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Functional Strength Training: What It Is, Why You Need It, and Exercises to Get Started

Article Found on InBodyUSA

We all know injuries can happen in the gym—but how many times have you heard someone say they injured their back carrying heavy luggage or lifting kids? Or tweaked their knee going on a hike or walking the dog? That’s why functional strength training is such a hot topic these days.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) defines functional strength training as “performing work against resistance in such a manner that the improvements in strength directly enhance the performance of movements so that an individual’s activities of daily living are easier to perform.”

Quite the mouthful, right?

Let’s try this simplified definition for functional training:

“Training that attempts to mimic the specific physiological demands of real-life activities.”

Like most exercise philosophies, there’s some controversy over the term “functional training” though. Mel C. Siff, Ph.D. published a paper in the National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal and said:

“[Functional training] has become such a hot item that its proponents are creating the impression that all other approaches to sports training are wrong, unproductive, spurious, or ineffectual.”

Siff argues that the word “functionality” is highly subjective because it depends not only on the exercise itself but on factors like:

  • Characteristics of the athlete
  • Reps
  • Sets
  • Manner of execution
  • Phase of training
  • Interaction with other training
  • Current physical and mental state of the athlete

Regardless of the context in which we define functional training, clinical data from a multitude of sources clearly shows the effectiveness of “functional” strength training, particularly for older adults.

We’ll dig into the current research shortly. First, let’s talk about why you need functional strength.

Why do you need functional strength?

Here’s a scary stat: your muscle mass and strength will decrease 30 to 50% between the ages of 30 and 80. Despite this, only 6% of adults do resistance training two or more times per week (the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation).

Doing resistance exercises and movements that help you become stronger, more flexible, and more agile makes you better equipped to handle day-to-day feats of strength and athleticism that are often overlooked.  And, it can help you become less injury-prone.

Another secondary benefit, according to ACE, is that improving your strength and agility in one area of your body leads to better performance in other areas.

The science of functional strength training

So, to work towards functional strength, do you have to start benching, squatting, and deadlifting? Not if you don’t want to, and for some, that might even a barrier to even getting started.

In one study that compared traditional weight training to functional training (which they defined as resistance training exercises mixed with isometric stability exercises) in middle‐aged and elderly adults, researchers found that traditional weight training and functional training were equally effective at improving functional capacity in test subjects.

Another study of 87 adults aged 65-93 years published in the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that functional ability improved for functionally limited elderly people who participated in a 16-week structured exercise program consisting of thirteen different strength training exercises using a Thera-Band resistance band.

When researchers tested the effects of 12 weeks of resistance training on the isometric strength, explosive power, and selected functional abilities of healthy women aged 75 and over, they saw statistically significant improvements in 4 out of 5 exercises measured.

Finally, another study found that for adults in their 70s, shoulder strength was a key indicator of upper body functional strength (we’ll look at some exercises that address this below).

The science is clear: functional strength training is more than just another fad. It’s something adults could really benefit from, especially at they age. Unfortunately, most aren’t doing it.

How to improve your functional strength

There are several exercises you can do to improve your functional strength. Functional training expert Michael Boyle says in his book New Functional Training for Sports that it’s a good idea to focus on functional “stability training” that targets three specific areas:

  1. Deep abdominals (transversus abdominis and internal oblique)
  2. Hip abductors and rotators
  3. Scapula stabilizers

Here’s a good list of exercises that work one or more of these areas you can incorporate into your workout routine every week.


Muscle groups worked: Pectoralis major/minor, rectus abdominus, obliquesdeep abdominals, hip abductors and rotators, scapula stabilizers

Perform a normal pushup. When you reach the top of the movement, lift one of your arms up, turn your shoulder, and reach your arm up to the sky. Then lift your outside leg up as high as you can, holding for up to 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side. Do 6-10 repetitions on each side. This exercise builds shoulder, arm, and hip strength, engages your core and ab muscles, and improves flexibility in your shoulders, back, and hips.


