The 7 most important workout moves you should be doing

Forget fancy fitness classes and trendy workouts -- these are the only exercise moves you need to know.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read

Free weights and functional movements are the best avenues for getting strong. 

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There are plenty of reasons why people work out, but the most important one is mobility. As we age, it becomes harder for our bodies to carry bags of groceries, bend down to pick up your kid and even get into and out of a chair. While you can't completely avoid those changes to your body, there are a few key exercises you can do at least once a week to help you stay mobile and strong for decades to come.

Functional fitness refers to a type of training that prepares people for everyday life, with the goal of keeping you healthy, strong, mobile and cardiovascularly fit for as long as possible, even as you get older and become more susceptible to injuries and degenerative diseases. 

A big part of reaching that goal is incorporating functional movements, or movements that translate to things you do on a regular basis -- such as picking up a heavy box from the floor, getting in and out of your car, walking up and down stairs and leaping over a puddle of water. Functional movements also translate to actions and activities you may not encounter as often, but the strength will really come in handy when you do encounter them -- such as pulling yourself up and over a fence or playing any sport.

I outline below the seven most important functional movements that everyone, including you, should master.

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Functional movements make life easier.

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Elements of a functional exercise

A certain group of qualities makes a movement truly functional. These exercises typically: 

  • Utilize more than one joint (they're compound movements, not isolation movements).
  • Recruit multiple muscle groups.
  • Incorporate movement in multiple planes (forward, backward, side-to-side, up and down).
  • Involve free weights (dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells) rather than machines.
  • Builds strength, coordination and balance.
  • Improve body awareness and joint range of motion.

Functional exercises train you to use your body as a system, the way it's intended for use. That's different from isolation exercises, like the leg extension machine, which involves sitting in a chair and isolating your quadriceps to move weight. You'll never mimic that movement in real life -- your quads move in conjunction with your hamstrings, calves, glutes and core. 

Isolation exercises do have their place: Strengthening individual muscles can help people recover from injuries or correct muscle imbalances. However, functional movements are the most important, applicable and beneficial exercises to master.

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The 7 functional movements you need to get strong 

If you're ready to get stronger, make daily activities easier and generally feel more capable in life, add these nine functional exercises to your gym routine. You can try them out on their own or as a circuit in any combination you want. 

Just remember, if you're new to exercise or unsure about your form, it's always best to enlist help from a professional or an experienced friend who can show you how to perform these movements safely.

One option is to try out various functional fitness programs, like CrossFit, F45 training, Barry's Bootcamp and Opex Fitness if you don't want to workout on your own.

Read more: How to create an exercise routine you'll actually stick to

1. Deadlifts


A personal trainer helping a client set up for the deadlift.

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Deadlifts are the most functional of all the functional movements. Think about it: How many times do you bend down to pick something up? Probably more than you even realize. Every time you crouch to pick up a box, bag, child, small dog or anything else, you're doing a deadlift. Or, at least you should be. 

Many people lift items from the ground the wrong way, pulling with solely their back muscles rather than utilizing the legs and core. Practicing deadlifts in the gym can teach you to pick things up with good form -- hinging at the hips, keeping your core tight and back flat, and recruiting your leg muscles. This reduces your risk of injury doing a basic activity, like grabbing your heavy suitcase from the baggage claim at an airport. 

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2. Squats


The barbell back squat.

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Squats are a close second to deadlifts as one of the most important functional movements. Squatting is a natural position that humans are meant to achieve (think of toddlers crouching down in a perfect squat), but unfortunately, most people lose the ability to squat with good form because of poor posture, too much sitting and lack of joint mobility. 

When performed properly, the squat strengthens your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back and abs. When performed poorly, you risk injury to any of those muscle groups. If you struggle with squat form, you can start with supported squats: Hold onto a suspension trainer or a sturdy object, like the back of your couch, as you practice descending to full-depth.   

3. Overhead press


The overhead press strengthens your shoulders and protects your shoulder joints.

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Also called "strict press" and "military press," the overhead press involves extending your arms fully overhead with weight. You can use a barbell, dumbbells and even kettlebells for this. Some functional training plans like to get even more serious about the real-life aspect by having people press real-life objects, such as a sandbag or log, overhead. 

Like the deadlift, you probably perform the overhead pressing pattern more often than you realize. Every time you reach up high to put something away or get something down, you're overhead pressing. This movement not only translates substantially to everyday life, but it also strengthens the major muscles of your shoulder, protecting the fragile joint underneath (your shoulder joints are highly susceptible to injury because of the very mobile ball-and-socket structure). 

4. Pull-ups


Pull-ups train your back, arms and core. 

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Pull-ups: Seemingly simple but notoriously difficult. While pull-ups don't translate directly to a movement pattern most people use in real life, the functional aspect comes from the fact that pull-ups are a multijoint exercise that strengthens many muscle groups at once. 

When performing a pull-up, you move at the shoulders, elbows and wrists, and contract the muscles in your forearms, biceps, upper back and midback. Because pull-ups involve retracting the scapulae (pulling the shoulders back and down -- think of squeezing your shoulder blades together) they can help improve posture and reduce posture-related pain. 

Plus, many recreational activities benefit from pull-ups: You use your back and arm muscles when performing any rowing or pulling movement, so mastering the pull-up can help you with hobbies such as swimming, kayaking and rock climbing. 

5. Push-ups


Push-ups build strength in the chest, shoulders and core.

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Another surprisingly difficult bodyweight movement (who knew it could be so hard to push your own body off the ground?), push-ups build strength primarily in your chest, shoulders, triceps and core. 

This translates as pushing any heavy object, but the greater benefit comes from the ability to brace your core in a vulnerable position, protecting your spine from unnatural and potentially harmful positions. If your hips sag or your back hyperextends during a push-up, that's a sign you need to work on core stabilization and strength.

If you can't do standard push-ups (only toes and hands on the ground), start with modified push-ups on your knees. It's best to practice with an easier version until your muscles, especially your core muscles, are strong enough to support your spine and retain good form.

6. Lunges


Lunges translate to everyday activities, such as walking up stairs.

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You might think of lunges as a good way to build muscle mass in your legs, which they are, but they offer more benefits than toned thighs. Like squats, lunges recruit the quads, hamstrings, glutes, core and lower back -- the big difference is that lunges are a unilateral movement, while squats are a bilateral movement. 

Unilateral is just a fancy way of saying "single-sided." With lunges, you're working one leg at a time, as opposed to squats, where both legs work at the same time. Additionally, lunges recruit your calves, a big part in their translating to virtually any activity that involves moving your legs. 

Lunges can help you build strength for any activities that involve single-leg strength, or generally any time you find yourself having to take a big step, like getting up onto a platform or stepping onto a boulder during a hike. They also help with balance and stability, because working one side of your body at a time forces you to activate stabilize muscles to keep your spine aligned. 

7. Loaded carries


Tired of making two trips to bring in the groceries? Add kettlebell carries to your gym routine.

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Loaded carries, also called farmer carries, can prepare you for any demand that involves transporting heavy objects in your hands. You can perform loaded carries with dumbbells, kettlebells or odd objects, such as buckets full of water. 

The benefits of loaded carries? Improved grip strength, upper back strength, shoulder stabilization and core stabilization. Another benefit that's sometimes overlooked is rotational resistance, or your ability to resist the weight of an object pulling your core in any given direction. And, of course, carrying all the groceries upstairs in one trip.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.