Functional Strength Training: The Ultimate Guide

Functional Strength Training Explained

Functional training is the new buzzword in the fitness world. The most popular workout programs incorporate functional training as a central part of their make-up. Functional training is all about simulating activities you do in everyday life or on the sports field.

Functional strength and conditioning training is training for real life. It prepares you for challenges you that you’re likely to encounter in your day-to-day living, such as changing a car tire or lifting a heavy suitcase. You’ll notice that functional movements often mimic movements you do in real life. It is this real application crossover that gives functional training its unique power.

Functional Fitness was inspired by the training regimens of Japanese ninja warriors. It typically involves combining open space exercises with indoor skill and strength training. It’s the type of training that your body was designed for – the type of training that your body deserves.

How Functional Training Differs from Conventional Training

Most conventional weight training exercises target a specific muscle group. For instance, the bench press is primarily a chest exercise. This is not functional because we very rarely use the chest by itself in everyday life.

Functional training involves compound movements that include an explosive element that works a number of large muscle groups together. An example is the croquet smash move. This exercise is very similar to chopping wood with an ax or smashing boulders with a sledgehammer. It maximally involves the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and thighs. In addition, it is a highly aerobic move.

The Main Benefits Of Functional Strength Training

1. It Trains Movement Patterns

Your body was designed to move as a functional unit. Out in the real world, most of us spend way too much time sitting around. To counter this inactivity, we need to move the whole body together. Functional training provides that kind of a workout.

2. It Improves Posture

One very noticeable casualty of the technology age is human posture. The majority of people have developed hunched shoulders, rounded spines, and a weak posterior chain. Functional strength training works the posterior chain (all of the muscles at the back of your body) together. This allows you to strengthen the lumbar spine, pull your shoulders back, and align your postural position.

3. It Burns Fat

Functional Training is a lot more taxing on your cardiovascular system. You’ll be drawing in more oxygen, breathing heavier and using more glycogen. All of this leads to a higher calorie burn, boosts metabolism and burns off body fat.

4. It Strengthens the Core

The dynamic movement patterns that are integral to functional strength training rely on the muscles of the core to stabilize the spine. This means that every exercise is a core exercise.

5. It Mimics Sports Training

The principle of specificity of training tells us that the best exercises for sports people mimic as closely as possible the movement patterns of their chosen discipline. Functional training does precisely that. Exercises are often done with cables to simulate the swinging or throwing motions of the game. Some manufacturers have even made functional training equipment that simulates the movement patterns of certain sports.

6. It Makes You Stronger and Leaner

Functional strength training will build strength very rapidly as it relies on compound moves that recruit a number of large muscle groups. In the process, it will help you to craft a lean, fit-looking physique.

7. It Helps to Balance the Body

The typical sedentary Western lifestyle promotes bodily imbalance. Functional Fitness addresses this imbalance by forcing the opposite sides of the body to work together synergistically, rather than isolating individual muscle groups.

5 Awesome Exercises to Get Functional

Functional training is all about developing real-time explosive strength. But functional exercise will do more than provide you with real-world strength gains. You will also get a very effective cardiovascular session. The following 5 moves will give you a great introduction to the world of functional strength training.

#1: Croquet Smash

Guide to hitting a tire with a sledge hammer

The Croquet Smash is a great functional move that simulates chopping wood. As well as developing core strength, it will strengthen the entire posterior chain. It is also a very good way to burn calories. Try doing it for a minute straight, counting the number of times you hit the tire. The next time you do it, strive to improve on that number.

  • Position yourself a few feet away from of a large tractor tire and take hold of a sledgehammer with one hand towards the end of the handle and the other close to the hammer head.
  • Swing the hammer around behind your head in an arcing move and then down to smash into the tire. The power should come from your thighs and lats.
  • Perform 12 reps on either side of the tire.

#2: Squat Snatches

How to Do a Squat Snatch by Wodstar

The squat snatch is an old-school weight lifting exercise that combines explosiveness, balance and flexibility. This is quite a technical exercise, so be sure to start with a light weight (we suggest just the bar) until you have got the mechanics of the exercise patterned to the movement of your body.

  • Begin with a barbell on a squat rack. Hop under it as if you were about to perform a squat. Un-rack the bar and take a step back placing your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Slide your hands out to a wide grip position. Now snatch the weight up to a fully extended arm position overhead. You should be pushing out and up.
  • From this position, descend down into full squat. Make sure that you stay in a neutral spine position throughout the movement, with your chest.
  • Keeping the weight locked out overhead, complete the movement by pushing out of the squat to a standing position.

#3: Cleans

Movement Demo - The Squat Clean

Cleans are another old school powerlifting move that is seldom seen in gyms today. That’s a pity because this is a fantastic move to develop your explosive power. Again, be sure to start light until you have mastered the mechanics of the exercise.

  • Put a loaded Olympic bar on the floor in front of you.
  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart in a neutral spine position. Kneel down to grab the bar in an overhand position. Pull the bar up to upper chest level. Your hips, knees and ankles should come up as the bar passes the mid-thigh level. At the same time, your shoulders should shrug back and your elbows come forward.
  • When the bar rests at chest level you will be in a front squat position. Maintaining a neutral spine, lower into a full squat and then lower the bar back to the floor.

#4: Front Squats

How To Front Squat With Proper Form

Front squats are an exercise that many shy away from, claiming that it is just too uncomfortable. That, however, is what makes it such a good functional exercise. With the weight resting across your upper body, you will be required to do a lot more balancing and coordinating. You’ll also have to recruit more frontal body muscle to execute the move properly.

