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Functional Strength Training: What to Know As a Coach

What is Functional Strength Training?

Functional strength training is an approach that aims to develop performance in a specific sport, everyday life, or work-related tasks. Such a program consists of movements that closely mimic real-world activities and help trainees build strength, endurance, and power through specific ranges of motion. 

A loaded carry like the farmer’s walk is one great movement with an excellent carryover in daily life. The activity strengthens the entire body, improves balance, and develops grip strength, which helps with everyday tasks like carrying groceries.

Functional vs. Regular Strength Training

At first glance, functional and regular strength training appear to be the same because resistance training, in any capacity, carries over to sports and daily life. While there are similarities, the two approaches focus on distinct aspects of fitness, which means you must approach each with the client’s primary goals in mind.

For example, a regular strength training program that aims to build some strength and muscle may include a mix of machine and free-weight movements. The focus would be less on the carryover in other areas and more on the workout goals. 

Powerlifters narrow their focus even more by primarily training to increase their strength in three movement patterns: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

In contrast, functional training is less about the direct workout outcomes and more about how the assigned movements translate to better performance in other areas.

Because of that, workouts typically include fewer machine and isolation exercises and more unilateral work, free weights, and elements of asymmetrical training.

As with regular resistance training, workouts are tailored to unique needs, but more thought is given to developing secondary characteristics to optimize performance in sports, daily life, and work.

Rules for Programming Functional Training Programs

1. Specificity

The principle of specificity states that the body adapts to the type and magnitude of the imposed physical demands. Put another way, athletes will adapt to the specific activities they do.

In the context of functional training, this means assigning exercises that closely match the movement patterns the person performs in their daily life, at work, or in sports. 

For example, a climber would benefit from activities that strengthen the upper back, core, shoulders, biceps, and grip. This means focusing on pulling activities that develop grip strength and endurance: pull-ups, dead hangs, rows, and loaded carries.

2. Overload

As with any form of training, progressive overload is critical. The same is true for functional training, even if the primary goal is to improve performance for other things. 

Monitor your client’s performance to ensure they gradually improve in the areas that matter most. For example, let’s say you work with someone with a physically demanding job that requires them to lift heavy objects off the floor and overhead.

In this case, the program can focus on movements like the deadlift and overhead press, emphasizing proper form and bracing for safety and longevity.

3. Focus on Compound Lifts

Exercise selection is part of the ‘specificity’ rule discussed above, but it deserves its point. 

Compound movements should make up most of the training plan because they engage multiple muscle groups, improve balance, develop coordination, and have a much better carry-over to real-world activities. 

For example, if a client comes to you with the goal of building strength to more easily handle various tasks in their daily life, you can’t go wrong with squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and rows.

FAQ

1. How is traditional strength training different from functional training?

Traditional strength training often aims to build general strength and muscle. In contrast, functional workouts train the body to make it better able to handle everyday tasks, perform better at a physically demanding job, or do better in sports.

2. How to measure the success of a functional strength training program?

The best indicator is improved performance in activities related to the client’s life, work, or sport. Other things to measure include doing increasingly challenging workouts and performing complex movements more smoothly and with better body control.

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