Functional Strength Training: How Will It Help You?

Strength training is essential for muscle and bone strength. It helps boost our metabolism and improves circulation, tone and appearance, but can strength training improve our daily lives? Yes, that's what functional strength training is all about.

Functional strength training is a catch-all phrase that defines many different types of exercises. Traditional, machine-based strength training does build muscle, but doesn't train these muscles to operate better in real life. Functional strength training mimics activities you do every day like lifting laundry baskets and groceries, pushing and pulling heavy objects, running, bending, and walking. Training your muscles to be functionally strong coordinates their movements and helps them work together. That may be safer and more efficient than isolating and training them one at a time.

Functional strength training began in physical therapy and rehabilitation departments. Therapists developed individualized training to help patients build strength in areas that would improve their lives. For example, if their patient had difficulty walking, they specifically strengthened their walking muscles. If they were recovering from a ski injury, they did exercises that strengthened the way their leg, butt, core, and back muscles worked together. Eventually, fitness experts caught on that functional strength training could work for healthy clients too, especially since many were getting bored and frustrated with weight machines. Now, functional strength training is becoming specialized so that customized programs can improve activities specific to individual lifestyles and sports. 

What are functional strength training activities?  You'll find dozens to choose from at your gym including

  • Kettle balls
  • Kickboxing classes
  • Resistance bands
  • Exercise balls
  • Cable machines
  • Balance discs
  • TRX suspension systems

Bodyweight exercises build functional strength by using the resistance provided by your own weight.  They can easily be done at home and include:

  • Pushups
  • Chin-ups
  • Lunges
  • Squats

Does functional strength training work? Studies published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicate that "free-form" strength training may work even better than "fixed-form" weight machines when it comes to improving your strength, balance, and flexibility, while also reducing the chance of injuries or pain. By training muscles to work together and support each other, instead of singling them out, you reduce the chances that specific muscles will dominate and injure other muscles, ligaments, and bones.

Does that mean you should give up on weight machines?  No. According to the American Council on Exercise says, while it may be true that traditional, machine-based exercises are not the best way to transfer performance from the weight room to the real world, it does not mean that such exercises should not be a part of a training program. For example, "non-functional," single-joint exercise can play a critical role in helping to strengthen a "weak link" that a person may have to restore proper muscle balance. Furthermore, doing such an exercise can allow an individual to more safely and effectively participate in functional-training activities while also reducing the risk of injury.

How can you get started with functional strength training? 

  • Talk to a fitness expert at your gym about the activities and sports you enjoy and want to improve. 
  • Ask for a fitness evaluation and specific functional strength training recommendations.


  • Try several activities on your own and mix and match your own functional strength training program. 


American Council on Exercise
What is Functional Strength Training?

Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research
January 2008 - Volume 22 - Issue 1 - pp 75-81
Strength Outcomes in Fixed Versus Free-Form Resistance Equipment
Spennewyn, Keith C