The Best Functional Training Equipment You Can use At Home

By on January 19, 2021

Functional training is training that aims to improve functionality. While it can be interpreted in plenty of different ways (you can find my definition/explanation of it here), it’s generally agreed that it involves moving and training in ways that will have real-world benefit. That in turn tends to mean moving in multiple planes of motion, using compound lifts, improving stability, etc. It also often involves unique functional training equipment like sandbags, kettlebells, plyo boxes, bands, etc.

Best functional training equipment

This approach to training has become increasingly popular in recent years. But the challenge for many newcomers, is knowing where to start. This is especially difficult when training from home. What is the best functional training equipment? What do you actually need? How do you get started?

This post will break down the best functional training equipment and how to use it.

First: Do You Need Functional Training Equipment At All?

To be clear: you do not need any tools or gadgets at all to begin training in a more functional manner.

One of the most “functional” ways to train there is, is using bodyweight. Push ups, plank, hops, squats, kick-throughs, crawls, and more will all help you to develop a better body-control, strength endurance, core strength, and mobility.

Functional Training for Beginners

But if you want a more varied workout that can more easily target a wide range of different muscle groups and traits, that’s when functional training equipment comes in handy.

See also: An Easy Functional Training Workout for Beginners

Very few people I know in my personal life think to invest in this stuff. Almost every guy I know has a pair of dumbbells kicking around their house, but only fitness fanatics tend to have kettlebells or plyo boxes. I think this should change. This training equipment is fun, it’s extremely good for you, and it’s no all that expensive (in most cases). These days, you can get sandbags, clubbells, and more on Amazon with next day delivery. And if you want to save money, you can actually make a lot of this stuff yourself!

You can get sandbags, clubbells, and more on Amazon with next day delivery.

Even just one of these items will make your workouts significantly more interesting and beneficial.

Here are some great places to start.

The Best Functional Training Equipment to Get Started With

Sandbag

Best Functional Training Equipment: Sandbag

A sandbag is a bag full of sand (or other “heavy stuff”) with handles all over it, usually made from canvas. It looks like a gym bag but it can weigh anywhere from 5kg to 100kg+. This is one of the best pieces of functional training equipment for a couple of reasons.

The idea when training with a sandbag is to provide a more varied stimulus for developing muscle. Every time you life a sandbag, the experience is slightly different. That’s because the center of gravity inside the bag actually moves while you’re training. Thus, no two sandbag lifts will be the exact same and you can train yourself to perform in more unexpected situations. This is particularly effective at building functional strength once you start swinging the bag from side to side to develop more strength in the transverse (rotational) plane.

Every time you life a sandbag, the experience is slightly different.

Sandbags are particularly popular with wrestlers and MMA fighters, as the shifting center of gravity mimics the experience of grappling.

Sandbags also have a host of other applications. They can be squatted, deadlifted, cleaned, snatched, or even rowed. Because they’re light weight, they can be slung around with less chance of injuring yourself or destroying your property. You can also hug them and use them for things like weighted jumps, or lay them across your back to add challenge to push ups.

Sandbags have been used by wrestlers for hundreds of even thousands of years and were a favorite tool among old-time strongmen and even soldiers in Ancient Egypt!

Medicine Balls

Functional Training Tool medicine ball

Medicine balls are among the oldest pieces of functional training equipment, with drawings depicting their use in Ancient Persia. Even Hippocrates is said to have stuffed animal skins and instructed patients to throw them for “medicinal benefit.”

Medicine balls are heavy balls that you slam into the ground or a wall. They can also be tossed into the ether.

Medicine balls come in a few varieties. Some have handles to grip onto. Some are designed to bounce, while others are designed without a bounce. They also come in a variety of different weights.

The real power of the medicine ball is in developing ballistic strength. Ballistic strength essentially relates to your “rate of force production” or your ability to generate power rapidly from a standstill (think plyometrics but without the focus on brief ground-contact times).

The classic medicine ball move is the slam, which involves raising the ball over your head and then slamming it down into the ground. This simple movement is both a pull and a push and teaches you to use the muscles in your upper body in a manner that translates to a lot of real world movements. While the ball isn’t heavy (and the angle of resistance is “wrong”) the focus on powerful slamming will still improve power output.

