the joy of strength training


March 7th, 2008 at 2:06 pm

What is ‘functional strength’ anyway?

ring dips with wrists turned outI’ve seen some valid criticisms of the notion of “functional strength” or even “functional fitness”. After all, strength is itself functional, however it is developed. The “functional strength” crowd doesn’t have a monopoly on whole body or compound exercises. These are used across the strength disciplines by powerlifters, bodybuilders, martial artists and so on.

I can see why people might say that some exercises are more ‘functional’ than others. Strength isn’t simply a result of muscle development, it involves cardiovascular, neuromuscular and proprioceptive adaptions as well. So in that sense, a pull-up is more functional than a bicep curl. But this argument also has holes in it. Exercises that we do in the gym don’t translate exactly to everyday life or even sports. I honestly can’t remember a single time I have ever needed to do a deadhang pull-up in rock climbing, for example.

Moreover, in the 21st century what do we need strength for? When was the last time you picked up anything half as heavy as the sort of weights you shift in the gym? How many of us have a job that requires us to be pretty strong? Even manual jobs are so regulated by Health and Safety that it’s difficult to get away with lifting anything.

Of course, I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent! After all, I use the term “functional strength” myself on this site, referring to a type or modality of training. The distinction I choose to make is that “functional strength training” refers to the goal, in order to distinguish it from bodybuilding (where the goal is aesthetic) or olympic lifting, powerlifting, strongman etc (where the goal is performance in a sport or event). Functional strength training is therefore training to be strong, fit and healthy. But I don’t know whether the word ‘functional’ isn’t somewhat redundant?

Do you make the ‘functional’ distinction? What does it mean to you?

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  • 1

    For me it has to do with how well the strength translates to other activities. For example this article compares leg extensions and step-ups. Doing step-ups makes you stronger at both exercises while gains in leg extensions don’t help step-ups much at all. I consider the step-up to be more functional since it helps build strength that can be used in more ways.

    I also think it’s an extreme example. I think you really have to be a “machine junkie” to even get exercises where you limit your motion to the point where it is a concern. Just about any free weight or body weight exercises is not going to have those kinds of issues.

    Andy on March 7th, 2008
  • 2

    Functionality for me is about utility. You make a good point in the post, Sally, that the utility of strength in the 21st century is quite low compared to say, 10,000 BC. However, I still like to look at exercise as being relevant to life in a truly functional way, meaning that I strive to develop workouts that translate directly into my daily activity.

    While squatting or deadlifting a big amount of weight may not seem that relevant or “functional,” think about spending all day pulling weeds in your garden this spring. I guarantee you those squat sessions help. I have the need to carry a ladder overhead at work sometimes, and I know my overhead presses translate directly to that functionality.

    This is the kind of direct workout-to-life translation I think of when I think of functional strength.


    Philip on March 7th, 2008
  • 3

    And the whole time I thought the “functional strength” core yoga classes on the BOSU balls with only one hand or foot were the only way to go. <~~~sarcastic, I always say train hard for the things you can’t prepare for.

    Jason on March 7th, 2008
  • 4

    I like that – train hard for the things you can’t prepare for…

    Philip on March 7th, 2008
  • 5

    Functional strength? It’s a blend of health and strength. It’s training that makes you capable of doing what needs to be done in life, whenever it needs to be done. That may include exericses that mimick real life movements and sometimes it doesn’t.

    It makes you healthy too. it helps you maintain the proper tension over all your muscles so that your skeleton maintains proper allignment. It helps you deal with stress better and maintain a healthy body weight.

    I think that functional strength can also be defined by what it isn’t. It’s not about overdevloping your muscles in one direction or another, such as being capable of lifting massive weights but not being able to run two miles. Or, being able to run 30 miles but not able to even pick up a heavy bag in an airport without serious effort.

    It’s certainly not about looking good at all costs, including being healthy.

    I don’t think it’s redundant to mention it. It’s absolutely essential.

