Functional Strength Training: What It Is, How to Do It, and How It Will Radicalize Your Workouts

An in-depth look at this tactical training style that can change your approach to fitness and working out for the better!

When you think of fitness, what does that look like to you?

Do you picture yourself with rippling muscles ideal for a catalog or magazine? Do you think of running a marathon or competing in a CrossFit competition?

Everyone has their own mental image of what fitness looks like, a particular goal they are working toward.

But what if we told you there is a simple definition of “fitness” that will give you a concrete, achievable goal you can strive for–and a training program that will help you get there?

Below, we’re going to dive into what it means to be “fit” and how functional training can take you where you need to go. By the end of this post, you’ll be ready to give this highly effective, versatile new training method a try—and your body will be so much better for it!

What Does it Really Mean to “Be Fit”?
There are four basic pillars of fitness:

  • Cardiovascular endurance. This means the ability to run, row, swim, walk, jog, cycle, or do other forms of cardio exercise for prolonged periods of time. Your cardiovascular system has the endurance to keep your muscles working for the duration.
  • Muscular strength. This means the ability to lift heavy things. This is the pillar of fitness most people focus on with their resistance training.
  • Muscular endurance. This is similar to cardiovascular endurance, in that it requires you to be able to sustain low-intensity, low-weight effort for longer periods of time. It’s not about lifting heavier, but less weight for more reps.
  • Mobility. This means flexibility and ease of motion. This is the pillar of fitness many people skip because it’s not the primary focus of their training. However, skipping mobility exercises can lead to higher risk of injury, greater stiffness, and reduced range of motion.

To “be fit”, you need to be able to keep up with your activities of daily life. That means you can take out the garbage, mow your lawn, play with your pets or kids, do your work, clean your house, and do all the other things you do in your day comfortably and easily.

A truly “fit” person has developed all four pillars of their fitness so they can go about their daily activities with ease.

  • Cardiovascular endurance allows them to run with their pets and play with their kids.
  • Muscular strength helps them take out heavy garbage cans or lift heavy boxes while cleaning out the garage.
  • Muscular endurance enables them to carry their children or heavy shopping bags for prolonged periods of time.
  • Mobility allows them to move and play and work without risking injury or pain

The only strength training modality that focuses on all of these pillars of fitness is, you guessed it, functional training!

Functional Strength Training 101
Functional Strength Training, to put it simply, focuses on your entire body and all aspects of your fitness. Unlike standard resistance training, which concentrates on just developing muscular strength, functional training targets all of the four pillars to improve your fitness overall.

The goal of functional strength training isn’t to help you lift insanely heavy weights (you won’t become a Strongman Champion) but to enable you to go about your activities of daily life as effectively and easily as possible.

Functional strength training utilizes exercises that:

  • Engage multiple muscle groups or the whole body. Not only does this lead to better development of strength and endurance for all the muscles engaged, but places greater demand on the cardiovascular system, developing cardiovascular endurance. The fact that multiple body parts are moving together also encourages better whole-body mobility.
  • Mirror the activities of daily life. You focus on exercises like squatting, pulling, pushing, reaching, twisting, and moving, both with your body weight and the addition of heavy weights. This leads to better functional strength and mobility.

What Does a Functional Strength Training Workout Look Like?
Pretty much like a regular resistance training workout, but with one major difference: it combines bodyweights, free weights, aerobic training, Yoga and Pilates movements, and even gymnastics movements.

The whole point of functional strength training is to target not only your large muscle groups (chest, back, legs, arms, and shoulders), but also your core muscles (abs, back, and obliques) and all the smaller secondary stabilizer muscles that do the work of keeping you stable and moving easily.

With standard resistance training, you might separate your workout into various days to target each muscle group. For example:

  • Monday: Chest and Abs
  • Tuesday: Upper and Lower Back
  • Wednesday: Legs and Glutes
  • Thursday: Shoulders and Arms
  • Friday: Whole-Body Circuit Training

Notice how each of those days hit a specific muscle group? While this training modality is excellent for building strength, it doesn’t target the other three pillars of fitness as efficiently.

Functional strength training is much more tactical. Instead of breaking it down into muscle groups, it targets the six basic movement patterns:
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Bend
  • Core Stability

The beauty of this approach is that you can work these six movement patterns pretty much anywhere—the gym, a Yoga studio, a CrossFit box, or even out in a park with nothing but your body weight.

Making these movement patterns the primary focus of your training sessions helps you to develop much more versatile, well-rounded fitness that enables you to accomplish a lot more in your daily life than just strong muscles.

Levels of Functional Strength Training
There are three basic levels of functional strength training, each with their optimal approach:

Beginner Trainees will just be growing accustomed to the movements, so they’ll need to focus on form to develop proper muscle motor control. Typically, beginner-level functional strength training will work the full body and multiple movement patterns in the same workout, helping to develop their overall fitness. This is the stage where you typically learn quickly, see great improvement, and recover from the training sessions rapidly.

