What is Functional Strength Training and Why You Need It

What is Functional Strength Training and Why You Need It

Functional strength training (FST) focuses on building strength for daily activities and real-world demands. It involves using full-body exercises and natural movements that mimic motions you do in everyday life.

The goal of FST is to enhance your ability to perform practical physical tasks like lifting heavy boxes, gardening, carrying kids, or climbing stairs. It aims to improve general physical preparedness through strength, balance, coordination, and mobility.

Unlike traditional strength training which isolates muscle groups, FST uses compound exercises that challenge multiple muscles and joints at once. This makes the movements and strength gains more functional for day-to-day life.

Some of the key characteristics of functional strength training include:

- Uses multiple joints and muscles together

- Emphasizes natural body movements like pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging, bending

- Develops core stability and balance

- Incorporates free weights like dumbbells and kettlebells  

- Utilizes bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and planks

- Focuses on posture and technique

- Trains strength through a full range of motion

Overall, functional strength training aims to build well-rounded, usable strength for real life, not just muscle size or performance in the gym. It helps you move better, manage your body weight, prevent injury and perform regular physical activities with greater ease.

Benefits of Functional Strength Training

Functional strength training provides many benefits beyond just building muscle mass and brute strength. Here are some of the top reasons to incorporate functional strength training into your workout routine:

Improves balance and coordination - Functional strength training involves doing exercises that challenge your balance and recruit smaller stabilizer muscles. This type of multi-plane and multi-joint movement improves neuromuscular coordination and overall body control.

Builds core and stabilizer muscles - Doing exercises like squats, lunges, and presses while standing challenges the core to brace and stabilize your body. This builds up the entire core area including transverse abdominis, obliques, lower back, pelvic floor, hips and glutes.

Prevents injuries - The balance, mobility, and stability gained from functional training helps prevent injuries, especially those associated with poor movement patterns. It strengthens muscles and connective tissues to provide more support for joints.

Increases range of motion - Full range of motion is emphasized in functional strength training. The exercises and movement patterns involved help improve mobility and flexibility at the areas being worked.

Difference from Traditional Strength Training

Functional strength training differs from traditional strength training in a few key ways:

- Uses compound exercises instead of isolation exercises. Functional strength training focuses on compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups. These exercises work multiple muscle groups at once. Traditional training often relies more on isolation exercises like bicep curls or leg extensions which only work one muscle at a time.

- Full body movements instead of machine exercises. Functional training uses bodyweight exercises, free weights, cables, and other tools that engage the whole body. Traditional training frequently uses weight machines which isolate muscles and don't mimic real-world activities.

- Emphasizes functional fitness rather than just aesthetics. The goal of functional training is improving strength, mobility, balance, and coordination for daily activities. Traditional training aims more for muscle size and aesthetics. Functional training helps you lift real objects and move better in your life.

The compound, full-body movements in functional strength training better prepare your muscles, joints, and nervous system for the demands of daily life. Traditional training builds strength too, but often lacks the functional focus.

Exercises and Equipment

When it comes to functional strength training, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. Some of the most effective functional strength exercises use your own bodyweight or basic equipment like dumbbells. Here are some of the most common exercises and equipment used in functional strength training programs:

Bodyweight Exercises

Squats - Squats are one of the most fundamental functional exercises. They engage multiple muscle groups like the quads, hamstrings, glutes and core. Start with basic squats, then progress to jump squats or single-leg squats.

Lunges - Forward lunges, reverse lunges and side lunges build strength in the legs while challenging your balance and core stability. Mix up the variations to hit your muscles from different angles.

Pushups - From standard pushups to decline pushups on an exercise ball, pushups build upper body and core strength using your own bodyweight. Target different muscles by adjusting hand placement.

Planks - Planks develop incredible core strength and stability through your trunk. Progress from basic planks to side planks or walkouts for more challenge.

Free Weights

Dumbbells - Grab a set of dumbbells for exercises like bicep curls, shoulder presses, goblet squats and dumbbell deadlifts. Dumbbells allow a greater range of motion.

Kettlebells - The unique shape of kettlebells enables dynamic, whole-body moves like swings, cleans and snatches. Kettlebells are commonly used in many functional training routines.

Other Equipment 

Resistance Bands - Bands add resistance to bodyweight moves and can be used for mobility warm-ups. They are inexpensive and portable.

Suspension Trainers - Using your bodyweight against gravity, suspension trainers are ideal for pulls, presses and core exercises. Popular brands include TRX.

Exercise Balls - Challenge your core stability and balance using an exercise ball. They can elevate simple exercises like plank variations, crunches and pushups.

The best functional strength training programs combine bodyweight exercises, free weights like dumbbells and kettlebells, and other useful equipment like resistance bands and suspension trainers for a full-body workout using multiple movement planes and positions.

Sample Workout

A sample functional strength workout could look like this: 

Goblet Squat

    - 3 sets of 10-12 reps

Dumbbell Row 

    - 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side  

Lateral Lunge

    - 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side

Push Up 

    - 3 sets of max reps


    - 3 holds of 30-60 seconds

Dumbbell Thruster

    - 3 sets of 10-12 reps

Pull Up or Lat Pulldown

    - 3 sets of max reps or 10-12 reps

Farmers Carry

    - 3 walks of 30-50 feet

Mountain Climbers

    - 3 sets of 15-20 reps

This full body workout hits all the major muscle groups while challenging strength, balance, coordination, and conditioning. The exercises involve multiple joints and planes of motion to mimic natural movement. Modifications like using resistance bands can make the routine accessible for all levels. The sets, reps, and load can be adjusted as needed to increase difficulty over time. This type of functional workout develops usable strength for daily life activities.