    Nice site,

    Justin_P on March 8th, 2008
  • 6

    @ Andy: thanks for posting that link, a really interesting article. It offers a useful definition of functional training, which “stresses the training of movements over muscles, the irrelevance of strength without mobility, the neurological foundation to strength and athleticism, and the use of simple tools to gain complex results.”

    @ Philip: I agree, I think sometimes we underestimate the effect that training has on day to day functionality. People often blame age, the weather, old injuries etc when they start to lose their ability to do certain things, but don’t realise that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

    @ Jason: Yes, good one! It’s similar to the military approach of training soldiers to be prepared to handle anything, being in a state of readiness.

    @ Justin P: I like your idea of defining functional strength by what it isn’t as well as what it is. We seem to have gone too far in the other direction (bodybuilding etc), which now dominates the way people think they should work out. It seems to me that the oldtime concept of ‘physical culture’ combined goals of strength, health and physical development very well.

    Here’s another good quotation from the article that Andy posted: “The problem with our gyms is that they misrepresent the fact that you are fundamentally there to do work,” says Jack Berryman, PhD, a professor of medical history at the University of Washington and a historian for the American College of Sports Medicine. “The modern gym is a techno holiday with gadgets and lights. They’re trying to entertain people.”

    gubernatrix on March 8th, 2008
  • 7

    That’s a good quotation and it makes a good point. I get weird looks from deadlifting (I mean, who on earth would do something strange like picking something heavy off the floor? 😉 ) but stick someone on a powerplate and it’s the new thing that a lot of bunnies are interested in…

    rooroo on March 9th, 2008
  • 8

    I feel you, rooroo! The power of marketing, eh? I think I would find it difficult to be a fitness instructor in a gym and have to push every new-fangled gadget that comes out.

    gubernatrix on March 9th, 2008
  • 9

    It would be a mistake to call me Ms. Fitness. Laughable.

    That being said, functional strength meant being able to lift my half of a Laser sailboat down from the top of a minivan without dropping it and cracking the hull.

    I’m a bit stronger than that now *grin*.

    Honestly, you don’t need to be but so strong to do stuff. Sorta… I’m a writer. The most strenuous thing I have to do most days is lift my laptop to my lap and kick back in my writin’ chair. It would be a terrible mistake mentally and physically to leave it at that level of strength. The mind and the body do interact and humans are built to move and do, never mind that we fortunates who make our cushy livings in comfortable offices don’t have to do that. If we don’t move and DO, our minds stop working.

    I lift because I’m terribly lazy. It’s an efficient way to keep up my strength so my mind works right. I swim for the same reason.

    While I don’t expect to NEED to exert great physical force to save my life or my children’s, I sure as heck want the OPTION!

    Noel Lynne Figart on March 13th, 2008
  • 10

    When I broke my ankle in October 2006, my concept of being “in pretty good shape” flew out the window. I had a terrible time getting around on crutches, and everyday activities like climbing stairs, taking a shower and getting up from a seated position were challenging.

    I swore that if I ever suffered a similar injury in the future, I would be better prepared. I now have nearly 50 pounds less bodyweight to haul around, and have greatly increased my muscular strength and endurance. I walked a half-marathon one year after my fracture, and can haul around heavy bags of potting soil and pet food with ease.

    Even though my job involves no heavy lifting (and I have no small children to carry around), I know that every time I lift weights or try a new physical activity, I’m increasing my chances of being physically independent in the future. To me, that is functional fitness.

    Kate on March 13th, 2008
  • 11

    Thanks Kate and Noel, both your responses ring so true and you have both got a very practical approach to functional fitness rather than a theoretical approach, which is great to read about!

    gubernatrix on March 13th, 2008
  • 12

    Pretty good definitions of functional fitness here. I just hate how the term has been beaten to death ad nauseum by some. It seems to get thrown around all too easily these days in reference to almost everything.

    MonkeyMan on March 30th, 2008
  • 13

    Hi Monkeyman, long time no see! I know what you mean about the term being beaten to death. I think the same thing might happen to the word ‘elite’!

    gubernatrix on April 1st, 2008
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