Muscle groups worked: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, deep abdominals, hip abductors and rotators

One of the best exercises for building all-around functional lower body strength is the mighty squat. Squats work nearly every muscle in your legs, while also building the necessary core strength to help you with day-to-day movements involving pushing, pulling, and lifting.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to load a barbell full of heavy weights on your back to reap the benefits of this exercise. Your own body weight is plenty for most people, and you can do several variations once you start building strength.

Focus on strict form over function (feet shoulder width apart, bend at the hips and don’t let your knees go past your toes, lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor).

For advanced squatters, hold on to a pole or TRX strap and do 1-legged squats. If your leg strength is above-average, you should be to work up to unassisted 1-legged squats (they’re much harder than you think).


Muscle groups worked: Back muscles, Biceps, deep abdominals, scapula stabilizers

This exercise effectively targets your back muscles, spine and scapula stabilizers, and arms, making it easier to do every-day activities that include any type of pulling motion (lifting things off the ground, starting a lawnmower, etc.).

To do it, lie down flat on your back and grab a stable barbell or set of straps above you. Pull your upper body up as high as you can while keeping your back straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top. Complete as many repetitions as possible. Here’s a quick video that shows how to do it.


Muscle groups worked: Hamstrings, glutes, deep abdominals, hip abductors and rotators

Eccentric exercises like the hamstring curl are one of the most effective ways to build functional strength in your hamstrings and hips and prevent injuries down the road.

To do this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent and lift your legs up so the bottom of your feet are resting atop an exercise ball. Roll your legs out until they’re straight, hold the position for a second or two, then return to the top of the movement while squeezing your hamstrings.

Working these muscles will help make any squatting, bending, or thrusting motions easier.


Muscle groups worked: deep abdominals, quadriceps, pectoralis major/minor, scapula stabilizers, deltoids, hip abductors

Exercise ball rollouts are one of my favorite functional exercises. They work your chest, shoulders, core, and legs. To do this exercise, start in a pushup position with your arms on the floor in front of you. Lift your legs so the tops of your feet rest on the exercise ball. Your knees should be bent to start the movement. Now extend your legs out as straight as you can. Hold the movement for a couple seconds, then return to the starting position. Do 10 total repetitions.


Muscle groups worked: hip abductors and rotators

GMB Fitness put together a great video of a 6-minute hip mobility sequence. Exercises include lying hip rotations, piriformis stretch, butterfly, frog, kneeling lunge, traveling butterfly, squatting internal rotations, and pigeon. Do this sequence three times a week to loosen up those hip abductors and rotators (author’s note: I tried it and felt fantastic after).


Muscle groups worked: scapula stabilizers

Russ Paine, PT and Michael L. Voight, PT published an excellent paper in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy called The Role of the Scapula, where they outline a 3-phase routine for beginner, intermediate, and advanced strength training athletes.

The beginner exercises are targeted more toward those who have had shoulder surgery but it’s always good to have a firm grasp on “the basics” before trying any of the other movements.

The Final Verdict

Functional strength training is a proven way to slow down the effects of age-related muscle atrophy and decrease your risk for injury. Try doing several of the exercises noted above to work the important stabilizer muscles in your core/deep abdominals, shoulders, and hips.

As you add more functional exercises to your workout, you should see improvements in your ability to perform your everyday activities and, thus, in your quality of life. That’s quite a return on a very small time investment.

Grounded in the belief we are all unique beings, we begin each new client with a meticulous bio-mechanical evaluation, assessing each joint in it’s relationship to the movement of the body as a whole. Our therapists are skilled at reading the unique story your body tells, and treating everything from the bottom of your foot to the top of your head.

Bodywise Physical Therapy is located in Portland, Oregon. The Bodywise approach is wholistic, individualized, and can benefit people of all fitness levels. While Bodywise has always specialized in general orthopedics, spine rehabilitation, and sports medicine, they have evolved into a truly wholistic practice integrating Hands-on treatments with Mindfulness, Pilates, Trauma Release Exercise, Women’s Health and Lymphedema.