Programming Considerations

When programming functional strength training, there are a few key things to keep in mind:

Importance of full body movements - Functional strength training emphasizes full body, multi-joint movements like squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, and farmer's carries. This trains your body to work as a coordinated unit and prepares you for real-world activities.

Balance push and pull exercises  - Make sure to balance upper body pushing exercises like presses and push-ups with pulling exercises like rows and pull-ups. This prevents muscle imbalances and overuse injuries.

Progressively increase difficulty - Start with simpler bodyweight exercises and gradually progress to more challenging variations like single-leg or instability exercises. Increase resistance by adding weights/bands or changing leverage. This allows you to build strength over time without overtraining.

The programming should focus on functional movement patterns in multiple planes of motion. Allow sufficient rest between challenging sets. Appropriately manage volume, intensity, and progression to optimize functional strength gains.


Functional strength training can be modified and progressed for any fitness level. Here are some ways to scale the exercises:

Scaling Options

Reduce weight - Use lighter dumbbells, kettlebells, or resistance bands to decrease resistance. Focus on perfect form.  

Reduce reps - Do fewer reps per set if fatigued. Build up over time.

Use assistance - Hold onto a wall or chair for balance assistance on single leg or balance exercises.

Simplify movements - Break exercises down into easier components. For example, do a squat to chair instead of a full squat.

Regression and Progression

- Level 1: Bodyweight squats

- Level 2: Dumbbell goblet squats 

- Level 3: Barbell back squats

- Level 1: Standard pushups 

- Level 2: Pushups with hands elevated 

- Level 3: Clapping pushups

- Level 1: Planks

- Level 2: Planks with arm/leg lifts

- Level 3: Planks on stability ball

The key is finding the right level to sufficiently challenge yourself without risking injury. Proper form trumps added weight or reps. Progress slowly over time as your abilities improve. Modifications allow functional strength training to work for anyone.

Functional Strength vs Cardio 

Functional strength training and cardio exercise both offer important health and fitness benefits. However, they achieve these benefits through different training methods.

Cardiovascular or "cardio" exercise includes activities like running, cycling, and swimming that raise your heart rate and improve cardiovascular fitness. The main benefits of cardio are:

- Improved heart health 

- Increased endurance

- Reduced body fat

- Mental clarity

Meanwhile, functional strength training uses resistance to improve balance, coordination, strength, and agility for everyday life. The key benefits of functional strength training include:

- Increased muscle strength 

- Improved mobility and flexibility

- Enhanced movement patterns

- Injury prevention

- Bone and joint health

While they have different approaches, combining both cardio and functional strength training is ideal for a comprehensive fitness program.  Cardio provides a solid aerobic base, while functional strength work builds lean muscle and trains the body for real-world demands.

An integrated program can alternate cardio and functional strength days or combine elements of both into each workout. Just make sure not to schedule excessively fatiguing cardio right before a functional strength session, or vice versa. With a thoughtful training plan, you can obtain the unique benefits of each.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Functional strength training emphasizes full-body movements and real-world applicability. However, people can make some common mistakes that reduce its effectiveness. Being aware of these pitfalls can help avoid them.

Not Having Full Range of Motion

One of the main principles of functional training is training through the entire natural range of motion of your joints. Partial movements do not properly strengthen the targeted muscles and joints. For example, doing partial squats without reaching proper depth does not develop full lower body strength. Make sure to move through the complete range of each exercise.

Poor Form  

Maintaining proper form is critical when performing functional exercises. Many involve multiple joints and complex movements. Sacrificing form with sloppy technique can lead to injury and reduce the exercise's effectiveness. Be patient, start with lighter resistance, and focus on quality movement before increasing the challenge. Having a trainer check your form helps prevent bad habits.  

Imbalanced Programming

A good functional training program works all major muscle groups with both pressing and pulling moves through multiple planes of motion. Over-emphasizing certain exercises while neglecting others can create muscle imbalances and weaknesses. Programming a variety of exercises with a mix of horizontal presses and rows, squats and hip hinges, rotational and anti-rotation moves provides balanced whole-body training.


Functional strength training focuses on improving strength through exercises that mimic real-life movements. Throughout this article, we covered the key benefits of incorporating functional strength training into your routine:

- Improves balance and coordination by challenging your stabilizer muscles

- Builds overall muscular strength and endurance 

- Enhances performance of daily activities

- Reduces risk of injury by working muscles through full range of motion

- Burns calories and helps maintain a healthy weight

Adding functional strength training just 2-3 times per week can help boost your fitness level and make everyday tasks easier. The compound exercises like squats, lunges and pushups require multiple muscle groups working together, leading to greater gains in strength and mobility. Start slow by learning proper form to avoid injury. Gradually increase the intensity by adding resistance or metabolic training elements like intervals. 

Functional strength training provides a time-efficient way to build strength that transfers directly into your life. The benefits go well beyond bigger muscles - you'll improve posture, balance, coordination and prevent injuries. It's a smart addition to any workout routine for people of all ages and fitness levels looking to move better in their daily lives.