What is Functional Strength?

In Strongman Mastery by admin15 Comments

Ask and you shall receive. Eric Spence sent in this excellent question.

“Logan ,with such an emphasis upon bodyweight and kettlebell lifting. I am an ex-college football player. I remember seeing some big ,powerful, fast, flexible athletes. This was at a time in which kettlebell/bodyweight training was not the norm. These guys training a lot of the powerlifts ,bench,squat, and deadlifts. Was it my imagination when I saw them running 4.4 40 yard dashes at 240 and squating 550 plus pounds and bencing 420 Ibs. Honestly Logan if you read a lot of what is said today you would think that these guys are not “functionally strong”. Are we sure that is right ? It seems to me that strength training is starting to make the common mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I myself only lowered my 40 from 5.3 to 4.9 when I took the squat seriously. I love kettlebells ,keg lifting ,sandbags ,etc. I have used them exclusively in some training cycles. But man Logan I also felt strong in college when I squatted 465 Ibs. For 10 reps. Benched 420. And then was able to run 15 100 meter sprints for conditioning. Sorry for the long email. Your thoughts please?”

I’ll have an answer but before that I’d like to hear your thoughts. Just post your comments below and let me know what you are thinking on this topic.

Your answers really can shape the whole of your training.

In strength,
Logan Christopher



  1. Although I can train myself and others with kettlebell,kegs,sandbags, etc., as a young football player I also only benched, squatted and deadlifted. I believe that when you start lifting this way and you add sprints and football conditioning, you will get faster and functionally strong. I also believe that I could have improved further had I trained as I do now.
    Timothy Mccutcheon

  2. Well, Eric you bring up something that many people don’t understand which is why the weightlifting and bodybuilding business is so big today. The reasons why those athletes were able to appear flexible and functionally strong are
    1) Weightlifting wasn’t their whole workout. They did bodyweight training even if they didn’t know it or think of it that way. Sprinting is one of the best and most used bodyweight exercises out there. Most weightlifters laugh when they see me doing Hindu squats and pushups. They say how can that help get you strong. Ten football practice starts and I get to laugh at them because they are doing sprints. They don’t even know what they are doing.

    2) Most people don’t know what really functional strength is. Real functional strength is the strength of a gymnast. Being able to control every aspect of your body, being able to support your whole body on your hands or one hand, and being flexible enough to put your feet behind your head or touch your chin on a bridge, that is what functional strength is all about. Strength, flexibility. endurance, speed, balance, coordination, these make up functional strength. If your missing even one your not functional.

    3) The mindset plays a huge part in anything you doing. It is because these athletes thought they could do the things they did that they could do them. Even though they weren’t properly trained because they knew that they were strong and could run a 4.4 40 their body was able to because of their mind. Yet, imagine if they had proper training and their body was already in the right shape then their possibilities are endless.

    Remember the great things you have done and see the greater things you will do,
    Simon Buchkovich

  3. Of course it’s functional – for them. If what they do is healthy (or healthier than what is commonly perceived as “functional” training) is not the point of the discussion here. Whether or not a kettlebells, sandbags or even things like handbalancing or tumbling can play a beneficial role in the development of a professional or semi-professional athlete is another question. My answer here is YES! The thing to bear in mind as an athlete is that whatever you do in your training should have a justification based on your performance. So, if your sandbag presses help busting through a plateau in the bench (which, at least prior combine, in fact IS performance-related training, like it or not), then great! If your kettlebell snatches help improve your broad, vertical and 40 time, then great! Same for balancing and tumbling – if it improves your strength, stamina and balance, and if it keeps you motivated (and therefore progressing better) for “normal” training on top of that, then, again, GREAT! If not, just leave it – or drop it.

    Best of luck in your training, and progress to you.” Repectfully Elias

  4. I sincerely doubt that all they did was squatting and benching. As i understand, they were athletes (playing football), so there must have been some other work-out that they did, not just being “gym-rats”. I know a lot of guys work out only in the gym, never run, never do any other type of workout, and I am quite sure they wouldn’t even be able to run 5 100 meter sprints, let alone 15. My opinion is: every type of workout is good, but the best way to train is to mix everything, and to have fun.

