A Primer on Functional Strength - NeuroGum

A Primer on Functional Strength

August 16, 2016

The Outsider's Look at Strength Training

When you're young you get a kind of specific idea of what strength training is. It's what the football team did in the gym. They lifted weights. One kind of barbell or another, or one of those weird machines that seemed to have a dozen moving parts just to build your biceps.

It's a little off putting. Those giant rows of mirrors and people lifting weights in front of them, watching their own muscles flex. Perhaps it is the perspective of the outsider to see it this way, but it all seemed so inefficient.

So you're going to do bicep curls. Ok. Cool. You'll get bigger biceps. But how often in life do you just lift with your biceps? Is that a kind of strength that does much other than give you bigger biceps?

A Full Body Mindset

Enter the world of Functional Strength. Functional Strength may be a bit of a misnomer, because of course all exercise serves some function, but it intends to draw a distinction.

When we lift a box, or a couch, or even dig a ditch, we are nearly never using one group of muscles. We never simply lift with our biceps, and then lift our backs to stand straight up, and then push up with our legs to lift a box, in stilted, separate motions, as we might if we tried to isolate muscle groups in our daily actions.

Functional Fitness or Functional Strength addresses this disparity by using full body exercises rather than exercises that focus on one muscle group. It's not about thinking of your body as a group of muscles to be increased or decreased in size until you have the perfect physique of Hugh Jackman in Wolverine shape.

It's about training your whole body at once, building not just the big muscles, but the little muscles that you don't think about when you're lifting a box. The little tendons stabilizing your ankle, or your shoulder.

Small Muscles, Big Impact

When you're working out on one of those machines with all the little pulleys at the gym, your movement is extremely limited in most other directions. Your whole body is stabilized around using one type of motion at a time. Otherwise, as the instructions mention, you might injure yourself.

Well there's the thing. Injuries are serious. And they do happen when you're strength training. But as we've come to learn with time, these injuries often arise specifically because of deficiencies in the minor muscle groups and tendons that typically stabilize those larger muscles.

So what happens when you've worked out those large muscles individually, and you're confronted by a large heavy object to be moved? Well you're going to feel extremely confident. After all, those big muscles have been lifting more and more to the point where you could lift a car if you wanted.

Problem is, if you really are just using machines that work one muscle at a time, you're going to do just fine until you go to twist or otherwise make an imperfect movement while lifting that object. Those little muscles haven't been worked like that. They haven't learned to lift that heavy couch or dryer. They weren't ready for this, and with one little twist of your leg or torso, you've torn something.

Total Body Exercises

So we've covered the 'bad' kinds of exercises, and what they can do to you.

So now for what you should try as far as exercise goes. The types of exercises that train your body to move as a unit. Coordinating muscle groups, so that no one group takes all the strain.

These first you may remember from that gym, in front of the mirrors...

Free Weights

Yeah, I know, they're rough, I'm sorry.

Squats, cleans, and various kettlebell exercises may not be really very fun, but they're hard for a reason.

You're not strapped into a machine, you're standing free, balancing yourself, and lifting something heavy. It can be dumbbells, kettlebells, or even just your own bodyweight with higher reps.

The reason that lifting weights absent of a machine is so good for your body is that you really do have to build many muscles to perform one kind of exercise.

Take squats, or kettlebell swings for example. You're using your hips to thrust forward. The muscles in your back to maintain posture. The stabilizers around your knees and ankles. Even your toes are doing work to keep you stable.

You don't think about all these little muscle groups normally, but when you work them all out in unison, you are training yourself for the real kinds of motion involved in life.

Battle Ropes

Have you seen battle ropes? They're pretty rad, and simple.

Battle ropes are essentially heavy or weighted ropes that you throw around, swinging your arms either alternately or in unison to work your body with explosive movement. And that's what makes them fun.

Battle ropes get your whole body moving, with a kind of joy that you might jump rope with as a child. They're far from the weights of the gym, but rather something you can do in the great outdoors. 

Sledge Hammers or Maces


Maybe I don't need to really explain why this one is considered functional, or practical. Swinging a mace or wailing on a giant tire with a sledge hammer is as close to the real world equivalent of the exercise as you're going to get.

You can already see a lot of similarities to a squat in terms of lower body motion, but when you throw in the sheer number of torso muscles involved with throwing back and then swinging a sledge hammer you can see why it's killer exercise. It might be difficult to pick a muscle group that won't be activated with this kind of workout, and you'll build a useful skill.

A Different Function for Everyone

What might seem like functional exercise to one person might not be functional to another. Maybe you are never going to swing a sledgehammer in your life, and you don't want to do it as exercise. That's fine. You're missing out on getting shredded in a hurry, but that's fine. The point is that whatever you pick, try to make it something that works your body as a whole, not in small and separate parts.

If you're failing to find motivation to start any of these kinds of exercises, you should maybe consider just trying out a kettlebell, or swinging a sledgehammer. I think you'll be surprised how fun they can be compared to the dumbells and machines of the last century. Now get out there and make us proud.

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