See also: Training the Serape Effect for Maximum Power Generation

Other movements, like the rotational slam or shotput throw, focus more on rotational strength.

This is also a great conditioning tool, as you can train your work capacity with large sets. This is a lot of fun with a very minimal risk of injury as you start to get tired. A cathartic way to burn calories and improve endurance, then!

Like all the best functional training equipment, there’s plenty more you can do with this thing too. You can perform sit ups while holding it, or you can throw it and then run after it.

Bulgarian Bag

Bulgarian Bag - Functional Training Tool

The Bulgarian Bag is like the sandbag’s awkward cousin. This is once again a material bag stuffed with sand, but the difference is that it has many more handles and grip points. The bag is also shaped like a crescent moon and typically doesn’t get as heavy as a sandbag. The sand inside is packed more tightly, meaning that it doesn’t shift around quite so much. But the weird shape means that once you get some momentum behind this thing, it becomes extremely unruly!

The Bulgarian Bag is actually used more like a kettlebell, with a lot of movements focusing on swinging and slinging the bag. Unlike a kettlebell, this thing won’t hurt if it slams into your back (or at least it won’t hurt a lot). That means you can swing the Bulgarian bag around with more speed and vigor, turning it into a truly effective conditioning tool.

The “king” movement used with the Bulgarian Bag is the spin. This involves swinging the bag around your head as you might perform a kettlebell halo, or a Gama Cast. The difference is that it’s much quicker. This makes it ideal for conditioning fighters and for burning lots of calories while strengthening the core.

You’ll get a great forearm workout without even realising it.

At the same time, the unusual main grips on the Bulgarian Bag force you to grip on tight. You’ll get a great forearm workout without even realising it. And it’s cool to know that the unconventional shape of the Bulgarian Bag is actually inspired by farm animals! Carrying this thing over your shoulder mimics carrying a baby calf – just like Milo of Croton who allegedly invented progressive overload by lifting the same baby calf everyday until it became a full-grown cow!

Plyo Box

Jump height

The Plyo Box is a piece of functional training equipment you’re probably familiar with from the gym. However, it is also something you can easily buy or make yourself at home. Basically, it’s a box you can jump onto!

Plyo boxes are perfect for developing jump height with plyometric exercises. They can also be used for depth jumps (where you jump off and then launch back into the air as quickly as possible). Both these things improve your myotatic stretch reflex and explosive leg strength.

(That said, it’s worth noting that athletes rarely have the luxury of jumping out of a deep squat and are more likely to jump off one foot when running.)

But there’s more to plyo boxes than that! You can also use these boxes to develop hip stability by jumping onto them on one leg and coming to balance. You can use a lower height plyo box as a fun form of conditioning (using step-ups, for example), you can use it for explosive push ups, or you can use it to raise your hands for dips/incline push ups. You can even use a ply box for heavy step-ups.

The kind of power and explosiveness that plyo boxes generate is ultimately more useful for running and jumping than the slow max-strength you build when lifting heavy weights. (Which is not to knock squats for developing those skills – they’re still excellent too.)

Of course, a plyo box is something you can make very easily if you have a wooden crate or even a short step ladder. Just make sure that the surface is grippy. Slipping is the biggest danger here.

That said, make sure you have your technique down too: look out for valgus knees and make sure to absorb the impact properly. Seek guidance if you aren’t sure, and start with something relatively low-to-the-ground.

Kettlebell

Functional kettlebell training

I’ve gone into kettlebells in depth elsewhere on this site, so I won’t do that again now. Suffice to say that many consider kettlebells to be among the best functional training equipment. They are the “breakout star” of functional training and have pretty much gone mainstream.

Kettlebells benefit from having an unusual center-of-gravity that lends itself to generating momentum when swung. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that the “king” of kettlebell exercises is the kettlebell swing. This movement involves swinging the kettlebell between the legs using a hip hinge motion. This is another excellent form of resistance cardio (for burning fat and maintaining muscle) and is also ideal for teaching muscle contraction and relaxation at higher levels (if you perform the “hardstyle” swing, at least).

See also: The Many Facets of Kettlebell Training

Kettlebells have countless other uses, too. You can curl them, press them, clean them, juggle them… Just keep in mind that kettlebells are a little less beginner-friendly than the other functional training equipment on this list. That means you’ll need to ease into them and be sure to monitor your form. I still sometimes fall foul of the “broken wrist” grip, or an overly-squatty swing when I lose concentration (although squatting swings are perfectly legitimate and actually very useful – more on this in future).

