Functional Strength Training Benefits & How To Guide

Introduction | Benefits of functional strength training | How to apply functional strength training | 4 Functional strength-building exercises

A woman performing a functional strength training workout.

What is functional strength training?

Functional strength training is a method of exercise that can increase your strength and power capacity. Furthermore, functional strength training can be used to build lean muscle mass while also offering protection against injury (Watson – Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance).


Where functional strength training differs from conventional weightlifting is in the dynamic element of the exercise. Traditional weightlifting movements are typically static: the lifter stands stock still while exerting force against a resistance.


In contrast, functional strength movements often involve a coordinated movement: a stepping lunge, kettlebell swing, or farmer’s walk. This movement or action is not simply ‘bolted on’ but performed as part of the functional strength exercise.

Related: Try this 30-Minute Functional Strength Training workout

What are the benefits of functional strength training?

There are many reported benefits of strength training. And some of these benefits may surprise you. For example, a recent article in a leading scientific publication discussed research showing how functional resistance training can promote positive structural changes in the brain. It seems that lifting weights builds more than bigger, stronger muscles.

Functional strength training improves physical performance

Another great attribute of functional strength training, besides beefing up brainpower, is that of improving general physical performance. Because functional training activates a wide range of muscle groups, it can promote strength gains in areas not specifically targeted.


This serves to strengthen the body as a whole which in turn can translate to improved performance in other active areas of our lives – such as sport.

Functional strength training improves sports performance

Functional strength training is becoming ever increasingly popular among professional sports players. Since the days when legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardy put his players on a strength training routine, which almost doubled the power delivered during a tackle, more sportsmen and women are incorporating functional strength training in their routine.


It is now no longer unusual to see Olympic rowers do deadlifts, or cyclists perform step lunges. Even elite-level golfers and tennis players are beginning to top into the performance enhancement benefits of functional strength targets.

Related: Build complete strength with nothing but an Olympic barbell

How do I apply functional strength training?

There are a million and one ways that you could apply functional strength training. How you use functional training ought to be influenced by your fitness goals.


For example, if you harbour modest fitness goals, say you just want to develop whole-body strength, you could achieve this goal with one or two short to moderate duration weekly strength workouts. This barbell complex will help you on your way.


If, however, your fitness goals are a bit more ambitious – you want to exceed your current strength outputs by 10- to 15% - functional strength training will have to feature more prominently in your exercise routine.


But irrespective of your goal, there is one rule that must be obeyed when it comes to functional strength training. That rule is consistency. Whether you want to increase strength across all major muscle groups or push beyond the current limits of your physical capacity, you must maintain training consistency.

4 full body functional strength training exercises

To get you going on your functional strength training journey, we have included four functional, whole-body exercises to try. The exercises selected are brilliant strength developers and they can be used in a wide range of workouts.

Barbell thruster

The barbell thruster is the ultimate whole-body exercise. This movement works the muscles of the legs, core, shoulders and triceps.

Technique breakdown of the barbell thruster

  • With a barbell supported at shoulder height, adopt a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance.

  • Initiate the movement by squatting.

  • Power out of the squat and use the upward momentum generated by the quadriceps to press the bar overhead.

  • At the topmost position, the bar should be directly above your head and a slight bend in the elbow joints.

  • Under control lower the bar to the shoulders ensuring simultaneously to sink into the squat.

Kettlebell swings

The kettlebell swing is a certified functional strength exercise. As well as forging tremendous glute, lower back and core strength, kettlebell swings are a dynamic exercise that engages the cardiovascular system. Thus they burn fat as well as build muscle.


In fact, the kettlebell swing is such an awesome exercise, we wrote a whole article on it: Kettlebell Swing | Master The Perfect Exercise

Technique breakdown of the kettlebell swing

  • Standing directly over a kettlebell, adopt a one and half shoulder-width stance.

  • Bending at the knees (NOT rounding the back) grasp the bell and stand up.

  • If you’re in the correct position the bell should be dangling between your legs, your feet widely spaced and in line, and your eyes fixed forward.

  • To initiate the movement, pull the bell back between your legs then fire through with the glutes.

  • Propelling the bell upwards with the big muscles of your glutes and lower back, you are only using shoulder activation to control the trajectory of the kettlebell.

  • A common mistake is to pull the kettlebell up with the arms as though performing a frontal shoulder raise. This is an error that ought to be avoided.

  • As the bell drops back between your legs allow it to pull your arms into your groin. Harness this energy to assist the next rep.

