What is Functional Strength? Part 3

In Mental Mastery, Strongman Mastery by admin2 Comments

I was going to get to my thoughts on the topic of functional strength today, but I’m going to have to hold off. Busy times with the holiday, my friend’s wedding and everybody in town.

So to hold you off here’s the thoughts of Aldo that he sent in. It’s something of an essay on the subject but a good read. Enjoy

And Happy Fourth of July! If you’re going to be training make it a good one. And be sure to build some ‘functional’ strength.


I think this is an issue on which it is very easy to get confused.

First of all, what is the meaning of ‘functional’ strength? Or rather, how would it be possible to acquire strength which is somehow ‘non-functional’? If a guy does squats with a 300 lb barbell, and another guy next to him does squats with a 300 lb sand bag on his shoulders, what’s the difference in reality? They both are squatting with 300 lbs. How would one of them have functional strength and the other non-funtional strength? Some of the guys who commented talked fondly of when they used to squat, deadlift and bench press with huge weights, and they also said how that strength helped them a lot in the sports they practised. In any case, I cannot see how the strength of someone who can deadlift 2 or 3 times their own bodyweight, can be called non-functional. Strength is strength, regardless of how someone acquires it, in my opinion.

In one of the comments, the writer described ‘ functional strength’ as having strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, balance, coordination, and so on. I think this is getting our terminology mixed up a bit.

The definition of pure strength is simply ‘the ability to generate force’. In its purest form, peak strength would be defined as one’s ‘1 RM’ (one repetition maximum) in a specific movement. That’s the maximum amount of force you can generate in a movement for one repetition only – pure strength. When our friend speaks of ‘functional strength’ consisting of strength, endurance, flexibility and so on, what he is really talking about is, in my opinion, all-round FITNESS

All-round fitness is of course an admirable goal, and consists of developing all those attributes mentioned above, to become as complete an athlete as possible. I’m certainly not saying that being well rounded isn’t better than being unbalanced, but let’s not get our terminology mixed up.

If we really mean all round fitness, as in developing the various different attributes that would constitute a well rounded athlete, including but not being limited to strength, then let’s not confuse the issue with the somewhat obscure term ‘functional’ strength. To me, the term implies that there are different classes of strength, with some being functional and others ‘non-functional’ (whatever that means). I don’t think that is the case at all.

I will speculate about how, in my opinion, this concept of functional vs. unfunctional strength may have come about. 1) There may have been observations where someone who concentrates a lot on pure strength training, is judged to be still mediocre at activities that require other different physical attributes and different skills, even though he may have developed a high level of strength.

This observation is, of course, not surprising at all. If you spend all your time training for just one aspect, then you cannot expect to improve much, if at all, in other aspects. No single form of exercise will give you everything. A corollary of this phenomenon could be someone who does a lot of strength training in the hope of doing better in a particular sport, but with disappointing results. All sports require a very high level of *skill* to be able to rise to the highest level, and skill will always be of the highest priority. While physical attributes can certainly help, one will hardly see exciting results unless they also become good at their game.

However, this does not mean that strength developed by any means available, is somehow non-functional. It only means that strength training will make you stronger, period. It will not necessarily make you a better runner, swimmer, footballer, basketball player, boxer and so on, if you neglect to *also* work on the skills and other physical attributes which your activity of choice requires. Having said that, overall strength is certainly very important in activities which require power and speed especially, and improving your strength (along with other things) will certainly be of help. Having balanced stregth throughout the body will also make any athlete less susceptible to injury, and that is useful to everyone.

So to sum up, the observation that strength on its own is not enough to make a complete athlete (just as no other attribute on its own is enough), doesn’t mean that developing strength is not useful, or that you can somehow have ‘non-functional’ strength. It just means that, to be the best you can be, you need strength *as well as* other important qualities.