Intermediate Trainees will have the basics down and be moving on to the more complex, demanding workouts. They may focus on one or two movement patterns per workout (such as Lunge and Squat or Bend and Core), with the goal of pushing harder on these specific aspects. These workouts tend to be more intense and demand greater recovery time.

Expert Trainees will be advanced in their training and have developed excellent mobility, endurance, and strength. At this level, it’s all about mastering every aspect of their movement and recruiting the muscles and cardiovascular system at optimum efficiency.

They will usually focus on one movement pattern per session. Progress will be slower, because they will already be at the 80-90% efficiency mark. It’s recommended experts work with a high-level fitness coach in order to keep improving.

What Equipment is Needed for Functional Strength Training
That’s the beauty of functional strength training: it’s intended to mimic your activities of daily life, so you can literally use whatever you have lying around the house!

Obviously, it’s best to have weights: dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, sandbags, battle ropes, punching bags, medicine balls, and so on.

However, if you don’t have weights, you can pick up water jugs, cans, or anything else heavy you have at home. Or just focus on the bodyweight training—you’d be amazed by how much effort it takes to move your body around efficiently!

The 10 Best Functional Strength Training Exercises
Here our top 10 favorite functional strength training exercises that will seriously kick your fitness up a notch:

  1. Burpees – Burpees are, by far, the single best full-body movement! The combination of push-up, moving plank, jump, and squat makes this a killer exercise that does an amazing job of targeting all four pillars of fitness.
  2. Mountain Climber – Yet another amazing movement that recruits multiple muscle groups while demanding higher cardiovascular endurance and promoting better mobility. It’s an incredibly safe, easy movement, but it will push you to your limits.
  3. Seated Box Jump – A box jump is already an amazing functional strength movement because it demands explosive power from your body. However, adding in the “seated” aspect will engage your lower body and core more efficiently between each jump.
  4. Multi-Directional Lunge – Instead of just lunging forward, backward, or to the side, how about going all directions in the same set? A multi-directional lunge—also known as “Around the World Lunges”—engages your hip joints and core to keep you balanced and moving smoothly forward, backward, laterally, and to the side.
  5. Standing Row – This is an excellent movement that targets not only your upper back, biceps, and shoulders, but also your core. The fact that you bend forward engages your lower back and glute muscles, leading to much better posterior chain strength and core stability.
  6. Sled Push/Pull – Pushing or Pulling a weighted sled engages just about every muscle in your body, plus it targets your cardiovascular endurance beautifully. To increase raw power, add more weight. To increase endurance, add more distance.
  7. Farmer’s Stair Walk – The Farmer’s Walk exercise is incredibly simple: just grip a heavy weight and walk around for 60 seconds. It’ll set your forearms burning and build some excellent grip strength. Adding in a stair climb engages your legs and core and forces your body to work double-time.
  8. Pull-Up – The mighty Pull-Up is the single best “Pull” exercise you can do. It will target your upper back, shoulders, biceps, forearms, and core (to keep your movements controlled), all of the muscles involved in any pulling motion.
  9. Push-Up (Plus Push-Up Variations) – Push-Ups are a classic “Push” movement that will require your abs, glutes, back, triceps, shoulders, and chest to work together. Add in some more challenging variety—such as Push-Up with Reach or Clapping Push-Ups—and you’re in for some serious functional strength gains.
  10. Turkish Get-Up – This is a complex, difficult movement that will engage literally every muscle group. The transition from lying on your back to standing—all while supporting a heavy weight above your head—will push your body to its limits and develop amazing mobility!

Check Out This Sample Functional Strength Training Workout
This is by no means the “be all and end all” workout, but it’s a sample of a functional strength training workout program you can use to maximize every aspect of your fitness.

Push and Pull:

Circuit 1:
Push-Ups
Pull-Ups
Farmer’s Walk
Repeat the circuit 3 times, with 90 seconds of rest between each circuit. After the third completion, rest for 2 minutes, then move on to the next circuit.

Circuit 2:
Diamond Push-Ups
Bent Over Row
Turkish Get-Up

Squat and Lunge:

Circuit 1:
Multi-Directional Lunge
Burpees
Wide-Stance Goblet Squat
Repeat the circuit 3 times, with 90 seconds of rest between each circuit. After the third completion, rest for 2 minutes, then move on to the next circuit.

Circuit 2:
Seated Box Jumps
Deadlifts
Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

Bend and Core:

Circuit 1:
Woodchoppers
Mountain Climbers
Stability Ball Rollouts
Repeat the circuit 3 times, with 90 seconds of rest between each circuit. After the third completion, rest for 2 minutes, then move on to the next circuit.

Circuit 2:
Turkish Get-Up
Bear Crawl
Moving Plank

Summary
Functional strength training is the tactical workout that targets every aspect of your fitness to maximize your movement, strength, and endurance. It’s not going to turn you into a Strongman or world-class powerlifter, but you’ll be fitter, leaner, and stronger where it matters: in your daily life.

The exercises require more concentration than standard resistance training exercises, but you’ll find the lower weight and focus on proper mobility/movement leads to a significantly lower risk of injuries.

If you want to kick your overall fitness up a notch, Functional Strength Training is exactly what you need!