Functional Strength Training Workout Routine: Compound Exercises to Improve Real World Movements | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Functional Strength Training Workout Routine: Compound Exercises to Improve Real World Movements

A functional strength training workout routine involves performing compound exercises designed to enhance the relationship between your body’s muscular and nervous systems.  Doing so can help you more efficiently undertake motions such as pushing, pulling, climbing, walking, sprinting, jumping, twisting, turning, etc.  Functional strength training is not just done to improve your appearance, but to help you get better at regular day to day activities.  I find that compound movements such as bodyweight exercises make for an exceptionally good functional strength training workout routine.

Rock climbing requires significant functional strength (thankfully, this isn’t me)

Functional Strength

The first question on your mind might be: what is functional strength?  While many people might equate functional strength with improving athletic performance, I think it’s more fundamental than that.  Functional strength training merely improves your performance in everyday activities.  Simple things like carrying the laundry upstairs, moving a couch, sprinting to catch a bus, and as my wife learned, carrying around a child, all constitute exercises that require functional strength.

The goal of functional strength training is to transfer to the increases in strength from one movement to another movement.  Because movements are neuromuscular in that they require the power of both your brain and your brawn, the best exercises to increase functional strength simply involve practicing the movement or motion you want to get better at.  For example, a year ago, my wife thought carrying around a 7lb baby all day was challenging.  Now she can carry a 22lb baby with no trouble.  How did that happen?  Practice.

Transfer of Training

Practicing a very specific movement is the best way to improve that movement (“grease the groove”).  However, there can be some transfer effect from similar motions.  To most effectively transfer strength gains, components such as coordination, type of contraction, speed of movement, and range of motion, need to be similar.

  • Coordination: if you’re training for a specific motion such as putting boxes on high shelves, then it’s best to perform a standing exercise to teach your legs how to support the weight as well.  In other words, standing shoulder presses would be more effective than sitting shoulder presses for that specific motion.
  • Contraction: this refers to concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening), and isometric (stabilizing).  You may be able to forcefully bench press 300 lbs, but how long could you statically hold that weight for?
  • Speed of movement: if you want to get better at a fast motion, why practice a slow exercise? For example, I would argue that explosive leap ups would help your vertical jump more than slow, heavy weight squats.
  • Range of motion: if your joints are “greased,” it will be easier to perform the same exercise.  Try practicing in the same full range of motion as the functional movement you want to improve.

Compound Exercises

One great thing about functional strength training is that you can really tailor your program to include the movements you most need to focus on.  In my opinion, the best form of training utilizes compound movements since they incorporate your entire body.  For an activity that involves pulling a heavy object off the ground, isolation exercises such as bicep curls won’t help you as much as practicing deadlifts or clean and press.  Compound exercises are essentially the ideal way to integrate all the above components.

Functional Strength Training Workout

I find that bodyweight exercises are a great way to include compound exercises in a functional strength training routine.  They require use of a broad range of muscles as well as employ the components that help best transfer strength.  Here are a few examples:

  • Pushing: pushups, dips
  • Pulling: pull ups, inverted rows
  • Power: squats
  • Explosiveness: plyometrics, burpees

That’s not to say the weightlifting doesn’t have a place in a functional training routine.  In fact, a few of my favorite functional strength training exercises involve weights.  Deadlifts, where you use your entire body to pull weight off the ground, are exceptionally good at helping you gain strength.  Clean and press is my personal favorite as it involves explosively pulling weight off the ground and pressing that weight above your head.  It truly is a full body movement.  Kettebells are excellent at improving functional strength as well.  As with any workout routine, it’s important not to train to failure and to ensure that your body has adequate time to rest between workouts.

Improve Real World Movements

The best way to improve functional strength is to practice a motion over and over.  You can get really creative and use an assortment of real world motions using your surroundings.  However, you can supplement that practice with a functional strength training workout routine that includes bodyweight exercises and compound exercises such as deadlifts or clean and press.  These compound movements will help your body when it comes time to execute a variety of motions.

20 Responses to “Functional Strength Training Workout Routine: Compound Exercises to Improve Real World Movements”

  • This post makes many good points. I agree and have written about safely performing Bodyweight Exercises.
    I think that being able to lift your body against gravity is an under appreciated measurement of strength. It requires so much more than just muscular strength. There is balance, endurance, and a greater sense of body awareness that is developed when we add bodyweight exercises to the mix.

  • Nice post, it’s a good reminder for me that keeping it real with functional exercsies can help in many ways either with everyday activites or helping increase your performance at a sports activty.
    I haven’t got into kettlebells yet but I’m planning to towards the end of the year.
    Raymond

  • This really makes a lot of sense. Training for specific sports has been around for years, so why not train for specific functions that you do on a regular basis? I think that strength training and specifically training your core will help in all areas of your life. I think most people get injured, such as lifting a heavy box, shoveling snow [it will be here before too long :-( ], because they are weak in the lower back and core in general. Training this way will help improve your strength in all areas and leave you less susceptible to injuries.

    -Kelly

  • I agree that functional strength is often neglected in weight training programs. Core movements like the ones you name (squats, dead lifts…etc) really do help improve real world strength and mimic real world movements. When I am teaching a motor skill to students, sending or receiving for example, it doesn’t really matter what object they use when throwing or catching, because the transferable skill is still the same. Just as practicing a dead lift requires similar body mechanics to picking up a box off the ground.

    Kelly,
    The snow is coming…. Shoveling is just part of the northern workout routine, but I’m dreading it too!

  • Dave that this an awesome article, I definitely do agree with you that one should look at and work his functional strength.

    I think we can all relate as we find certain activites that include strength to a certain degree and that we no longer perform as we once were.

    Something as simple as standing up for a certain amount of time could become a chore for someone…

    Well awesome article there Dave!

