10 Best Exercises for Real Functional Fitness

by Charley Gould

How to Test and Build Real-World Athleticism

Functional fitness. Every-day athleticism. Whatever you want to call it, here's how to test it and the exercises you need to build it.

Functional Fitness: Your New #1 Goal

What’s your main goal? Get stronger? Build muscle? Drop fat? Nothing wrong with those, but you’d be better off shifting your goal to real-world performance: functional fitness.

Performance, strength, and body composition go hand-in-hand. Some of the world’s most impressive physiques are owned by football players and high-level sprinters, both of whom have the main goal of performing at elite levels.

Sure, not many lifters are striving to become elite athletes, nor do they have the genetics for it, which makes “real-world” performance a more realistic goal.

The 3 Characteristics of Real-World Performance

1. Performance

Real-world performance means being able to sprint, jump, hit homers in beer-league softball games, dunk on unassuming teenagers at the local YMCA, and haul a couch upstairs like nobody’s business.

2. Anti-Fragility

This goes beyond resilience. If you’re resilient, you can resist stress more easily. But if you’re anti-fragile, you can use stress to adapt, improve, and better withstand whatever life throws at you. You don’t run from issues; you attack them head-on.

3. Strength & Muscle

A jacked physique can express herculean strength in all forms (not just in the big three lifts) regardless of what’s being lifted, how it’s being lifted, or the muscles doing the lifting. So the best exercises for real-world performance are the ones that boost performance, bulletproof the body, and build functional strength and muscle.

Below are the best exercises for real-world performance for every movement pattern. You’ll see a few power-builders in here, too. Their real-world performance benefits and the standards to shoot for are listed with each.

1. Front Squat

Not all squats are created equal, nor is there a definitive “must-do” squat for anyone who isn’t a powerlifter. For real-world performance, however, front squats reign supreme.

Performance: They require an upright torso, which – on top of resembling most athletic movements – gives them many benefits. They’re superior for improving rate of force development, boosting reactive power, enhancing the ability to accelerate/decelerate, and eliciting peak core activation.

Two studies found that front squats produced greater increases in jump height (by 23%) and faster 40-yard dash times (by 0.2 seconds, or 3.3%) than back squats after 10 weeks of training (1, 2).

Anti-Fragility: The front-racked load acts as a counterbalance, allowing for a better posterior weight shift and an enhanced squat depth. Front squats open up extra range of motion in the hips and ankles and create long-lasting improvements in mobility and end-range stability.

Front squats also encourage active external rotation at the shoulders, a “quieting down” of the lats, and the recruitment of the upper back to stabilize the scaps, all of which improve posture.

Strength & Muscle: The upright position produces a more angled tibia, which shifts the focus almost entirely onto the quads. Paired with the increased range of motion, front squats are a double whammy for turning even the smallest of bird legs into a meaty pair of wheels.

Performance Standard: 1RM

  • Males: 1.7 x bodyweight
  • Females: 1.3 x bodyweight

2. Trap Bar Deadlift

Trap bar deadlifts are the king of exercises for high-performance lifters. Here’s why:

Performance: Strength in the trap bar deadlift is a direct byproduct of how much force is exerted into the ground, which – all else being equal – is the primary determinant of sprint speed and jump height. Trap bar deadlifts also involve the same starting position as a vertical jump as well as the same lower-body actions involved during hip extension.

Anti-Fragility: Considering that trap bar deadlifts build titanic strength in the entire lower half as well as the upper back and core – areas that are pivotal for remaining healthy – this makes them phenomenal for bulletproofing the body against injury.

Strength & Muscle: Since trap bar deadlifts are the ultimate squat-hinge hybrid, they hit the posterior chain harder than squats and the anterior chain harder than deadlifts. Combined with their safety and simplicity, trap bar deadlifts are unmatched for packing on size throughout the entire lower half, upper back, traps, and forearms.

Performance Standard: 1RM

  • Males: 2.5 x bodyweight
  • Females: 2 x bodyweight

3. Hand-Release Push-Up

For lifters who care about performance more than their powerlifting numbers, the loaded hand-release push-up is even better than the bench press. Here’s why:

Performance: It’s a closed chain, integrative exercise that increases rate of force development by training “push” power from a dead-stop. It requires the core, hips, and spine to stay aligned and tight while the upper body works smoothly and synergistically.

Anti-Fragility: While the bench press involves pinning the shoulder blades down and back, push-ups are one of the few pressing exercises that enable the shoulder blades to move freely around the ribcage. This not only encourages scapular upward rotation but also recruits the serratus anterior, both of which contribute to improved overhead mechanics and shoulder robustness.

Strength & Muscle: Hand-release push-ups start from a dead stop, which requires a stronger initial pectoral contraction at the beginning of each rep. And they have a greater range of motion (about 10%) compared to standard push-ups. This maximizes pec recruitment for hypertrophy.