2) I think the perception of ‘non-functional’ development largely comes from the modern mess of competitive, steroid infested body-building, with its glorification of bloated, unnatural looking and drug-fed muscles and unhealthily low levels of bodyfat achieved through mal-nutririon and even more drugs. The effect is further compounded by the use of fake looking tans, posing oils and so on. Lately, some guys have gone totally overboard and even inject synthetic oils beneath their skin to make themselves look bigger!

This kind of physique looks freakish and ungainly, and seems to be all about appearance and no function, to many people. I largely agree with that opinion as well. The frequent incidents of bodybuilders becoming ill and even dying from their drug abuse also has done no service as regards the general appeal of this activity. This has created the perception that those who lift barbells and dumbbells to develop bigger muscles are vain creatures and are not ‘real’ athletes, and whatever physique they develop is regarded as being ‘non-functional’

However, let’s go back in time a bit, before about 1960 when drug use started to become rampant. If you look at bodybuilders from the era of Reg Park and John Grimek, for example, you will see a stark difference in physique, when compared to the modern standard. The muscles these men developed were real, and they developed them naturally the old-fashioned way – hard work and proper nutrition. These guys looked big (by the standards of their time, not by modern steroid standards), and were also as strong, or even stronger than they looked. They trained mostly on the big, basic compound lifts, and developed impressive levels of strength as a result. The top physiques of the day could all squat, deadlift and press tremendous weights, because the only way to get bigger naturally is to become a lot stronger. Bodybuilding routines in those days consisted mostly of basic, intense strength training on the big, compound lifts – not the plethora of useless isolation and finishing exercises and useless machines which modern gyms are filled with.

In fact, another possible reason for the perception that ‘body building like’ exercises are non-functional, could be precisely because of how trainees have been misled since the start of the drug epidemic. Many people in gyms still try to train with a large number of irrelevant exercises (while avoiding the really hard and demanding basic exercises which would reap rewards), and train with excessive volume and way too frequently – the typical 5 or 6 day a week split routines with 20 or more sets per bodypart. The thing is, this kind of training only works for drug assisted genetic phenomena – the few succesful competitive bodybuilders! For the typical trainee, this type of training fails miserably. This could be an important reason while some people end up thinking that traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises are ‘non-functional’. But the fault does not lie in the equipment – it lies in the way the equipment is used.

However, in the days of Park and Grimek and others who came before them, training was the real thing. Many of these guys were also complete athletes. Grimek, apart from winning bodybuilding titles, competed succesfully in olympic lifting, and was also known to be very flexible and very well coordinated. Non-functional? I think not. So let’s not confuse the modern mess that is misleading the masses, with the real thing, when it used to be called ‘physical culture’.

Personally, I’m all for natural training that is useful, safe and gives results. Whether someone finds a barbell, or a kettlebell, or a sandbag useful, or all of these and more, is of no consequence. What matters is our training philosophy and the results we get.

I will end with this observation. While kettlebells and other odd objects are enjoying a new found popularity, let’s not forget that these implements are *older* than the plate loading barbells and dumbbells which have since become the standard for strength training and lifting. The fact that for the last few decades barbells have been the standard bread and butter training modality, and not something else, leads me to think that time has proven that barbells and dumbbells give the best overall results and are the most flexible training tools. I’m not saying that other tools cannot be useful as well, but dismissing the barbell as having become ‘non-functional’ is a serious, mis-informed mistake, in my opinion.

Sorry for rambling for so long 🙂


Very well thought out and some good points, Aldo. I’ll be wrapping up on the topic after the holiday weekend.

In strength,
Logan Christopher



  1. hello I am a sprint canoeing coach from India vary keen to learn more about functional strenght training and its incorporation in my daily training progrrammes in order to ensure injury free training kindly help me by sending metreail like books and vedio cassetts for actual required training exersices for sprint canoeing sports
    farooq ahmad bhat
    sprint canoeing
    C/o Bhat pan House nehru park
    kashmir India pin coad 19001
    cell number 09596580757

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