The word “functional” gets thrown around a lot today in the world of fitness. So much so that many consider it to be more of a buzzword than hold any actual value or meaning.
In some cases, this may be true, however functional strength training is certainly worth considering. In this article, I am going to explain what it is, how it works, and why it may be worth adding to your routine.
What Is Functional Strength Training?
Functional strength training is a style of training where the progression in strength is designed to be easily transferrable to everyday life.
It usually involves performing large compound exercises, which resemble activities you would perform from day-to-day.
The exercises involved often combine a mix of strength and mobility movements, often with the added benefit of improved flexibility and cardiovascular capacity.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research defines functional strength training as “Training that attempts to mimic the specific physiological demands of real-life activities.”
This leaves the door open for a wide variety of exercises to throw their proverbial hat in the ring to be classed as functional strength since the “demands of real-life activities” will differ from person to person.
This has led to much discussion on whether functional training even deserves its own sub-section within the realms of strength. Doesn’t traditional strength training also prepare you to meet the physical demands of everyday life?
I would say somewhat yes, but not quite to the same extent.
This leads to the question…
How Does Functional Strength Training Differ From Traditional Strength Training?
Traditional strength training is built around static lifts, such as squats, deadlifts, military presses, etc. These lifts were initially designed to induce muscle hypertrophy and increase strength gains.
If you want the greatest strength gains possible, you take a solid, stationary position, and put your full force into moving the largest weight you are capable of.
Functional strength training, on the other hand, features a lot of motion throughout the exercises.
Whether it be jumping, carrying weights a set distance, or moving them through multiple planes of movement, you will generally be sacrificing heavier weights for greater mobility in your exercises.
Who Is Functional Strength Training For?
Functional strength training can be good for everyone, as the improvements you make will assist you in your everyday life. Think general tasks such as carrying your shopping or lifting and moving a heavy item from the floor.
However, it can be particularly beneficial for anyone who has a physical job or physically demanding lifestyle, as you may be able to tailor your training to the tasks you perform daily.
Functional training can also help prevent acute and chronic injuries from occurring and help you stay strong and mobile well into old age.
That said, it is probably not a great choice for anyone involved in a strict discipline, such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, etc.
This is because, despite the exercises lending themselves to everyday activities, you won’t get the same static strength or hypertrophy levels that you would require to compete in sports like those.
What Are The Benefits?
Functional strength training provides many of the same benefits as traditional strength training, such as greater strength, increased muscle mass, better posture, reduced stress, etc.
However, there are a few benefits that are exclusive, or at the very least much more prominent, in functional training, which we will look at now.
- Easily transferrable to everyday life – The ability to transfer your efforts from the gym to everyday activities makes them highly beneficial. This is especially useful for anyone who has a physical job or is simply looking to improve their physical capabilities.
- Improves mobility – Loaded dynamic movements (carrying weights) or using explosive movements helps you to improve your overall levels of mobility and increase the control you have over your body.
- Added cardio – Activities like carrying weights around and plyometrics add a cardiovascular element to the exercise, which allows it to serve multiple purposes.
- Increased flexibility – You will often find yourself pushing your joints beyond their regular range, which will help to improve your flexibility over time.
How To Perform Functional Strength Training?
For easier comprehension let’s assume functional strength training includes anything that can be easily transferred to your daily tasks. This means there are many ways it can be performed and exercise selection will ultimately come down to what is most beneficial for you.
If you have to carry heavy items over long distances, try doing farmers’ walks. If you’re regularly getting on and off of a high platform, such as the back of a van, try squat jumps. You may even need to do something like pushing a trolley or cart, in which case sled pushes would work well.
As you can hopefully now see, exercises used in functional strength training are often simply weighted or explosive versions of everyday activities.
You can really be creative when designing your training program and try exercises that you may not have otherwise implemented but it’s still important to select ones that will benefit you most personally.
Below, I am going to give you some examples of functional strength training exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced level trainers, and explain what they achieve.
This should hopefully give you everything you need to try it out for yourself.
Farmer Walks – Ideal for improving grip strength and posture, developing your traps, and helping you be able to carry greater weights over longer distances.
Sled Pushes/Pulls – Greatly increases the drive in your lower body, helping you to move heavy loads, while also being a great cardio workout.
Sumo Squats – A simple yet effective exercise to build strength in the lower body. Particularly effective at improving your posture and flexibility, as well as your ability to pick heavy items up off of the ground.
Pull-Ups – Works your entire upper body and greatly increases its strength, while also allowing you to become more proficient at controlling your weight and body.
Kettlebell Swings – Improves explosive strength throughout your body, making lifting heavy weights from the ground to head height much easier.
Squat Jumps – Improves the explosive strength in your lower body, as well as assisting with balance and co-ordination, dramatically increasing your agility and mobility
Stability Ball Press-Ups – Helps to build strength in the upper body and greatly improves balance.
Single-Leg Dumbbell Row – Improves balance, flexibility, coordination, and strength throughout the entire body.
Woman Maker – Perhaps the most well-rounded functional strength exercise. It improves balance, coordination, flexibility, posture, mobility, and explosiveness, as well as helping to develop strength throughout your entire body and improving your cardiovascular ability.
Functional strength training can be greatly beneficial for the right person, as it lends itself to your day-to-day activities like nothing else. While it won’t be suitable for those interested in bodybuilding or powerlifting, it’s a fun and effective way to improve your strength and could make life considerably easier for anyone who has a physically demanding job or lifestyle.
Author Bio: Sam Watson is a functional training specialist and writer for startrowing.com. She has a passion for all forms of exercise and loves being able to help others move more freely.