Functional strength training has become a bit of a flashy marketing phrase as of late. There is no shortage of training systems, gyms, and social media pages claiming to be participating in “functional training”. When you take a closer look at them, you’ll notice that there seem to be several different schools of thought about what functional training actually is.
As you will discover, participating in true functional strength training should help you build muscle, make you more athletic, and eliminate chronic pain. In this regard, not all functional training systems are equal.
In this article we’re going to take an objective approach towards answering the question, “What is functional strength training?” so that you can make the best decision possible when it comes to your fitness routine.
Traditional Vs Functional Strength Training?
Let’s attempt to create an accurate description of what functional strength training means.
When most people think of the word “functional” as it relates to their training, they’re looking for exercise that improves their ability to carry out everyday tasks with ease. For example, CrossFit regularly teaches that a deadlift will help you pick up your groceries and that a shoulder press will help you put those groceries in your cabinets. There is certainly functional crossover between these exercises and daily activities. The question we want to pose here is are those the best exercises for improving functionality? Or do they carry too much risk with minimal benefit?
That being said, we should also take a moment to discuss what “strength” means. Strength is a relative term. Meaning that if you are “strong” in a particular task, that means that you are well-prepared physically for completing that task (essentially being over prepared relative to the demands placed upon you).
Strength is also contextual. A body builder and an olympic wrestler are both admittedly strong, yet in very different contexts. When we consider the ability of these two types of athletes to be able to adapt their strength to a varied set of activities - it is very likely that a wrestler would be much more capable of applying his strengths to a broader set of activities. This is because a wrestler is constantly challenged to create leverage in a more diverse set of circumstances whereas a body builder only performs in extremely controlled environments where weight needs to be moved in a very specific way. We at Functional Patterns would argue that the wrestler in this comparison is displaying a closer representation of functional strength.
While a deadlift may provide some carryover into daily activities (like picking up your groceries, for example), it also carries a risk with it of increasing the chances of experiencing lower back injury or chronic back pain - making it unsustainable long-term. However, if we consider that the role of the glutes and hamstrings are to perform motions like running, then we can consider the ranges of motion that those muscles are meant to be optimized for within the context of running. This then allows us to create exercises that are a more precise stimulus for the glutes and hamstrings that address movement dysfunctions and develop strength that carries over into a variety of activities (including picking up your groceries).
Hierarchy of Prioritization
To reiterate, the hamstrings and glutes are more fundamentally responsible for running than they are picking things up off the ground. This means if you improve your running, picking things up is easier. In contrast, getting better at picking things up doesn’t necessarily improve your running ability.
In essence, real functional strength should have carryover into as many aspects of life as possible. Additionally, real functional strength training should develop athleticism while reversing pain and injury.
How do you know if your training system fits this description?
Identifying the Best Functional Strength Training Exercises
How do we determine which exercises are the most functional?
There are many clues as to what movements are the most fundamental to humans. Every mammal has a specific bone structure and muscle structure that optimize it for moving in a primary movement pattern.
Think of how this applies to different animals like kangaroos (hop on two feet), fish (swim via alternating lateral flexions), dogs (run on four feet), and of course - humans.
Your muscles already have a primary movement they are primed for. As humans, our bodies are primed for standing, walking, running, and throwing on two feet (1). Experts in the field of human athletic paleobiology agree and this is why at FP we assert that any effective functional strength training program should focus on these four functions. Coined as the FP First Four, these fundamental movements give us a guide for the most effective way to train every muscle in your body. For more information on the FP First Four and how they apply to training your body, check out this article: Isolation Vs Integration in Training.
Briefly think back to elementary art class when you learned about the primary colors. The colors red, blue, and yellow are the fundamental colors from which all other colors are derived. Similarly, standing, walking, running, and throwing are the primary human movements from which all other movements are derived. That being said, any exercise that primes the body to perform the First Four more efficiently would then carry over into every other aspect of your movement – making it the most functional form of exercise you can perform.
