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Strength Training vs Functional Training

DSCN4381_150x150.jpg Strength Training vs Functional Training

To strengthen a muscle requires that the muscle is trained at or near it's maximum threshold. To do this muscles are isolated and the body is stabilized so maximum force can be generated. Strength training works best when movement occurs in only one plane.In contrast, functional training integrates many muscle groups with the body not stabilized. Functional training works best when movement is unconstrained, thus requiring multi-planer stability.

Ironically, in the World's Strongest Man Competition muscles are rarely activated to their maximum capacity. According to McGill et al, "Training for strongmen events has extended to athletes training for other athletic endeavors that require strength. The philosophical foundation for this is that many so-called ''functional'' training approaches involved natural constraints on the activation of muscle groups. This is because joint torques about the 3 orthopedic axes of each joint must remain in balance to match the task."
McGill, SM, McDermott, A, and Fenwick, CMJ. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 23(4): 1148-1161, 2009

bench_press_300x169.gifIn a related study McGill et al go on to state "this need for torque balance and functional ''steering'' of force through the body linkage creates constraints on activation levels of specific muscles."

Other important points made are:

  • Strength training may not help in functional multiplanar tasks
  • Muscle activity is constrained in "functional" exercises.
  • McGill says,  "Single muscles cannot be activated to 100% of their MVC  in functional exercises because this would upset the balance of moments about the 3 orthopedic axes of the spine, or it would upset the balance of stiffening muscles around the spine required to ensure stability of the spinal column."
  • "muscle activation levels were quite modest even though the tasks were quite strenuous"

xin_3810020812065181600021_300x218.jpgIn conclusion McGill says, "these constraints are 1 aspect of what separates ''functional'' exercises from muscle isolationist exercises, in which machines create constraints to allow single muscles to activate to very high levels. "

McGill, SM, Karpowicz, A, Fenwick, CMJ, and Brown, SHM. Exercises for the torso performed in a standing posture: spine and hip motion and motor patterns and spine load. J Strength Cond Res 23(2): 2009

Some of the upright "functional training" exercises include:

Pallof Press "cable walkout" in Pr McGill's article & the kneeling overhead cable push

     pallof1_press_front_view1_300x161.jpg   There are many other functional training exercises:

  • Chops
  • Lifts
  • Kneeling or Standing overhead cable pushes
  • Farmer's walk
  • Suitcase or Waiter's carry
  • Balance reach



What typifies these exercises is that they are multiplanar. They all impose a balance or equilibrium challenge so muscles have to work to maintain stability while at the same time exert a force. Each exercise can be made very strenuous. Although initially they should be involve light resistance only so that the ABCs of agility, balance & coordination can be programmed. As Pirelli said,  Control before Power should be the philosophy.

Take Home Points Regarding "Functional Training":

Upside: Performing strenuous upright tasks automatically makes a stability demand on the person

Downside: This  stability demand constrains the achievement of individual muscle MVCs.

Note: The constraining of maximum muscle MVCs is not a  WEAKNESS of "functional training"