Functional training is the practice of training your body in the gym to be better suited for real life actions that require strength. Quite often when we are performing traditional weight training on a regular basis we are targeting “glory muscles” for their aesthetics as opposed to building functional strength. The major issue is that in the majority of weight training regimens, the objective is to target, isolate, and tear down a muscle. This is fantastic for building mass with location specific intent, but your muscles have not learned to work in a coordinated effort and are not being trained to do so.
Think of it like this, you go to the gym and crank out 5 sets of 500 lbs on bench press and your pecs look like two watermelons taped to your torso, but when you tried to help your friend move his dresser the next day your legs started shaking and you dropped it on your foot because you couldn't hold the weight and your cried like a little girl for an hour.
So how does one build “functional strength,” strength that can be used to improve your performance in handling real life tasks? It’s actually very simple, the key is to keep compound movements and exercises as the cornerstone of your workout, maybe sprinkling in some isolation work when you can. Compound exercises utilize multiple muscle groups in your body and train your muscles to work together, as opposed to an isolated effort.
Even if you are an isolation guru, compound exercises are key to getting your body’s testosterone revved up and ready to increase muscle mass more rapidly.
One of the most effective compound exercises ever is squats. If you are not squatting you are really selling yourself short. The benefits of incorporating squats into your weekly routine is absolutely astronomical. Squats build the foundation. They use a huge amount of energy, recruit tons of muscles and muscle groups and prime your body to release tons of testosterone which is great for building more muscle.
So what does a functional training workout look like? Very basic, actually, because compound exercises recruit so many muscle groups that you don’t have to do myriad exercises to get a complete workout.
Here are the best compound exercises for building functional strength.
Bent Over Rows (Standing with Barbell)
There is no one right or wrong way to build functional strength but in your routine there are some very easy guidelines you can follow to build a great regimen to improve your overall strength.
1. Incorporate at least two of the above compound exercises in every workout.
2. Squat often and go low. When in doubt, squat. Squats, when performed correctly, recruit virtually every muscle in your legs, strengthen your core and back, and bolster your stabilizers. If you can, work squats in twice a week. You don’t have to max out on every set. Focus on getting that butt as low as possible and maintaining a full range of motion.
3. High weight and few reps. You want to have a challenging amount of weight that you can perform about 6 times for about 5 sets. After your third set you may feel compelled to start a new exercise, don’t. Your compound exercises are incorporating many muscle groups so think of it like doing two or three workouts at once and treat it with the patience it requires and devote the same amount of time you would to 2 or 3 exercises.
4. Rest. If you are performing compound exercises often and correctly, your body will be getting torn down all over. It isn't like an isolation routine where you can just ignore xyz muscle group today and let it rest. (i.e. moving from chest day to bicep day allows your chest to recover etc.) Compound exercises target a lot of muscles (a lot of BIG muscles) and therefore a lot of times muscle groups will be hit multiple times. It is important to treat your rest for this type of training differently than isolation. If you are doing only compound workouts try to not go more than two or three days without a rest. Also you can try to sprinkle in more isolation work so your big muscles can recover.