The Growing Popularity Of Functional Training: Building Muscle And Strength

Many would assume that muscle size and strength go hand in hand, but that is not necessarily true. Our bodies adapt to the demands that we place on them, so it really depends on how you train your muscles as to how your muscles will respond.

For example, gymnasts tend to be very strong for their size. They train mostly with their own body weight and the pressure their muscles are under during their typically long training sessions is high. Then take bodybuilders who build muscle mostly for aesthetic purposes. There is no doubt that they are very strong, but if you matched their strength pound for pound against a gymnast, they would probably lose out.

“An increase in muscle diameter is due to an enlargement of individual muscle fibres by an increase in the number and size of individual myofibrils accompanied by an increase in the amount of connective tissue. This increase in muscle protein is produced by increased protein synthesis and decreased protein degradation” (Verkhoshansky 2009).

There are two different types of hypertrophy – sarcomere (functional) and sarcoplasmic (non-functional) hypertrophy.

Sarcomere hypertrophy is an increase in the size and number of sarcomeres, which compromises the myofibrils. When the sarcomeres are added parallel to the existing myofibrils, this will contribute to an increased ability to produce muscle tension. The area density increases and with this, there is a greater capacity to exert muscle force.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in non-contractile protein and plasma fluid between muscle fibres. This increases the cross sectional area of the muscle without increasing the strength of the muscle.

Your muscles will adapt according to the demands placed on them on a regular basis. If you want functional muscles, then training dynamically in your sport/ sports and supporting this with free weight training and bodyweight exercises will be ideal. Moves required in Sports and every day activities require certain levels of strength and coordination in specific muscles that can best be acquired by continually practising those moves or moves very similar with additional weight bearing.

Training to improve functional strength involves more than increasing the force-producing capability of a muscle or group of muscles. It requires training to enhance the coordinated working relationship between the nervous and muscular systems.

Exercises which are isolated train particular muscles, not movements, which results in less functional improvement. For strength exercises to actively transfer to other movements, several components of the training movement need to be similar to the actual performance movement itself. For example, squats will have a greater positive impact on an individual’s ability to rise from a sitting position than knee extensions.

Exercises performed on machines tend to rank at the low end of the scale when it comes to functional training because they isolate muscles in a stabilised and controlled environment. The majority of functional training athletes spend the entirety of their workout baring all of their own bodyweight, mostly on their feet and/or hands depending on the exercise.

There are 7 primal movements (not the only movements) that humans perform all of which require strength, stability, flexibility and coordination. The movements are; pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting, bending, twisting and walking.

Bodyweight exercises are a great way to improve functional strength and can help engage those muscle groups which often get left out in the cold during weight training sessions. Bodyweight training can build muscle rapidly, particularly if you progress to more difficult variations of the exercise. In order to optimise your gains you need to aim for significant loading and tension. Low reps of more difficult exercises will get you much further than high reps of easy exercises like ordinary push-ups or crunches. 3 sets of 4-10 reps is ideal. You can also try imposing the 2-1-2 rule (convict conditioning). This means that you take 2 seconds to lower into the movement, hold the most difficult position for 1 second and then take 2 seconds to return to your starting position. By completing each rep slowly, you gain better control, co-ordination, mind-muscle links and strength all at the same time. This will produce significant increases in muscle tone and size because you are ensuring that your muscles do the work, not the momentum of the movement itself.

Check out the 44 Best Bodyweight Exercises Ever for some great ideas >>>

Weight training is important because it improves relative strength and power. Exercises with kettle bells and sand bags are useful to improve dynamic strength. Heavy squats and deadlifts are great for engaging all muscle groups and grip strength exercises are vital in functional strength training too. In order to successfully transfer the strength you build in the gym to an environment in real life, you need to be able to perform exercises to a certain level without the support of wrist straps. Obviously pushing yourself to the limit and lifting heavier weights with that support will help improve strength too, but do not rely on wrist straps for every lift and neglect grip strength training.

If you are pushing yourself to the limit in your resistance training then you almost definitely have a spot! Most people tend to avoid the spot helping them because they think it is ‘cheating’ but actually if you bench press a weight which you can lower by yourself but need assistance in pressing upwards, let your spot help you. Performing negative reps (only the lowering) with a higher weight than your maximum and receiving assistance on the way up is a great way to push your muscles further and shock them to adapt. Just make sure your spot is strong enough to help you perform the rep without risk of injury.


"Essentials Of Strength Training and Conditioning"; National Strength and Conditional Association; 2000
Verkhoshansky Y(2009) Supertraining. 6th ed. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, USA.

Convict Conditioning – Paul Wade

The Naked Warrior – Pavel Tsatsouline

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
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