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What is Functional Strength?

Earlier this year I was an assistant coach at the Russian Kettlebell Certification held in San Jose. At the dinner party held one night my friend and I brought in many tools with which to perform some classic feats on this Night of Strength.

One lift I have excelled at is the leveraging of a sledgehammer to the nose and raising it back up. We had a plate loaded sledgehammer on hand and I was the only one present (who tried anyway) who could do this move with all the weight on it. I think it was somewhere betweem 12-14 lbs. I was stronger than anyone there at this function.

Brett Jones could not quite manage this weight. I jokingly said, “I’m stronger than you.” The truth is, I was at this particular lift. But few people would say this is the hallmark of functional strength. Not to dismiss Brett. He’s really strong, going on to destroy a red nail and a deck of cards that night, things I couldn’t do. And he would certainly kill me at powerlifting.

Are powerlifters or those who work on the bench, deadlift, and squat to near exclusion functionally strong? Yes and no. You put them in a powerlifting meet and they are going to out function anyone. But many competing at the highest levels couldn’t do a single pullup. They fail at that function. How about shouldering a 200 lb. sandbag?

There is no non-functional strength. There are just different functions of strength. Usually when someone speaks of ‘functional strength’ they are referring to basic abilities of the human. What these abilities are are up for debate. You’ll probably agree with the following from Earle E. Liederman.

“Every man should be able to save his own life. He should be able to swim far enough, run fast and long enough to save his life in case of emergency and necessity.”

Does not being able to do 50 straight bodyweight squats qualify you as non-functionally strong? Some would say yes. But there are those who would say a barbell squat of less than 2x bodyweight isn’t functionally strong. The question is can you pass both tests?

I may focus quite a bit on bodyweight and kettlebell training. Why? One is I tend to have more fun with these forms of training than barbells or dumbbells. A big part of training is how much you enjoy it.

But I still use the classic tools. You need to understand that every single tool has it’s benefits and drawbacks. And certain tools are better suited for achieving certain goals. Your training is largely going to depend on what you like and what you have access to.

Barbells are great tools. The ease of use allows you to use maximal poundage and that can translate to strength and power. I use a barbell for deadlifts, overhead presses (being a better exercise for most than the bench press) and, gasp, even curls.

Many people who get into the hardcore or alternative training world go so far overboard in the beginning (and I was one of them) that they think if an exercise is mainstream it’s automatically bad. That only the obscure and complex could be worth anything and functional. This is plain wrong. Good exercises stay around through the years, though not every exercise may be suited to each person.

A big piece of training for athletics is how is the strength training going to carry over to your sport. If you are a powerlifter you damn well better be training with the power lifts because they ARE your sport. If you are a football player you can get strong with the same. Heavy squats will improve your sprinting ability. But you need conditioning as well. If all you ever did was heavy singles in the squat, it wouldn’t make you functionally strong to run a 200m dash, would it?

And that is where a lot of the problem lies. People who train and may even look big that can’t carry a bag of groceries up the stairs without having to sit down to catch their breath. Regardless of strength, conditioning is functional.

But could you still be a good football player without ever touching a barbell? Absolutely. Just kettlebells or bodyweight or whatever and you could do would probably work fine. For martial artists, even more so.

One thing that tends to be better with kettlebells, odd objects and bodyweight exercise is that it’s not one-dimensional. A barbell most often moves in a straight line. With dumbbells or some odd objects you strive to do a straight line movement but have to fight harder to do it. Bodyweight, kettlebell and clubbell training are usually two or even three dimensional.

This is a good thing because in life and sports things tend not to be one-dimensional. You should be strong in a straight line, yes, but you should also be strong from many odd angles.

Longevity of training is another huge issue. Though you may be getting stronger if you are tearing down your body you need to pick a different route. But that’s a topic for another time.

To wrap up, all strength is functional it just depends on what you function is. Are you looking to excel at a particular sport? Better find what best works for you and carries over. Are you just training for your health and to stay in great shape? You can go about this in so many ways.

Having functional strength could mean that you can function well at many tests of strength. That is why I cross-train and do not stick with a particular ‘Way’. Sure I wouldn’t be as good as if I specialized in one ‘way’ but that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take. Which functions are you after?

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