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Functional Strength Training Benefits for True Strength

Functional strength training is designed to prioritize resistance exercises that mimic the movements we perform in our everyday lives, helping to improve overall strength and flexibility and enhance athletic performance.

14 min readSeptember 27th, 2023
SLWritten By Sara Lindberg

What is Functional Strength Training?

Functional strength training prepares your body for the way it needs to move when performing routine tasks, such as sitting, standing, walking up stairs, and carrying heavy loads.

When you add resistance to these exercises, you can improve overall strength levels, making daily activities easier to perform.

Plus, adding resistance enables you to match strength exercises to actual performance movements, enabling you to transfer the work you do in the gym to everyday tasks, athletic events, or recreational activities.

With functional strength training exercises, you’ll perform multi-joint movements using multiple muscle groups at one time, sometimes referred to as compound exercises.

Training this way not only increases strength but also improves balance, coordination, and stability.

You can choose from a variety of resistance tools and equipment to make the exercise more challenging or easier. For example, you can start with bodyweight squats and progress to weighted barbell squats or use bands, medicine balls, or suspension trainers to increase the resistance.

You may already be familiar with several functional strength training exercises, like squats, push-ups, pull-ups, and deadlifts, so your learning curve might not be as steep as you think!

But if these terms are new to you, don’t worry. This guide will give you an excellent overview to help you get started.

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Benefits of Functional Strength Training

It doesn't take long to see and feel the benefits of functional strength training. In fact, incorporating this training style into your overall fitness routine can help improve overall fitness, enhance athletic performance, decrease your risk of getting injured, and provide a more efficient workout.

Improved Overall Fitness

Functional strength training, and more specifically compound exercises, help improve movement skills and dynamic balance, thanks in part to utilizing multiple joints at once. It also enhances muscle coordination, mobility, and flexibility, which boosts overall fitness and quality of life.

Enhanced Athletic Performance

One of the main goals of functional strength training is to prepare your body for the way it needs to move in everyday life, which is essential to peak athletic performance.

If you’re an athlete, you can tailor functional strength training to your specific sports demands, focusing on movements and muscle groups that are essential for optimal performance. Among athletes, functional training can enhance power, balance, agility, speed, and muscular strength.

Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation

Incorporating functional strength training exercises for all major muscle groups helps create balanced muscle development, which may prevent musculoskeletal injuries related to muscle imbalance. It also has a positive effect on reducing low back injuries.

More Efficient Workouts

At its core, functional strength training is designed to target several muscle groups at once instead of training each muscle group individually.

This comprehensive approach results in a more efficient workout, enabling you to maximize your time, strength levels, energy, and recovery periods.

Key Principles of Functional Strength Training

Functional strength training consists of multi-joint exercises or compound functional movement patterns involving more than a single muscle group, including the squat, deadlift, lunge, loaded carries, pull-ups, and push-ups.

When designing a functional strength training program, you’ll focus on full-body workouts to promote overall balance and functional fitness, which avoids overemphasizing certain muscle groups while neglecting others.

This training style helps your body work better as one unit instead of individual parts. Also, it allows you to target movements that are essential to daily life, activities, and athletic performance.

Functional strength training is also based on the principle of progressive overload, which involves gradually increasing intensity, resistance, or complexity to continue challenging the muscles and promoting growth, strength, power, and improvement.

A key principle of functional strength training is it allows you to perform exercises in three different planes of motion, including the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes.

Each plane features different movements at the joints, such as flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, rotation, dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, elevation, depression, inversion, eversion, pronation, supination, horizontal flexion, and horizontal extension.

Designing fitness programs based on functional strength training exercises that target all three planes of motion helps create a well-rounded routine and ensures that your body will train in the same way it moves in real life.

Functional Strength Training Exercises

Functional strength training exercises feature multi-joint moves that often mimic everyday movement patterns such as hinging, squatting, pushing, pulling, and rotation. Here are some fundamental functional strength training movements you can incorporate into your workout program.

Squats and Variations

One of the most fundamental movement patterns for the lower body is the squat.

This dynamic exercise incorporates all the powerhouse muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, adductors, hip flexors, and calves.

While your legs and glutes will do most of the heavy lifting, your core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae, play a critical role in proper execution of the move.

And the best part? You have a ton of squat variations to choose from, so you should never get bored of performing this essential functional strength training exercise!

Plus, you can use a variety of tools to make the move more challenging. The most common way to add resistance to the squat is with a dumbbell or barbell. But you can also use kettlebells, TRX suspension trainers, resistance bands, or a Smith machine.

Squat exercises and variations include:

  • Front squat
  • Back squat
  • Plie squat
  • Goblet squat
  • Split squat
  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Pistol squat
  • Box squat
  • Jump squat

Deadlifts and Variations

The deadlift exercise requires you to hinge at the hips. This functional movement pattern is something you use in daily life, like when picking something up off the floor.

