Functional Strength Training – Introduction
What Is Functional Strength Training?
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset – every exercise is functional.
That’s because every exercise has a function!
The function of the pec deck is to increase chest size and strength, while the function of the leg extension is to do the same for your quadriceps.
So, the idea that some exercises are more functional than others and, therefore, somehow more valuable is incorrect.
Every exercise has a purpose – even isolation exercises that target single muscle groups.
That said, functional training can also be defined as something that has carryover to your life outside the gym, including everyday activities and sporting endeavors.
They may also help reduce your risk of injury.
These so-called functional exercises could be said to improve your functionality.
Functional training is a fitness industry buzzword, and also one that’s used almost in a derogatory way, e.g., leg presses aren’t functional, or bodybuilding isn’t functional.
It could even be argued that the king of exercises, back squats, aren’t functional, as most people never have to do squats with a heavy barbell resting on their shoulders outside of the gym!
In this article, we’re going to look at what real functional training is and isn’t, so you can decide if it’s the right type of workout for you.
What Functional Training Isn’t
The easiest way to explain what functional training is – is to discuss what it isn’t.
If you Google functional exercises, invariably, you’ll come across articles and images depicting exercises that are so convoluted and contrived that they look like they belong in a circus!
- doing biceps curls standing on a BOSU ball,
- squats standing on a stability ball, or
- shoulder presses standing on one leg, and so on.
If a functional exercise is meant to improve your performance by replicating movements of daily living, how can squatting on a stability ball be functional?
When was the last time you had to pull off a stunt like that?
In almost every case, these so-called functional exercises merely develop and test your balance and skill and limit the overload you can place on your muscles.
This makes them less functional than more conventional strength training exercises.
In contrast, something like a regular bodyweight squat is very functional because squats are a common movement.
However, you do them with your feet firmly planted on the floor, not on a balance board or another “functional” training device.
So, what IS functional training?
It’s something that replicates a natural movement and develops your ability to perform that movement better.
The Seven Functional Movement Patterns
Your body is capable of hundreds of different movements.
Still, if you bring things back to the basics, there are seven fundamental movement patterns that most people perform every day.
Functional training should involve exercises for all seven movements.
The seven functional movement patterns are:
- Hip hinge
Between them, these movements cover everything your body does as a part of daily living and during sports.
In “real life,” movements are often combined.
For example, you can squat, twist, lunge, carry, and hip hinge and pull simultaneously.
All of these movements can be addressed with a wide range of exercises.
Benefits of Functional Training
Real functional training, i.e., NOT standing on one leg and doing biceps curls, offer several benefits.
Increased functional strength
Strength is the ability of your muscles to generate force.
The stronger you are, the more easily your body will be able to cope with strenuous activities outside of the gym.
Also, strong muscles tend to be more resistant to fatigue, more resilient, and less prone to injury.
Increased muscle mass
Done correctly, many functional exercises can build muscle mass.
While that is not the case for those convoluted functional exercises that are more akin to circus skills than a real workout, true functional training can improve muscle performance and muscle size.
There is even a type of training called functional bodybuilding.
Increased bone mass and joint stability
All forms of strength and weight-bearing exercise will increase bone mass, including functional training.
Lifting weights puts stress on your skeleton, which responds by getting stronger.
In the same way, your joints will adapt to your workouts, becoming more mobile and stable.
However, functional exercises that require you to control a weight, e.g., dumbbells, are best for improving joint stability.
Coordination, balance, and proprioception
Most functional exercises are done using your body weight or free weights for resistance.
Unlike machines, where the load and your movements are guided, it’s up to you to control the position of your joints and the direction the weight moves in.
This type of exercise taxes not only your muscles and skeleton but also your nervous or neurological system.
As such, functional training will improve your:
Coordination – the ability to move several limbs at once in a controlled, purposeful manner.
Balance – the ability to keep your center of mass over your base of support.
Proprioception – Proprioception is the ability to sense where your limbs are, even when they’re out of sight.
