Functional Strength: What is it and what it can do for you
When I was trying to think of a name for my new group exercise class, I considered naming it “Secrets of Functional Strength” because I really feel like I am sharing secrets that I’ve utilized in my own workouts to help me feel stronger, perform better, and not have injuries. But my husband advised against this, pointing out most people don’t know what functional strength is. So I went with “Better Body” because that is a little more self-explanatory. In this post I’m going to do my best to define what functional strength means to me, and tell you the secrets for optimizing your functional strength.
Most fitness experts will categorize training styles as either traditional or functional. Put simply, they define traditional training as strengthening through simple movements that isolate particular muscle groups using machines or weights with the goal of building up those particular muscles. Traditional training will help you reach your fitness goals if your goal is to build muscle bulk. This type of training is necessary for bodybuilders and appeals to people who want to look more muscular; however, fitness gurus would agree that “big” doesn’t necessarily equate to being “strong” or even useful. And while any resistance program can help improve bone strength and overall health, this type of training alone won’t help the average person achieve their fitness goals.
Functional training, on the other hand, uses body weight or smaller weights, kettlebells or resistance bands to train specific movements that require muscles working together and challenge the body as a whole. Functional training requires coordination of multiple muscles and systems in the body working together to perform a task. It’s the kind of training that helps you get better at everyday movements and tasks like getting out of a chair, going up stairs, carrying a heavy object, or picking something up off the floor. This kind of training can help build strength, as well as improve endurance, balance, and flexibility, and if done properly, decrease risk of injury.
So based on those definitions, you might be tempted to assume that I am all about functional training and I am opposed to the idea of isolating muscles through traditional training. Well…yes and no. Let's unpack that a little further. Yes, I agree that functional training, in general, is more effective than traditional training because muscles do not work in isolation in real life. But functional strength cannot be achieved through functional training alone. You can perform functional exercises like overhead squats, lunges with a band twist, or burpees - but still get injured if you aren’t utilizing the right muscles. Isolating certain muscles groups is an important ingredient in achieving optimal functional strength. However, they're not the muscles most people choose to isolate in the gym. That’s where my “secrets” come in.
The secret is that there are so many muscles beyond the ones you can see in the mirror. Those muscles working behind the scenes are the ones that are best at creating stability, and I would argue stability is everything. Stability enables you to produce force effectively, achieve full mobility, perform optimally, and most importantly, move with proper mechanics. Improper mechanics lead to breakdown, which is the biggest cause of pain and/or injury. These stabilizers are almost exclusively the muscles and muscle groups I work on in the rehab process to help people overcome injuries. So instead of waiting to see if/when these imbalances lead to pain or injury, why not work on them proactively? I believe that isolating the stabilizer muscles make functional training (or any kind of training) more effective. Not only that, but you will also feel better with everything you do throughout the day. It makes your exercises more effective, and makes you better at exercising. Hence, it makes your body BETTER!
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