Deadlifts target the large glute muscles, hamstrings, and lower back. They also recruit several upper body muscles since you need to pull a weight off of the floor.

If you have weakness on your backside, you may experience low back pain and other postural issues. This is especially true for people who spend a lot of time sitting.

The good news is performing a deadlift correctly allows you to strengthen these critical posterior muscles.

Like the squat, you can use a variety of resistance equipment to perform the deadlift. In general, most deadlift moves use a barbell, kettlebell, trap bar, dumbbells, and hex bar.

Deadlift exercises and variations include:

  • Conventional deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Sumo deadlift
  • Single-leg deadlift
  • Stiff-legged deadlift

Push-Ups and Variations

When it comes to the classics, the push-up tops the list. This functional strength training exercise requires the upper and lower body muscles to work together as a unit to move your body toward and away from the ground.

You’ll rely on your chest, shoulders, and triceps to do the heavy lifting and the core and lower body muscles for support and stabilization.

One thing that makes the push-up such an excellent exercise is you don’t need equipment, just your bodyweight.

That said, some variations use equipment like a weight bench, suspension trainer, stability ball, or push-up bars.

Push-up exercises and variations include:

  • Classic push-up
  • Close-grip push-up
  • One-arm push-up
  • Bent-knee push-up
  • Incline push-ups (using a bench)
  • Decline push-ups (using a bench)
  • Stability ball push-up
  • Clapping push-up
  • Diamond push-up
  • TRX push-ups

Pull-Ups and Variations

Pull-ups target the upper body, and more specifically, the upper and lower back, chest, shoulders, and arm muscles.

If you’re performing them correctly, you’ll also feel the core muscles working to stabilize your torso.

If you have access to a gym, you can perform a pull-up using a pull-up bar or Gravitron (weight-assisted machine). You can make the move easier by doing a banded pull-up, which reduces the weight you’re having to pull.

Pull-up exercises and variations include:

  • Traditional grip pull-up
  • Wide grip pull-up
  • Close grip pull-up
  • Reverse grip pull-up
  • Assisted banded pull-up
  • Gravitron pull-up

Planks and Core Exercises

Planks and core exercises help improve stability, balance, and overall functional fitness. Your “core” consists of the muscles in your abdomen, lower back, pelvis, and hips.

You can think of them as an internal weight belt since they provide stability and support to your spine and pelvis during dynamic movements, reducing the risk of injury and improving overall body control.

A solid core also helps enhance performance in various physical activities, including sports, weightlifting, and bodyweight exercises. Planks and other core exercises  engage not only the core muscles but also the shoulders, arms, glutes, and legs, making them excellent compound movements for functional training. Plus, most moves don’t require any equipment, just your bodyweight!

Planks and core exercises include:

  • Forearm plank
  • Side plank
  • Plank with shoulder-tap
  • Deadbug
  • Farmer’s walk
  • Bird dog
  • Pallof press (requires cable machine)

Getting Started with Functional Strength Training

Getting started with functional strength training is easy once you know the right steps. If you need approval from your doctor or other healthcare provider, make sure to get that first.

After getting the green light to move forward,  it’s a good idea to meet with a personal trainer or physical therapist to assess your current fitness level and work together to design a program that meets your needs.

They can also help you set fitness-related goals, give you tips on how to progress safely, and show you how to incorporate functional strength training into your overall workout routine.

Assessing Current Fitness Level

It’s a good idea to meet with a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, or physical therapist to assess your current fitness level before starting a functional strength training program.

They can take you through various fitness testing to ensure that the exercises and intensity you choose are appropriate for your abilities.

Setting Goals and Designing a Program

A functional strength training program should include specific movements that allow you to target major muscle groups, increase muscular strength and endurance, boost athletic performance, minimize muscle imbalances, and improve coordination and mobility.

The core functional movements that show up in daily life and activities include squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, rotation, and gait.

Ideally, functional strength training exercises will target one or more of the following components: range of motion, coordination, movement speed, and various muscular contraction types, including concentric, eccentric, and isometric.

You’ll also want to choose functional strength training exercises that are similar to the actual movement, skill, or activity you’re trying to improve.

Part of designing a program also includes the number of days and duration you want to train.

A great resource for information on exercise frequency is the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends that adults perform muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.

This is in addition to the 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise each week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity spread throughout the week.

Gradual Progression and Increasing Intensity

Periodization enables you to vary the training stimuli for maximum strength development and peak performance. In a periodized program, you will change the intensity and volume based on your goals.

For example, many programs begin with higher volumes and lower intensities and progress to moderate volume and moderate intensity, and finally, to lower volume and higher intensity workouts.

