Functional Strength Training Workout Routine: Compound Exercises to Improve Real World Movements

A functional strength training workout routine involves performing compound exercises designed to enhance the relationship between your body’s muscular and nervous systems.  Doing so can help you more efficiently undertake motions such as pushing, pulling, climbing, walking, sprinting, jumping, twisting, turning, etc.  Functional strength training is not just done to improve your appearance, but to help you get better at regular day to day activities.  I find that compound movements such as bodyweight exercises make for an exceptionally good functional strength training workout routine.

Rock climbing requires significant functional strength (thankfully, this isn’t me)

Functional Strength

The first question on your mind might be: what is functional strength?  While many people might equate functional strength with improving athletic performance, I think it’s more fundamental than that.  Functional strength training merely improves your performance in everyday activities.  Simple things like carrying the laundry upstairs, moving a couch, sprinting to catch a bus, and as my wife learned, carrying around a child, all constitute exercises that require functional strength.

The goal of functional strength training is to transfer to the increases in strength from one movement to another movement.  Because movements are neuromuscular in that they require the power of both your brain and your brawn, the best exercises to increase functional strength simply involve practicing the movement or motion you want to get better at.  For example, a year ago, my wife thought carrying around a 7lb baby all day was challenging.  Now she can carry a 22lb baby with no trouble.  How did that happen?  Practice.

Transfer of Training

Practicing a very specific movement is the best way to improve that movement (“grease the groove”).  However, there can be some transfer effect from similar motions.  To most effectively transfer strength gains, components such as coordination, type of contraction, speed of movement, and range of motion, need to be similar.

  • Coordination: if you’re training for a specific motion such as putting boxes on high shelves, then it’s best to perform a standing exercise to teach your legs how to support the weight as well.  In other words, standing shoulder presses would be more effective than sitting shoulder presses for that specific motion.
  • Contraction: this refers to concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening), and isometric (stabilizing).  You may be able to forcefully bench press 300 lbs, but how long could you statically hold that weight for?
  • Speed of movement: if you want to get better at a fast motion, why practice a slow exercise? For example, I would argue that explosive leap ups would help your vertical jump more than slow, heavy weight squats.
  • Range of motion: if your joints are “greased,” it will be easier to perform the same exercise.  Try practicing in the same full range of motion as the functional movement you want to improve.

Compound Exercises

One great thing about functional strength training is that you can really tailor your program to include the movements you most need to focus on.  In my opinion, the best form of training utilizes compound movements since they incorporate your entire body.  For an activity that involves pulling a heavy object off the ground, isolation exercises such as bicep curls won’t help you as much as practicing deadlifts or clean and press.  Compound exercises are essentially the ideal way to integrate all the above components.

Functional Strength Training Workout

I find that bodyweight exercises are a great way to include compound exercises in a functional strength training routine.  They require use of a broad range of muscles as well as employ the components that help best transfer strength.  Here are a few examples:

  • Pushing: pushups, dips
  • Pulling: pull ups, inverted rows
  • Power: squats
  • Explosiveness: plyometrics, burpees

That’s not to say the weightlifting doesn’t have a place in a functional training routine.  In fact, a few of my favorite functional strength training exercises involve weights.  Deadlifts, where you use your entire body to pull weight off the ground, are exceptionally good at helping you gain strength.  Clean and press is my personal favorite as it involves explosively pulling weight off the ground and pressing that weight above your head.  It truly is a full body movement.  Kettebells are excellent at improving functional strength as well.  As with any workout routine, it’s important not to train to failure and to ensure that your body has adequate time to rest between workouts.

Improve Real World Movements

The best way to improve functional strength is to practice a motion over and over.  You can get really creative and use an assortment of real world motions using your surroundings.  However, you can supplement that practice with a functional strength training workout routine that includes bodyweight exercises and compound exercises such as deadlifts or clean and press.  These compound movements will help your body when it comes time to execute a variety of motions.

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