  5. Logan I just had to reply on this one.. You can’t get much more functional than the deadlift and squat. Just look at some of the functional fitness advocates such as Crossfit, who regularly utilise weight lifting, in their programs. I can’t quote references off the top of my head but I am sure that I recall studies done in the past that showed that wieghtlifters could out sprint most 100m sprinters over 40 yards and have higher jumps than high jumpers due to the explosive strength developed by exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Training such as kettlebells and odd weight lifting are merely some of the tools that can be used. They should not be used to the exclusion of all else. Go ahead and use kettlebells, sandbags and keg lifting if you want, but don’t forget all of those other tools out there. Lifting weights, gymnastics, bodyweight exercises, jumping rope, swimming, cycling and running are all methods of training that can improve your fitness, particularly if done at a high intensity.A good mix of these can help you develop good all-round ‘functional’ fitness.
    Regards Peter Walker

  6. Logan, Though it takes a tremendous amount of strength to balance on one’s hands, and to juggle kettlebells, I think that it would be foolish to dismiss powerlifting as non functional. Many want to put all strength programs as non functional. I disagree! One can become so proficient at weightlifting that their skill in their chosen lifts doesn’t translate into sports performance. The same can also be said of even more skilled training methods such as hand balancing and juggling. If you’re a great powerlifter that can also run like the wind and jump like a gazelle… YOU’VE GOT EXTREMELY FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH! What other functions are you training for??? Lifting becomes non functional when the core can’t support your strength gains, or when you need $500 worth of equipment to lift the weight. You’re only as strong as your weakest link ( cheesy, but true). Kettlebells, hand balancing, odd-objects, help develop strength in your weakest areas, because they put you in bad biomechanical positions. Let’s be like the strongmen of old… How? Let’s train like them! Saxon, Sandow, Grimek they didn’t get their tremendous “functional” strength with stability balls and itty bitty weights. They trained the powerlifts, the quick lifts, and performed the other odd-lifts that built the best cores ever. Men like John Cole and Bill Kazmair they were functionally strong, because they could do it all. Let’s put the beach balls away and lift heavy weights at odd angles. Let’s Juggle kettlebells, and learn how to handle our own bodies. Let’s get strong the new way, just like the old way. Great work Logan, you’re a strongman, but let’s not forget the DL’s and the heavy presses, either.
    Stay Strong, Johnny Fryar, Jr.

  7. There are many opinions out there and one can get confused very easily. There is no “good” or “bad” way to train – it comes down to what you want and how you want to get it. If something “new” comes along and it doesnt fit into with what you want – let it go. I personally like the sandbags, kettlebells and bodyweight execises. I figure I will have everything physically when I perform a rock bottom pistol with a 200# sandbag on one shoulder. shoulder for reps a 300# sandbag and then take it for a walk, perform repitition handstand pushups with my 100# vest, and perform swings to the eye level for10 reps sets with 2 40kg kettlebells in one hand. Barbells, powerlifitng and olympic lifting are wonderful ways to become strong – I have done them all, I just happen to like the way sandbags and body weight exercises put so much sheer stress on the body plus I dont have to have all those plates, bars, racks and benches around the house. I will end with one last comment from the great Steve Justa and his book “Rock, Iron Steel” “There is no secret routine, there is no magical number of reps and sets. What there is, is CONFIDENCE, BELIEF, hard work on a consistent basis, and a desire to succeed.” Take care – I enjoy your websites Logan and to all out there – dont take things too serious- enjoy yourselves.

  8. In my perspective a lot of sites seem to act as though they have the magic pill for all ills…a common merchandising ploy…i understand the excitement of finding something that works for me, but i must keep clear that it may not work for all!? And what works for me usually is in flux. i love the old adage “there are no answers, only questions”.

  9. Hi Logan, I know where this guy is coming from. I played rugby pretty all my life up until christmas just gone (i’m now 25) and I used to do all the exercises mentioned, shifting big weights for low reps, a lot of interval speed work and a lot of power work. You know what these exercises worked. I was strong fit and powerful, all functional for rugby, just like these guys would be for football. Then I switched sports. Now I’m doing brazilian jiu jitsu. Even though I had a good base, I was strong and powerful, which was a very good start, I didn’t have the upper body strength endurance that I needed. That is why I now doing only body weight exercises, mainly combat conditioning. Now I’m functionally fit for bjj. I think both have advantages and dis-advantages. I think the key question that needs to be posed is; Two people follow either one of these exercsie routines, who do you think will have less wear and tear on their body, who will be able to to keep these kind of routines up life long? I know the kind of injuries rugby players carry around with them after years of these of doing these kind of exercises and playing the sport and I should imagine its the same for football players. Regards

  10. I agree with the letter you sent. Working out with weights can indeed improve your functional strength as well as your weight lifting strength. Of course you have to know what you are doing and pick the right exercises. I now do only body weight training. Mainly because I am 68 years old and think that body weight exercises have less potential to injure me. I have never been interested in it, but if you are in to body building traditional weight lifting is the only way. If you really want to compete at the high levels, steroids seem necessary. Not for me even I was young. Ron

