A common refrain you hear in fitness training today is the need to build functional strength.
Pictures and videos of tire flips and sledgehammer exercises are fun, intense workouts and often accompanied by the term functional strength training.
Before we decide if this is the latest marketing speak or meaningless buzzword, let’s break down what functional strength really means.
Depending on who you ask, functional strength might mean different things to different people.
Functional strength for a farmer might mean being able to dig postholes for a fence he’s installing at the ranch.
A basketball player on the other hand, will be training for lower body strength and working on his vertical leap and foot drills.
Training specificity matters and any one-size fits all approach is generally frowned upon in fitness.
I’m big on functional strength training myself and believe that conventionally, it should carry over and support your daily living sensibilities and locomotion.
There are basic movement patterns that all humans perform daily, from sitting to standing, pulling to pushing, where mechanical transfer of force occurs.
So even though sledgehammers and tire flips are the newest rage in fitness, it really begs the question if it’s truly building functional strength.
Most people aren’t necessarily flipping 400lb tires on a daily basis so while you do end up being very proficient at flipping tires, training this way hardly benefits you in practical ways.
For the average person, I think functional strength training should at the very least aim to give you the ability to say, get up off the couch pain-free at 70 years old. That’s a real life struggle we will encounter late in our lives.
Here are three of my favorite exercises I use to build functional strength. These compound movements should be fundamental to any training program, regardless of age or ability level.
Squats are the perfect exercise that best mimics one of the foundational movement patterns – sitting to standing.
If you are a little more advanced into your training, you will know a regular barbell squat simulates this movement.
Just a few keys to note, keep your head up, bend your knees into a sitting stance, letting your thighs drop just below parallel to the ground. Then push back up to the standing position.
This is a great all-around exercise that not only trains your quadriceps, glutes, hips, lower back and hamstrings (all the associated muscles in the lower body), it is a great way to strengthen your core.
Deadlifts are another staple and my personal favorite exercise.
Deadlifts are universally recognized as one of the best total-body strength exercises. I’d advise caution to beginners to take special note of their posture and start with a more manageable weight.
Otherwise, a good deadlift program will give you a good burn in the hamstrings and glutes. Don’t underestimate the positive impact deadlifting will have on your cardiovascular endurance as well.
Pushing is also one of the core functional exercises and none builds strength better than the bench press.
It recruits muscle fibers from your shoulders (deltoids), arms (triceps) and back (latissimus dorsi) to perform a bench press. Arguably the best way to build upper body strength, which has crossover utility into everyday movements.
For those without access to a gym, regular push-ups are a convenient substitute.