Performance Standard: 8RM (Bodyweight Plus Added Load)

  • Males: 1.5 x bodyweight (a 200-pound male with 100 pounds of added load)
  • Females: 1.1 x bodyweight (a 150-pound female with 15 pounds of added load)

4. One-Arm Landmine Push Press

Compared to the conventional overhead press, this one’s a far better (and safer) alternative for strength, muscle, and real-world performance. Here’s why:

Performance: Outside of the Olympic lifts, this is the only exercise that trains integrative full-body power (due to the momentum created by the slight dip) with an overhead focus. Throw in the dual anti-extension and anti-rotation challenges placed on the core and the one-arm landmine push press is a unique exercise for both power and performance.

Anti-Fragility: It encourages more upward rotation of the shoulder blades, which makes it a great exercise for grooving optimal overhead mechanics and building strong and stable shoulders. The “reach” component at end-range recruits the serratus anterior and strengthens the upper traps via upward rotation, their most vital function.

Strength & Muscle: It reduces the risk of compensation at the low back, which makes it just as effective as its barbell counterpart for isolating the shoulders, building non-compensatory overhead strength, and packing on muscle in the shoulders, traps, and triceps.

Performance Standard: 8RM

  • Males: 0.5 x bodyweight
  • Females: 0.3 x bodyweight

5. Feet-Elevated Suspension Row

This is often perceived as a newbie exercise, but for real-world performance, suspension trainer (Buy at Amazon) rows (feet elevated ideally) have a handful of benefits that no other row can match.

Performance: They challenge the whole body to work as an integrative unit akin to a moving plank. They hammer the anterior core, force the pillar complex to remain stacked, elicit a maximal isometric brace throughout the kinetic chain, and require the entire pulling musculature of the upper body to work in unison to sync up efficient movement.

Anti-Fragility: They make it easy for the shoulder blades to move freely around the ribcage, which can work wonders for shoulder health. While other rows allow for enough freedom of movement to do the same, suspension trainer rows take things a step further by enabling a greater shift from internal to external rotation.

Strength & Muscle: Due to the free-moving nature of the handles, they provide a novel stimulus for strength and muscle gain. To paraphrase Dan John, they hit the upper back and posterior shoulder harder than just about any other row. They also tax the biceps and forearms.

Performance Standard: 8RM (Bodyweight Plus Added Load)

  • Males: 1.3 x bodyweight (a 200-pound male with 60 pounds of added load)
  • Females: 1 x bodyweight

6. Ring Chin-Up

While all chin-up and pull-up variations are phenomenal – and far more useful than lat pulldowns for real-world performance – ring chin-ups are the king of vertical pulls.

Performance: Chins/pull-ups are a direct reflection of relative strength, but they’re also the most indicative upper body lift of sprint speed and jump height.

Ring chin-ups strengthen the upper back, which is the primary driver of shoulder extension during sprints and jumps. And the instability of the rings will increase the core demands of regular chin-ups and pull-ups – both of which already beat most “ab” exercises from a recruitment standpoint. Rings amplify their impact on anterior core control.

Anti-Fragility: Ring chin-ups enable a near-full shift from internal to external rotation at the shoulders in a spiral motion and encourage a natural upward rotation of the shoulder blades. They allow a greater range of motion, which provides a massive stretch in the lats and thoracic spine, and they improve shoulder function.

Strength & Muscle: It’s the best of the chin-up with the best of the pull-up. They’re initiated with a pronated grip akin to a pull-up, which hits the lats and lower traps especially hard. During the ascent, they entail rotating the hands into a supinated position like a chin-up, which places a greater emphasis on the biceps.

Performance Standard: 3RM (Bodyweight Plus Added Load)

  • Males: 1.3 x bodyweight (a 200-pound male with 60 pounds of added load)
  • Females: 1 x bodyweight

7. Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat

Almost all athletic movements occur on one leg at a time, so all single-leg exercises are “functional” for performance. Rear-foot elevated split squats (RFESS), however, are a step above the rest.

Performance: Unlike other single-leg exercises, which usually bias either the anterior or posterior chain, these hit both sides of the lower body especially hard and have a more direct carryover to athletic movements. They also involve a slight forward lean that mimics acceleration-specific angles, which can translate to increased sprint speed.

Anti-Fragility: They force the working leg to take on most of the load (about 85%), unlike exercises like step-ups, lunges, and regular split squats, which use the non-working leg to a much greater degree.

This exercise addresses strength/mobility discrepancies between sides, strengthens weak links, and reinforces proper movement mechanics. It also involves a greater range of motion than most unilateral exercises, which throws an added mobility component into the mix.

Strength & Muscle: They recruit the glutes, hams, and quads simultaneously, as opposed to other unilateral alternatives that target the anterior or posterior chain independently. Plus, you can use heavier loads without worrying as much about balance and stability since it’s a static exercise.

Performance Standard: 5RM (Holding Two Dumbbells/Kettlebells)

  • Males: 1 x bodyweight (a 200-pound male would hold 100-pound dumbbells in each hand)
  • Females: 0.7 x bodyweight (a 150-pound female would hold 50-55 pound dumbbells in each hand)

8. Single-Leg Deadlift

The single-leg deadlift (SLDL) may be the only exception to the “no-exercise-is-mandatory” rule, especially if you want to build up your pancake backside and show off your athletic prowess.