  11. Everything has it’s place. Of course with numbers like that you would be strong. The thing with the squat, bench, and deadlift is the fixed positions. If you looked at each of the exercises you have positions you should be in throughout the movement to provide the most stable and joint friendly positions to complete the move with optimum power and more importantly, safety. Now the kettlebell, keg lifts, sandbags and so on create positions that we often do see in everyday life but some of us do. Our construction workers to even people working out in there yard are picking things up, dead weight, from the ground with a rounded back using there finger tips as the only means of grip. These are the positions if not strengthened can cause serious help problems. Your spine has to hold up to stress not only in an anatomically correct position but those that are not as well. This is what functional strength is, your body’s ability to handle whatever life throws at it and come out the better. Hope this makes sense and helps answer the question. Train hard, Don’t cheat yourself! Carter

  12. Not so sure how bench press, and deadlifts really improve your 40. I understand forceful hip extension like those in RDL’s are similar to the same hip extensions used in sprinting, but all in all training is specific. You want to up lower your 40, then you need to train the high powered sprinting muscles for doing just that. I’m all about ground based, and suspension based training, none of that machine nonsense. I think kettlebells are a useful tool, but dumbbells are cheaper, adjustable, more common, and to swear by either would be ignorant. A great bench, deadlift, and squat are impressive feats of strength, but don’t have a whole lot of carryover, unless the athlete is detrained, or deconditioned from weight training. Stick with the moves the human body was designed to excel at, vary your tempo, and use the minimal amount of support that you can get away with to ensure overall body stability. J

  13. In my opinion there are many ways to become explosive, large and flexible. Many college athletes arrive at this point simply because of the varieties of training forms they are exposed to. As college athlete myself in the 90’s I seemed invincible and almost injury proof. I spent all week and all weekend training hard, with all the above exercises. However, bench and squat do make you strong and can make you very explosive if done in the correct manner. Although they will not make you powerful alone they can make up part of the jigsaw. Add to this sprints, plyo’s, olympic lifts and circuit training and you will be somewhere close.
    Cheers Rob

  14. Hello logan,

    lol the three movements of powerlifting has always been the basic movements of
    functional training. give me any client today to train and after the rehab phase for
    problems and corrections, the first lift ill put them to do will be the deadlift.
    following that will of course be the squat and bench. looking to put on serious
    mass? what can beat the
    squat program at its game? furthermore, tons of information available today on strength
    training are but commercial nonsense meant to hoodwink money out of common folks who
    are clueless about such things. olympic throwers and powerlifters though
    massive, are able to compete with track athletes and give them a run for their
    money, speeds for their 100m dashes are but slightly slower than world class
    sprinters. being able to squat 2x bodyweight is probably a stat that speaks volumes
    of the athlete’s bw to strength ratio, so
    this aint a question i guess, just a matter of perception.

    Yours in strength too,

  15. Many people have made excellent points, but in my opinion, this is getting needlessly complicated.

    Functional strength is, quite simply, strength which, regardless of how it is obtained, is readily usable in real world scenarios, meaning outside the gym.

    To illustrate:

    I have a friend who can bench press 280 pounds (not that it’s relevant, but he weighs in at 240)… an impressive feat, to be sure. However, he was recently unable to retrieve his wife’s cat from a tree, because he was unable to do the single pull-up or chin-up that would have enabled him to climb the tree.

    Similarly, I have an acquaintance who can crack off 40 pull-ups on demand, yet for some reason, is unable to give his 7 year old daughter a piggyback ride, and he has no known injuries. Now what if he one day *needed* to grab his daughter and carry her, possibly at a run? The adrenaline surge may allow him to do so, but it may not.

    To once again use the benchpress as an example, since so many view it as a hallmark of strength (I think the deadlift, snatch, or overhead press would be a better hallmark), ask yourself the question: how many times, in the real world, will one be called upon to lie on one’s back, on an even surface, and press a perfectly balanced weight above one’s chest? Furthermore, how often will this perfectly balanced weight be securely mounted to a bar, allowing a stable grip, with minimum weight shift during the movement? Not very often. someone who can benchpress a 200 lb sandbag, or a barrel filled nearly full with 200 lbs of water, perhaps even lying on an uneven surface (meaning the ground) would have more functional strength than someone who could only accomplish this feet with an evenly balanced 200 lb barbell. I am also confident they would be stronger if they were to lift a barbell.

    This point was excellently addressed in the ‘Batman Begins’ film, when Michael Caine as ‘Alfred’ shouts, “What good are all those push-ups if you can’t lift a bloody log!?”

    I’ll sum up as I began:

    Functional strength is strength which, regardless of how it was obtained, has a substantial carryover to real world demands, whatever those may be.

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