  • Dave,

    Great point about the importance of practicing these functional strength exercises. It’s possible to get really good at doing pull ups or pushups, for example, by just doing them regularly without necessarily having to put on a lot of muscle mass.

    Alykhan

  • Bryan,
    Excellent point about bodyweight exercises combining multiple facets of functional strength.

    Raymond,
    I’m also preparing to give kettlebells a whirl. I’ll probably wait until next summer after I finish another go around of Visual Impact.

    Kelly,
    We just entered fall and you’re already bringing me down with thoughts of snow! I wimped out and bought a snow blower a few years ago. Point taken about increasing functional strength to help with shoveling though.

    Jordan,
    Deadlifts are great practice for lifting boxes off the ground just as squats are great practice for simple standing up from a chair. Guess you’re another one of us northerners who has to deal with the white stuff!

    Patrick,
    I can certainly relate. Despite lifting for years, I still find it challenging to hold my son for long periods of time because I don’t practice isometric exercises. It’s like the challenge people made you do in high school: stand with your arms up at shoulder level and put a set of keys on your fingers. Your arms will slowly decline and get weaker and those keys will start to feel like 50lb dumbbells because it’s not an isometric hold you practice a lot.

    Alykhan,
    Greasing the groove will push ups and pullups is very effective at increasing them. You’re right, you won’t gain mass, but will gain strength.

    Dave

  • Functional strength is key. Doing burpees,and other bodyweight exercises is what will strengthen you in the real world. If you spend the whole time isolating little muscle corners then its a mirror workout and not a functional workout.

    Great info Dave

  • Great post. I wish more in the fitness community would stress function strength. It does you no good to be able to squat or bench 300 lbs if you injure yourself every winter shoveling snow. I moved into a purely functional strength routine using my bodyweight and moderate weight dumbbells and even kettlebells. I lost 3 lbs in the first week – I was not trying to lose any weight – and every day I feel more energized. And the best thing, I lift my 43lb toddler without blinking an eye. Push-ups and pull-ups/chin-ups are awesome for building strength. From reading the comments it’s clear that everyone knows to protect your back. I also find that different plank exercises are great for the core. It protects the spine and builds strength at the same time. For more please visit http://www.100percentclubonline.com
    Thanks

  • Alejandro,
    The great thing about functional strength training is that you can gain real world strength and some pretty impressive mirror muscles. Sure, you won’t compete in any bodybuilding shows, but I’d rather look like a Navy Seal than bodybuilder.

    Sam,
    By performing functional movements, you can use muscles that are harder to hit with pure weight training exercises which can help with the overall fat burning process. I agree that different plank exercises are a great way to build a strong core.

    Dave

  • Functional strength is thankfully getting a bit a sorely deserved recognition.

    I think a lot of people just don’t realize the importance of training their bodies to perform the movements they do each day. It’s something that everyone can benefit form, whether you are a professional athlete, a mother, or someone who sits in front of a computer all day. And you can do it, pretty much anywhere, because, as you mentioned, weights are optional.

  • Dave, I’m going to be honest, I was nervous when I read this post! Some articles about “functional strength” end up having pictures of people standing on Bosu balls or Swiss balls doing retarded stuff.

    But you hit it. You want your work in the weight room to transfer to whatever the field of play is, whether football, or everyday life. And you do that by doing the big stuff like squats, deads, chins, GHR’s etc. Good stuff as always my friend

  • David,
    I agree. It’s really one of the key components of fitness. Sure, some people just want to look better, but getting healthier and being able to perform functional movements is much more important in the long run.

    Josh,
    I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you by talking about Bosu balls or Swiss balls. Since I don’t incorporate either in my workout at present, I don’t think you’ll be seeing those any time soon either.

    Dave

  • Compound exercises are definitely going to give you the best results for almost any lift.

  • Dave, I like your quote “explosive leap ups would help your vertical jump more than slow, heavy weight squats”. As a guy with a jump training background, I can say you are completely right. However, at some point training would stall because you will have “maxed out” in a sense the force you can produce from your muscle. At this point, you would have to reincorporate strength training to jump even higher.

  • Muscle legion,
    Compound exercises are definitely the way to go.

    Jeff,
    Glad you agree with the explosiveness. You’re right about the strength training element too. It does certainly play a role in ultimately attaining the highest vertical leap.

    Dave

  • Great article! Bodyweight exercises are note only a great way to add functional strength, but they have the added advantage that they can be done virtually anywhere, so you can still get your workout in even if you’re traveling or stuck late at the office. They also translate very well into real-world performance improvements.

    I always laugh at people slaving away in the gym doing 20 sets of 5 different isolation exercises, when they could get far more benefit in less time with heavy, compound movements. Sure, isolation works great to address specific shortcomings, but unless you’re a bodybuilder looking to bring out your best for competition, you’re better served with the basics: bench press, deadlift, power clean, squat, seated row, pull up, overhead press (in front only please, behind the neck movements are bad for your shoulder joint).

  • Steve,
    All great points on the power of functional strength training and compound exercises. Great list of exercises as well along with a good point about shoulder press. Sadly in high school I was taught behind the neck military press and it always hurt my shoulder. Fortunately I know better these days!
    Dave

  • I just started training with a trainer who is moving me through compound exercises. I can’t believe how hard they are (I’m pretty out of shape)- but the appeal for me is the idea of being stronger and fitter for all the activities of my life- it’s not about can I kick really high in an aerobics class, but can I (as you wrote) get better at day to day activities. I am particularly intrigued by what you wrote about the transfer of training. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  • Crystal,
    Hopefully the compound exercises will transfer nicely into functional strength outside the gym. As you get stronger, you could actually consider incorporating some more non-traditional functional exercises as part of transfer of training.
    Dave

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