While those circus-skill exercises WILL improve these neurological functions, they don’t do much for your strength.
This makes them LESS functional because strength is critical for almost every physical task.
All of the above benefits combine to make your body more injury-proof.
Strength and muscle mass means you are less likely to hurt yourself lifting something heavy.
More stable joints mean a lower risk of joint wear and tear and injuries.
Improved balance, coordination, and proprioception will lower your risk of accidents and ensure your movements are more controlled.
Functional Strength Training Exercises
Here are some functional exercises grouped by movement pattern.
As you can see, none of them are particularly exotic, and nor do they require any special equipment.
Because of this, you should have no problem adding them to your regular strength training workouts or even using them exclusively.
So, the squat is a movement pattern and an exercise!
Most types of squats are functional because they involve flexing your knees and hips at the same time.
Hinging forward from your hips is a very important movement pattern.
A good hip hinge will protect your lower back from injury and requires and develops strong glutes and hamstrings.
Example hip hinge exercises include:
- Romanian deadlift
- Single-leg Romanian deadlift
- Kettlebell swing
- Good morning
- Glute bridge
- Hip thrust
While lunges and squats use many of the same muscles, the lunge is arguably more functional because it more closely replicates the demands of walking and running.
It also loads one leg at a time and can help develop your balance and coordination.
Of course, you don’t need to choose between squats and lunges; both deserve a place in your workouts.
Pushing exercises work your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Many also involve your abs, as you’ll need to use them to brace your core and prevent unwanted movement.
There are lots of pushing exercises to choose from.
Still, you should include vertical and horizontal exercises in your workouts to ensure you develop both movements equally.
Good examples include:
- Standing overhead press
- Single-arm overhead press
- Jackknife push-up
- Handstand push-up
- Single-arm bench press
- Single-arm cable chest press
Pull exercises work your biceps, upper back, and lower back.
Like the aforementioned pushing exercises, you should include vertical and horizontal pulls in your workouts.
- Lat pulldown
- Bent-over row
- Inverted row
- Single-arm dumbbell row
- Cable face pull
- Cable row
- Resistance band pull-apart
The twist movement pattern trains your core and obliques.
Many movements involve rotation or, more often, anti-rotation, where you must brace your core to prevent your torso from turning, e.g., during single-arm pushes and pulls.
- Cable Russian twist
- Cable woodchop
- Medicine ball rotational throw
- Turkish get-up
- Pallof press
Carrying a heavy load is arguably one of the best ways to test and develop functional strength.
Working virtually every muscle in your body, heavy carries should be part of almost every exerciser’s workouts.
Unilateral weighted carries, i.e., load held in one hand only, are especially demanding as you’ll need to use your core more to stabilize your spine and avoid leaning sideways.
Good examples include:
- Farmer’s carry – weight held by your sides
- Waiter’s carry – weight held above the head
- Zercher carry – weight held in the crooks of your elbows
- Bear hug carry – weight held to your chest
- Rucking – weight on your back
Functional Strength Workout
You should have no problem putting a functional workout together from the abovementioned exercises.
But, to save you the bother, here is an example.
Feel free to change any of the exercises.
However, always pick exercises from the same movement pattern group.
Functional Strength Training Workout – Copyright Fit Apprentice®
Single-leg Romanian deadlift
10-12 per leg
10-12 per side
10-12 per leg
*Alternate between vertical and horizontal pushes and pulls workout by workout to develop all the relevant muscles equally.
What Is Functional Strength Training? – Closing Thoughts
Functional strength training is anything that mirrors the demands of daily living or a sport.
Functional training does not have to look like something from Cirque de Solei.
In fact, most functional exercises are movements performed in gyms all over the world.
Make your workouts more functional by building them around the exercises mentioned in this article.
But remember that just because an exercise is deemed non-functional doesn’t mean it’s bad or pointless.
Providing an exercise matches your training goals; it has a function and deserves a place in your workout.
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