To see a great example of what integrated functional movement looks like based on the FP First Four – check out this instagram post. Below are several examples of the types of results that can be achieved by applying this approach to your training.
Is Functional Strength Training the Same as CrossFit?
CrossFit is touted as a functional training system that produces high-level athletes. While CrossFit does produce people who are good at CrossFit, does it necessarily fit the parameters for functional training that we discussed earlier in this article?
Perhaps instead of thinking in terms of something either being functional or dysfunctional, let’s think of it as a spectrum of more functional or less functional.
While CrossFit outlines its own foundational movements, it gives zero acknowledgement to our evolutionary roots of walking and running. Additionally, CrossFit has an injury rate that is similar to traditional weight lifting – which means it’s about as functional as traditional weight lifting (2).
If someone were truly building functional strength, we should see a reduced rate of injury even at higher levels of exertion. Theoretically, the more precisely we can determine what a functional exercise is, the lower the injury rate should become. In fact, we should be able to reverse pain and injuries with properly executed functional strength training.
If the body is moving in an ideal way, pain and injury should not be present.
Something that you’ll notice with Functional Patterns is that it creates very consistent results with people of all different body types and capabilities. By moving more efficiently, not only do our clients get stronger and build muscle but they also see pains slowly dissipate.
That being said, Functional Patterns would generally rank towards “more functional” in relation to CrossFit (less functional).
So, when we say that the FP First Four should be the basis of your Functional Strength Training, we have substantial evidence to back us up. CrossFit may have some carryover into everyday life, however, it also carries a substantial injury rate. Functional Patterns has a negative injury rate.
Functional Patterns is True Functional Strength Training
To develop functional strength, start by prioritizing movements that resemble standing, walking, running. Next, you can add load to develop muscle and strength. To get an idea of what functional strength training could look like and how it can help you, check out these posts from the Official Functional Patterns Instagram:
Functional strength training is a buzzword being used to convince consumers that the training they are doing is beneficial. While often well-intended, not all programs offering functional training are created equal.
First and foremost, we must outline what functions we are training and why. At FP we assert that training in a way that improves your standing posture, your walking, running, and throwing are key functions that have the most carryover into daily activities.
Additionally, if the training you are doing is improving your movement at a fundamental level, there should be visible improvements in posture and movement that come along with other benefits like reduction in pain levels.
Finally, the system should provide evidence for the claims they make. Testimonials from clients is a good start - photo and video evidence is even better.
With the extensive functional training exercises provided within the FP training systems, you can achieve the benefits above while building muscle and burning off excess body fat in a sustainable manner.
While there are several programs being taught as being functional, few of them have defined why they are functional and aim to showcase before and after results to provide evidence that the system works.
At Functional Patterns we focus on the First Four and our consistent results with people all over the world suggest we are on the right track.
The best introduction to functional strength training is the Functional Patterns Human Optimization Bundle which includes the 10-Week Course and the Functional Training System. The 10-week course focuses heavily on corrective exercise while the Functional Training system shows you how to build strength and athleticism on top of the fundamentals from the 10-week course. With this arsenal of functional training exercises, you can tackle the majority of common pains while getting fit in the process. For high-level support, finding a certified FP Practitioner locally or virtually can take your training to the next level.
- Longman DP, Wells JCK, Stock JT. Human athletic paleobiology; using sport as a model to investigate human evolutionary adaptation. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2020 May;171 Suppl 70(Suppl 70):42-59. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23992. Epub 2020 Jan 20. PMID: 31957878; PMCID: PMC7217212.
- Ángel Rodríguez M, García-Calleja P, Terrados N, Crespo I, Del Valle M, Olmedillas H. Injury in CrossFit®: A Systematic Review of Epidemiology and Risk Factors. Phys Sportsmed. 2022 Feb;50(1):3-10. doi: 10.1080/00913847.2020.1864675. Epub 2021 Jan 7. PMID: 33322981.