  • Place a loaded bar on the squat rack. Approach it and grab the bar with an underhand grip, elbows pointing forward. Bring the bar back to rest across your clavicle.
  • Keeping your chest up and while maintaining a neutral spine, descend into a full squat.
  • From the bottom position, push through the heels to return to the start position.

#5: Wall Balls

How to do Wall Balls

Wall Balls are an effective low-impact plyometric move that will train both your explosive rebound skills and your follow-through recuperation. The key to this movement is to keep the reps flowing from one to the next without any rest.

  • Position yourself about 3 feet from a wall. Hold a medium weighted medicine ball at your chest.
  • Load your body with a slight squat and then push upward to release the ball towards the wall.
  • Prepare to catch it on the rebound.
  • Keep the reps moving fluidly.

These five functional moves require patience and discipline to master. It is best to start with a light resistance in order to get the form correct. In every instance, the explosive power originates from your thighs.

Introduce these functional moves into your program one at a time. Perform it as the first exercise of your program while you are fresh and focused.

When you’ve got all 5 of the moves into your routine, combine them into their own circuit. Do 12 reps of each move, going through them without a rest.

5 More Advanced Functional Strength Exercises

The second round of five exercises challenges your body even at the next level. You’ll be building on the moves you’ve already completed to develop functional power in every muscle group. As with the last group of movements, it is important that you progress slowly, giving yourself time to perfect each move before adding resistance.

#6: Turkish Get-Up

Turkish Get-Up Basics

The Turkish Get-Up is one of the best total body functional exercises you can do – and one of the hardest. It is technically precise and will take quite a lot of practice to perfect. Take it slow and work up to using heavy weight. Be sure to maintain a neutral spine throughout and to keep your kettlebell arm locked out at all times.

  • Lie on your back with your left leg straight and your right knee bent and leg pulled up. Take hold of a light kettlebell and hold it directly overhead in your right hand. Your left arm should be spread on the floor. Keep your shoulder blades down.
  • Now, come up onto your left elbow, keeping the right arm fully extended as you do so. Continue bringing your torso up to come off your elbow. By now your body will be supported only by your left hand and your right foot.
  • Next, bring your left knee to the floor as if you were in a lunge position. Lift slightly so that only your right foot and left shin are touching the floor. Remember to keep the kettlebell fully extended overhead.
  • The final move to an upright position involves pushing off the rear thigh.
  • To complete the repetition, reverse the movement, step-by-step, to return to the start position.
  • Perform an equal number of reps on each side.

#7: Reverse Lunge with Rotation

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge and Rotation: Strength, Balance and Core in One Movement

This is an excellent function movement with an emphasis on working the core. As well as improving your lateral movement, it’s a great way to target your love handles.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and a pair of light dumbbells in your hands, raising them to chest level.
  • Now take a large step backward into a reverse lunge position.
  • Rotate from the torso to move the dumbbells to the left. The weights should travel across the forward leg.
  • Reverse the motion to work the opposite side.

#8: Yoga Squat

Yoga Squat: The Ultimate Full Body Mobility Exercise

By combining the deep breathing of yoga with the functional movement of squats, this exercise provides an effective total body stretch along with quad and glute strengthening.

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, chest up and back in a neutral spine position. Raise your arms above your head in a “Y” position.
  • Now go down into a full squat position. As you descend, forcefully breathe out.
  • Bring your hands from overhead down to touch the floor. Keeping them there, straighten your legs. Breathe in deeply.
  • Now lower back into a deep squat. As you do so, take another breathe out, placing your hands back into a “Y” position.
  • Now come out of the squat position.

#9: Kettlebell Halo

The Russian Kettlebell Halo

The Kettlebell Halo is a rotational functional movement that works all of the muscles of your torso and arms. As well as being an effective core strengthener, it will develop the rotational strength of your shoulders to make you more effective when working with your arms over your head.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, holding a kettlebell in front of you with both hands.
  • Bring the weight up to the upper chest.
  • With your elbows in, bring the weight around your head in a circular motion. Your torso should be stationary and your back flat as you perform this exercise.
  • Change direction after 30 seconds.

#10: Lunge Clean / Lunge Press

The lunge clean / lunge press combines balance with explosive strength. It requires the upper and lower body to work together to complete a task, relying on the power of the hip drive to accelerate the overhead punch with the kettlebell. Start light to get the correct form before you decide to go heavy.

  • Stand in a lunge position with a kettlebell held at your side. Keep your focus directly ahead.
  • Perform a standard lunge, cleaning the weight to shoulder height as you come up.
  • Step directly into another lunge. Press the kettlebell to shoulder level as you come out of this lunge.
  • Keep this movement going until you have completed the set number of reps.
  • Do the same on the other side.​

Putting It All Together: A 20-Minute Blasting Functional Strength Workout

The moves that you have now learned can be combined into a full-on 20-minute routine to develop total functional strength.

  • Turkish Get-Up: 6 reps each side
  • Wall Ball: 10 reps
  • Lunge Clean / Lunge Press: 8 reps each side
  • Croquet Smash: 15 reps
  • Kettlebell Halo: 20 reps
  • Squat Snatches: 10 reps
  • Yoga Squat: 12 reps
  • Cleans: 8 reps
  • Reverse Lunge with Rotation: 8 reps each side

Complete the circuit 3 times for a 20-minute workout.