Why don’t you see people walking down the street holding a kettlebell in one hand?

Oh, and you can also use a single kettlebell for the “suitcase carry.” This is a loaded carry where you simply pick up one kettlebell and go for a long walk. This builds core stability as you need to counter the weigh on one side, it develops killer grip strength, and it is ideal for burning lots of calories.

You see plenty of people going for runs. Why don’t you see people walking down the street holding a kettlebell in one hand? I hope this becomes commonplace one day, because it’s actually among the very most functional exercises you can do!

Gymnastic Rings

Gymnastic Rings

Gymnastic rings are rings that hang from straps or ropes and loop around a bar or tree branch. This then gives you an unstable surface to use for push ups, dips, or even muscle ups.

Gymnastic rings create a huge number of possibilities for training and offer a workout that is rich in stimuli. There’s a reason gymnasts look and move like superhumans!

The best part? A good set of rings are very affordable and will fit easily into a bag. Don’t bother with TRX or similar “suspension straps.” These are just more expensive gymnastic rings that have less utility (because you can’t support your weight on them easily).

Resistance Bands

Band training serape effect

Resistance bands are bands that provide an increasing amount of resistance as you pull or push against them. These can be attached to any anchor point, depending on how high you want them and at what angle. This is what makes resistance bands such great functional training equipment: you can precisely control the “angle of resistance.”

Want to train someone to swing a baseball bat harder? Then the resistance really needs to come from behind them. Put a weight in their hand and the resistance is pushing their hands downward. The same is true for boxing (which is why boxing with wrist weights may not be the most useful training method).

This also allows you to target specific weak muscle groups and are perfect for rehabilitation. That’s also because bands provide a very safe way to workout without risking injury.

Cable machines work in the same way as bands but have a more consistent level of resistance, whereas bands offer more or less resistance as you travel through the movement. Both options have their pros and cons.

(Of course, bands can also be combined with weightlifting or calisthenics to offer accommodating resistance or otherwise mix things up!)

Special Mention

Clubbell Training

This is not an exhaustive list of the best functional training tools: that would be an extremely long post! I’ve kept the selection here purposefully limited so as not to overwhelm: these few items will provide a very good starting point for anyone that wants to train a little more like an athlete from home – without breaking the bank.

Maybe I’ll add to this list more in future, but for now, here are a few more functional training tools that deserve a mention.

The clubbell is similar to kettlebell, but places the center of gravity even further from the hand. This thing looks like a baseball bat, or the kind of club you’d expect Conan to swing around. Either way, it lends itself to even more swings and lifts that challenge the grip (due to the nice long lever arm) and the core stability (as you fight against the pull and pull of the momentum). Clubbells are also a lot of fun because you feel like a badass warrior.

Indian clubs are similar but lighter. They tend to be wooden and lend themselves better to endurance training.

Maces are much longer with a heavy ball on the end, taking the center of gravity a long way from the hands.

A rope is one of the simplest pieces of functional training equipment you can find. Loop this around a pull up bar and now you can make pull ups more challenging, you can climb the rope, or you can perform things like tricep extensions/bodyweight rows.

This See also: Use the Rope Climb for Amazing Benefits

Dip bars and parallettes are typically categorized as calisthenics tools more than functional training tools, but they definitely lend themselves to functional workouts!

Productivity One Minute Rule

Tires, sleds, and Atlas stones are all fantastic for building functional strength, but are a little impractical to use at home. The same is true for Battle Ropes (though that hasn’t stopped me from trying!)

Stability balls and Bosu balls provide an unstable surface for training and can be useful for developing core stability – especially for beginners or those in rehab. The same is true for balance boards. Their usefulness or lack thereof for the wider population is something I discuss in my book, Functional Training and Beyond.

Let me know what you think is the best functional training equipment I missed down below!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Timothy White says:

    I believe a 5-Gallon Bucket should be considered. Not only can it be used for various loaded carries, it can also be used a box for box squats and a step for negative or band-assisted pull-ups or even a seat to rest between sets. And when you aren’t using it for exercise, it’s still useful to have in your house.

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