Incorporating Functional Strength Training Into Your Routine

One of the many reasons we like functional strength training is it’s easy to incorporate into an existing workout routine. If you’re new to this training style, one option is to start by adding some simple functional strength training exercises to your warm-up, such as lunges or squats.

You can also try replacing some of your traditional strength training exercises like seated leg press and biceps curls with functional movements like kettlebell squats and banded pull-ups.

Because functional strength training often features full body workouts, you’ll want to plan for adequate rest days. A good rule of thumb is to take one day off between each workout session, which allows for three to four training days each week.

However, if your fitness program includes other types of training like moderate to high-intensity cardio sessions, endurance activities, or sports practices, you may want to limit full body functional strength training workouts to two to three days each week.

Functional Strength Training Equipment

Gyms and fitness facilities are packed with exercise equipment. Many of these machines serve as a great starting point for beginners or people who need specific support in one or more areas of their body.

They can also supplement functional strength training workouts or other sports-specific routines.

The key difference between resistance machines and functional strength training movements that use free weights, resistance bands, or suspension trainers is that machines provide stabilization and follow a fixed pattern of motion, whereas free weights require you to use stabilizer muscles and primary movers to control the weight throughout the entire range of motion.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the common resistance tools and equipment you can use when performing functional strength training exercises:

  • Bodyweight
  • Dumbbells
  • Barbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Resistance bands
  • Suspension trainers
  • Chin up bars
  • Medicine balls
  • Weighted bags

Common Mistakes in Functional Strength Training

While it can be highly effective, there are some common mistakes people make when engaging in functional strength training. Here are some things to keep in mind while working out.

Skipping Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs

Preparing your body to exercise is a critical step to preventing injury and increasing the effectiveness of your workout. Strength training puts a lot of stress on your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. That’s why it’s important to include at least a five to 10 minute warm-up before you get to work.

Aim for a five-minute cardio warm-up, such as walking, high knees, or jogging, followed by a few dynamic stretches, such as arm circles, leg swings, and hip circles.

At the end of your session, allow your body to cool down for about five to 10 minutes by performing low-intensity aerobic exercise followed by a few static stretches.

Overtraining and Inadequate Recovery

Functional strength training can be intense, and overtraining can lead to burnout and injuries. Overtraining syndrome can happen if you engage in constant intense training that does not provide adequate time for recovery.

Common symptoms of overtraining syndrome include:

  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Impaired physical performance
  • Reduced enthusiasm and desire for training
  • Increased incidence of injuries and illness
  • Altered appetite
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Irritability

Give your body enough time to rest and recover between workouts to prevent overuse injuries and optimize your progress.

Incorrect Form and Technique

Using improper form can lead to injuries and reduce the effectiveness of the exercises. It's essential to learn the correct technique for each movement and ensure you maintain it throughout your workouts.

If you’re unsure about how to perform certain functional strength training exercises, it’s a good idea to work with a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach.

Lack of Progression and Variety

Functional strength training should include progressive overload techniques such as gradually increasing the intensity, resistance, or difficulty of exercises to challenge your muscles and keep making gains.

You’ll also want to mix things up by including a variety of movements to engage different muscle groups and challenge your body in various ways.

Functional Strength Training FAQs

How often should functional strength training be done?

Functional strength training requires the major muscles in your body to work together, making it an excellent full-body workout. Many routines feature compound or multi-joint exercises, which allow you to use heavier loads.

Because of this, it’s important to allow for rest between sessions. At a minimum, you’ll want to take one to three days off between functional strength training workouts, depending on your training status.

Can functional strength training be combined with other forms of exercise?

Yes, you can combine functional strength training with other forms of exercise.

Because this workout type consists of compound exercises targeting the major muscles in the body, it can complement cardiovascular routines, stretching, and other forms of exercise like yoga and Pilates.

How long does it take to see results from functional strength training?

It’s difficult to pinpoint how long it will take for you to see results from functional strength training. Initially, it’s not uncommon to experience reduced stress, improved mood, and better sleep quality. However, it may take several weeks to see and feel strength-related improvements.

What is the difference between functional strength training and traditional strength training?

Traditional strength training often combines multi and single-joint exercises into a workout routine, whereas, functional strength training prioritizes multi-joint or compound movements.

Single-joint exercises include moves like the biceps curl, seated leg curl, or triceps extension.  While functional and traditional strength training have unique features that set them apart, there is plenty of room to include both into your overall workout program.

Bottom Line

If you're looking for a new workout routine, functional strength training might be just what you need.

This type of training involves multi-joint exercises that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, allowing you to focus on movement patterns that mimic real-life activities, helping you improve overall strength and mobility.

Getting started with functional strength training is easy! Just make sure your body is ready, and you have the right information before hitting the gym.

Some things to consider include talking to your doctor, learning proper form from a trainer, and making sure functional strength training fits into your overall workout routine.

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