Farmer’s walk

A favourite strongman event, Farmer’s walk has got to be the father of functional strength exercises. Antiquated though this exercise is, it is still one of the most effective functional strength builders.


When Farmer’s walking literally every major muscle group is engaged. But also a whole host of synergist (stabiliser) muscles are stimulated as well.

Technique breakdown of the Farmer’s walk

  • Traditionally, Farmer’s walk is performed with a pair of dumbbells. But you can break from convention if necessity insists. Other perfectly acceptable Farmer’s walking weights include: kettlebells, weight discs, power bags, sandbags, and even your weekly shopping (just make sure that the loads are evenly weighted).

  • Before embarking on the Farmer’s walk, firstly measure out a ‘runway’ – that is, a straight walkway that is bereft of obstacles and trip hazards. Also, it’s good practice to measure the runway so that you know how far you’ve walked. Remember, Farmer’s walk is not measured by how many repetitions you perform, but by how many metres you carried a specific load.

  • When picking your dumbbells up, ensure to observe correct lifting principles: back straight, tight core, eyes fixed to your front.

  • Stand up, compose yourself, and proceed to walk.

Dumbbell single arm snatch

Dumbbell snatches have been popularised by the burgeoning CrossFit movement. This power-packed exercise often features in CrossFit games tournaments where athletes can be seen tearing a super-sized dumbbell off the floor and above their heads.


Related: try these 21 CrossFit WODS


The dumbbell single arm snatch stimulates primarily the posterior chain muscles. The posterior chain refers to the muscles that run the length of the body from your hamstrings up to your trapezius and rear deltoids.

Technique breakdown of the dumbbell single arm snatch

  • Same as with kettlebell swings, stand directly over a single dumbbell ensuring to adopt a stance slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • Bending at the knees (a little rounding of the back is both unavoidable and, if you engage the core and maintain control of the movement, acceptable) grasp the dumbbell.

  • Keeping your eyes riveted on point to your front, pull the dumbbell up above your head in one smooth movement.

  • Ideally, you should use the quadriceps contraction to get the dumbbell moving. However, CrossFit athletes typically use lower back strength and hip extension.

Functional strength training workout

Right, now that you’ve learned four functional strength exercises, it’s time to organise them into a workout.


Below is an example functional strength training workout that you can try. Before undertaking the workout, ensure that you can competently and safely execute the exercises.


Also, if you are new to functional strength training, it is recommendable to use light weights. Initially instead of aiming for strength gains, use this workout as an opportunity to improve your technical application of the exercises.

How it works

With this functional strength workout, you’ve got three options to choose from.


Option 1 is organised around a convention weight training approach. Simply complete the specified number of reps for the specified number of sets.


Option 2 is more challenging by far. Here you are going to complete either a 5- or 10-minute AMRAP (as many reps as possible). The aim of the game is to rack-up as many reps as you can in the allotted time.


Option 3 is a little less intense than Option 2 but is still a tough workout. Your objective is to complete the stated number of reps every minute on the minute. Remember, with an EMOM, as opposed to an AMRAP, however many seconds you have left in the minute after your rep set, you can take as rest.

Functional strength workout

Functional whole-body warm-up

1000-metres steady row/cross-trainer

10X 100-metre row intervals followed by 2 to 5 repetitions of each of the functional exercises.

Workout

Barbell thruster

Option 1) 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Option 2) 5- or 10-minute AMRAP

Option 3) 5 or 10 1-minute rounds of EMOM (aim for 10 to 15 reps on the minute every minute)

Kettlebell swing

Option 1) 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Option 2) 5- or 10-minute AMRAP

Option 3) 5 or 10 1-minute rounds of EMOM (aim for 15 to 25 reps on the minute every minute)

Farmer’s walk

Option 1) 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Option 2) 5- or 10-minute AMRAP

Option 3) 5 or 10 1-minute rounds of EMOM (aim for 20 to 30 metres on the minute every minute)

Single arm dumbbell snatch

Option 1) 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Option 2) 5- or 10-minute AMRAP

Option 3) 5 or 10 1-minute rounds of EMOM (aim for 6 to 8 reps each arm on the minute every minute)

 

Enjoyed this functional strength training workout?

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Circuit training is one of the best forms of physical exercise for maintaining and increasing overall-fitness. A well designed circuit will provide a great cardiovascular workout, strengthening the heart and lungs in the process, whilst also improving muscle endurance and developing functional strength. This unique combination, of fat burning and muscle building, which singular exercises, such as running, cycling, swimming or weights cannot give, will help to sculpt a lean defined physique.



 

In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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