Performance: The hips, glutes, pelvis, trunk, and upper back have to work synergistically while simultaneously generating force. These actions are extremely similar to what occurs during any remotely athletic movement like sprinting, changing direction, jumping and landing on one leg, etc.

Anti-Fragility: SLDLs expose and address any imbalances, weak links, or stability/mobility issues that may fall under the radar during bilateral deadlifts. Plus, going hard and heavy on SLDLs builds eccentric strength and beats the pants off static stretching for alleviating “tight” hamstrings, which makes them useful for preventing hamstring pulls.

Strength & Muscle: From a muscle-building standpoint, SLDLs recruit the entire backside of the lower half and pack on size in the glutes and hamstrings. From strength, SLDLs refine the hinge pattern and clean up movement mechanics, both of which can boost strength in the deadlift.

Performance Standard: 5RM (Holding Two Dumbbells Or Kettlebells)

  • Males: 1 x bodyweight (a 200-pound male with 100-pound dumbbells in each hand)
  • Females: 0.7 x bodyweight (e.g., a 150-pound female holding 50-55-pound dumbbells in each hand)

9. Medicine Ball Throws

Medball throws of all types should be a mainstay in every lifter’s program.

Performance: They’re all about power. Overhead throws are great for grooving explosive triple extension at the hips, knees, and ankles. Throws performed from the chest target upper-body pushing power. Rotational throws build power outside the sagittal plane.

Anti-Fragility: They encourage movement from all the right places. Rotational work, for example, can reinforce rotation through a strong and stable core, which enables the hips and shoulders to do the work rather than the lumbar spine. Likewise, overhead throws can ingrain the ability to maintain a neutral spine as the hips extend and the arms reach overhead.

Strength & Muscle: Increasing your ability to exert force quickly can be a game-changer for strength. Rate of force development (or a lack thereof) may make the difference between hitting a PR and getting buckled beneath a bar. Moreover, fast concentric actions recruit the high-threshold motor units that have the most potential for growth, which means that throws done prior to training can lead to increased muscle recruitment while training.

Performance Standard: Be a person who does them regularly and with power. There’s not really a numerical standard for these. But keep in mind, medicine ball throws are about speed, not strength. So break some walls! (Or at least feel like you could.)

10. Sprinting

Sprinting should be a non-negotiable staple in the training of any lifter who cares about performance.

Performance: It’s the only activity that combines actual movement through space with unparalleled movement velocities. Even an average Joe should be able to sprint about 8 meters per second, which is four times the speed at which elite weightlifters move a barbell during a clean or snatch (2 meters per second).

Anti-Fragility: Sprinting builds explosive power, improves work capacity, and enhances movement efficiency. It recruits and bulletproofs the core unlike anything else by forcing the entire trunk to provide dynamic strength and stability in all three planes. Sprinting makes you better at everything and significantly harder to kill.

Strength & Muscle: There are two mechanisms through which sprinting can build strength and muscle. First, it increases the proportion of type-II fast-twitch muscle fibers in the legs, which has a direct correlation to strength and mass. Second, sprinting yields enormous hormonal benefits – namely, increased protein synthesis, higher testosterone/HGH production, and improved insulin sensitivity – which can lead to greater strength and muscle gains over time.

Performance Standard: 40-Yard Dash (Starting from a Two-Point Stance)

  • Males: 5 seconds
  • Females: 5.5 seconds




  1. Hartmann H et al. Influence of Squatting Depth on Jumping Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3243-61. PubMed.
  2. Balderree AS et al. The Effects of Back and Front Squat Exercises on Sprint Speed and Vertical Jump: A Pilot Study. International Journal of Sports Science. 2019;9(1):1-7.

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Nice article! My preference would be to change a couple things though. I’d change would be swapping a weighted step up for the rear foot elevated split squat. The problem with the split squat is that even though you are leaning forward your push is more vertical than forward due to your rear foot being fixed. With a step up you’re actually pushing or propelling your body forwards in a true unilateral movement.

I’d also consider swapping the front squat for either a snatch or an overhead squat (barbell or DB’s) as I feel the extension and strength built through the thoracic spine and shoulder area would be of great benefit. The drawback is lower loading on the legs, but this can be compensated for by doing deficits with the trap bar deadlift.


I would say this is a pretty arbitrary list - as any of those “N best exercises for …”.
SLDL, however, is not arbitrary IMO. It should not be a part of any list, with the exception of those for the worst exercises. Why? Because you are doing a loaded exercise while not being stable. There is a significant probability to strain a smaller stabilizing muscle. I used to do it when I was not experienced enough to understand that articles like this one has only one value - for the author to get the views. It took me out for several weeks. I wonder why the author didn’t include a bosu ball squat. It has exactly the same “benefits”.

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I come back to this article often for reference. I was very shocked the first time when I didn’t see any farmers walk variation make the list. Was happy to see that trap bar deadlifts and front squats made it. Only ones i don’t do here are the medicine ball ones and sprinting (which I am seriously working to add). Don’t have any rings so I just opted for standard chin ups. Hand release push ups are one of my new favorites as it’s a much needed upgrade to a classic exercise. Don’t really want to go back to regulars.