How to Improve Functional Strength

As the trend of functional fitness cements itself further in the workout industry, many seek to add functional strength training to their programs. Thought to be more useful in the “real world” than more traditional forms of strength training, functional strength is getting so popular that many try to base their entire workout strategy around it. This article will give you a few tips on how to incorporate it into your own routine.

What Is Functional Strength?

functional strengthProbably the easiest way to define functional strength would be to say it applies standard strength to and uses movements that mimic everyday activities. If more standard strength is built via more traditional gym exercises such as presses, rows, squats, and deadlifts, functional strength is built via “non-traditional” methods.

This could be from lifting oddly shaped or evenly weighted objects such as sandbags or kegs. It would be from moving in multiple planes of motion at the same time such as you do with a kettlebell or swinging a sledge hammer. It could also even be from simply moving objects from one place to another such as when doing loaded carries, farmers walks, pushing/pulling a sled, or walking with a wheelbarrow.

How to Get Started

As useful and desirable as functional strength is, it’s not always easy to train for in most normal gym settings. If you don’t live on a farm (or someplace similar), have access to particular types of workout equipment, or even have a manual labor job, comprising your workouts of purely functional strength movements isn’t often that doable. This is why starting with a base of traditional strength training is usually a good idea.

Maximal strength is where you’ll want to focus your efforts. This not only usually leads to better balance and agility (as per Zatsiorsky in the Science and Practice of Strength Training), but gives you more overall strength that can be “converted” into functional strength when you add those types of movements into your program. This as a whole makes your strength more usable outside the gym, which is the ultimate goal.

Because you want to save time and energy for your functional training, keep your traditional gym work to as little as needed to get the job done. One or two compound, multi-joint exercises done for 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps from each of the following categories will work:

  • vertical upper body pushing (overhead press variations, handstand pushups)
  • horizontal upper bod pushing (bench press variations, dips, pushups)
  • vertical upper body pulling (pullup and pulldown variations)
  • horizontal upper body pulling (rows)
  • lower body pushing (squats, single leg exercises)
  • posterior chain (deadlifts, “quick” / Olympic lift variations)

There are two splits possible splits you could use. One would be an upper/lower split done on a Mon/Tue/Thu/Fri basis, or a rolling Mon/Wed/Fri schedule. Your split would look as follows:

  • Workout #1 – vertical upper body pushing; vertical upper body pulling
  • Workout #2 – posterior chain
  • Workout #3 – horizontal upper body pushing; horizontal upper body pulling
  • Workout #4 – lower body pushing

The other possible split would be comprised of full-body workouts. Either train twice per week with each workout separated by 2-3 days of rest, or 3x/week on Mon/Wed/Fri. Alternate between the two below sessions:

  • Workout #1 – vertical upper body pushing; vertical upper body pulling; posterior chain
  • Workout #2 – horizontal upper body pushing; horizontal upper body pulling; lower body pushing

Make Your Gym Workouts More Functional

Since incorporating functional strength movements into your workouts can be difficult, try to make your otherwise “standard” gym exercises as functional as possible. One way to do this would be use bodyweight exercises.

As moving your body through space is usually more functional than moving an external object, try to choose weighted bodyweight calisthenics in lieu of their barbell or machine counterparts. For example, choose:

  • (weighted) dips over bench press
  • (weighted) chins and pullups over pulldowns
  • (weighted) inverted rows over barbell or machine rows
  • squats over leg presses

Also, when doing posterior chain work, try to incorporate basic, less technique-intensive versions of the Olympic lifts. Which ones you pick will depend on your skill level, but good options for almost everyone could include the dumbbell snatch, barbell or kettlebell high pull, and barbell clean. All of these involve multiple muscle groups at once and have you working in multiple planes of motion.

Functional Strength Finishers

Because not everyone has access to the same equipment across the board, making broad recommendations doesn’t always work. Even something as simple as a sandbag or medicine ball, while cheap to purchase (and even build from scratch if need be), isn’t always available. As such, your best bet is to add a “functional strength finisher” to the end of your workouts that use more commonplace items.

Your first option would be to do farmers walks, as all you need is a pair of heavy dumbbells and a little bit of space. Pick up your dumbbells and walk as far as you can before having to rest. Keep going until you’ve covered 100-150 yards total.

Loaded carries are not only a great functional strength finisher, but still fairly easy to do even in a chain gym setting. Get one heavy dumbbell and designate two spots roughly 10-30 feet apart. Starting at “point A”, clean the dumbbell to your shoulder with your left hand, and walk to “point B”. Put the dumbbell down, turn around, clean the dumbbell to your shoulder with your right hand, and walk back to “point A” again. Rest when needed and keep going until you’ve covered 300 feet total.

If you’re looking to get out of the gym, a last example would be car pushing. You’ll need a vehicle of some sort and a bit of open space, preferably in a quiet parking lot. It’s as simple as it sounds in that you just get behind the car and push. Stop for rest breaks when needed, and keep going until you’ve covered 100 yards total.

If functional strength is your goal, you’re always going to be best served using implements that allow you to train for it specifically. However, with a little bit of creativity, you can still get great functionality out of your normal gym training. Employ the advice in this article and you’ll soon see your “everyday” strength skyrocket.

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