises, and by working a little harder there is quite simply more benefit.  


6. Bent over Row

personal%20training%20functional%20bent%20over%20rowAnother great pulling exercise is the bent over row which uses all the big pulling muscles as the chins, pull ups and lat pulldown.  As the bar is pulled up to the torso it moves away from the centre of mass of the client, thus pulling the client forward and off-balance.  This places a greater demand on the ‘core’ muscles to stabilise the body during this exercise.

And again the more muscle that is used the greater the beneficial effect of the exercise.


7. Push Ups

personal%20training%20functional%20push%20upThe humble old push up is a closed chain exercise that uses all the big pushing muscles of the body – namely the chest, shoulder and triceps.  It also requires core muscles to work to maintain a safe ‘neutral’ spine position throughout the movement, meaning lots of muscle is used during this exercise and because the exercise is closed chain that muscle will work a little harder to try to overcome the immovable barrier being pushed against.  personal%20training%20functional%20wall%20push%20upSo push ups are great exercises for burning calories to achieve muscle firming and toning, weight loss, strengthening and muscle building…all again depending on how the exercise is performed

And the push up can be modified to suit any client – full push ups can be performed for the more experienced and able client while push ups can be performed with the knees on the ground or against a bar or a wall the make the exercise easier for beginner clients.


8. Bench Press

personal%2520training%2520functional%2520bench%2520pressThe Bench Press is essentially an open chain version of the push up.  It works all the same pushing muscles – the chest, shoulders and triceps.  There is however less need for the core muscles to work to keep the spine locked in neutral throughout the movement as the rigid bench provides support. 

You could substitute the bench for a stability ball as many personal trainers do, in order to make the exercise less stable, however this added instability actually negates the advantage that the bench press has over the push up, namely that the load being used in this exercise is easily adjusted. 

As the load is increased all the muscles involved in the movement are required to work a little harder – the prime mover muscles (in this case the chest, shoulder and triceps) work harder to create the movement, and the muscles that stabilise the active joints (in this case the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder joint) work harder to protect and stabilise the active joint(s).   As the load increases more muscle is stimulated to thicken and tone, to strengthen and to burn the calories that will contribute to weight and or fat loss. 

So as personal trainers you must consider that while adding instability to exercises may require some core muscles to work a little harder, it actually limits the effectiveness of many exercises as the benefits of progressively adding load on the prime movers and joint stabilisers are minimised.


9. Tricep Pushdown

personal%20training%20functional%20tricep%20pushdownThe tricep pushdown is an isolation exercise that really only works the tricep muscles – so how on earth is this a ‘functional’ exercise? 

Well if your definition of functional is truly client centric and linked to the major goals clients have for exercising then this becomes a functional exercise.  One of the areas many female clients want to firm and ‘tone’ is the back of the upper arm.  Now sure, any big pushing exercise like push ups will be more effective for this purpose – it will burn more total calories than the pushdown and stimulate the tricep muscles as well as others. 

So for pure effectiveness the push up or bench press wins, but throwing a few sets of pushdowns in at the end of a workout (after push ups or bench press) in order to have the client really 'feel' that the areas most important to them are being targeted is very functional, probably more psychologically than physiologically – if it contributes to the client feeling a specific area working and wanting to come back to repeat training sessions then it is a functionally great exercise.


10. Barbell Curl

personal%2520training%2520functional%2520barbell%2520curlIn the same vein as the tricep pushdown is the barbell curl.  Many males (especially younger ones!) consider having well developed biceps (or ‘guns’) as being critical to being, and demonstrating being ‘male’.  

Now in terms of building size and strength in the biceps the big pulling exercises such as chins, bent over rows and lat pulldowns are certainly more effective as heavier loads are able to be lifted thus providing a greater stimulus for strengthening and building the biceps (and other muscles).  But nothing produces a localised ‘swelling’ and illusion of growing the biceps than some barbell curls – so for any client that wants to develop their guns a few sets of barbell curls at the end of a training session is certainly functional.

And by performing both the barbell curl and the tricep pushdown while standing, core stabilising muscles will be used too (especially as the loads get heavier) to keep the spine safely locked into neutral position.

Ok, so we've looked at some truly functional exercises on this page, check out some commonly used exercises of questionable functionality here..

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