Reach or Curl? Functional Training vs. Strength Training

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As Fitness Professionals, we have clients who want to build muscle while others desire to get fit. What’s the difference? Does building muscle mean strength train must occur? Does getting fit include getting stronger or just being able to function? Let’s take a look at similarities, differences and how they can even be merged together for a complete package.

Let’s start by defining our terms. To strength train, we focus on building power and endurance in one muscle group at a time. On the other hand, functional training encompasses large body movements using specific muscles, whether stabilizing or moving, in order to perform daily life activities. So, ponder this. Do you need to focus on a muscle group or move large body parts to perform better? How about to just climb stairs or reach for a can in the cabinet? Maybe it depends on your purpose, but for those of us who aren’t professional body builders, maybe combining both methods are the answer to living a healthy, comfortable and mobile life.

To break these down even more, strength training consists mainly of weight training, typically with dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands and machines. Inside the gym, a typical picture might be men and women curling and pressing in front of a mirror or with a personal trainer. Their focus is on one muscle or body part to strengthen the muscle fibers. What if they added functional movement into their strength training routine? Would it help or hinder their performance?

What is functional training? These movements use muscles that are included in activities of daily living. For example, we reach to put something away overhead, pull and push to move an object in front or behind, lift bags and boxes and squat to perform personal tasks. Most functional training is done with no extra equipment, basically we are talking body weight. In some cases, dumbbells, bands and other weighted equipment can be added, but that depends on the individual who is training. In general, the more we move our large muscle groups, the more agile and limber we stay. Would incorporating strength training help our active moments? Could it assist us in other ways?

There are benefits of merging both strength training and functional training. Take a look at athletes. They typically use weighted equipment to focus on the body part they want to train. The idea of centering on one muscle group at a time helps develop the performance of that single area, but if functional training, specifically performing movements that simulate actions for a specific sport were added to their weekly workout schedule, performance levels would improve and who knows, maybe even break some personal records. Now, for those of us who aren’t on the field, court or in the pool, we might benefit from combining both types of training as well. Actual added weight, like dumbbells and machines, help the bones stay strong. Women, particularly age 50+, need to include some form of loadbearing activites to help prevent bone breaks and fractures. It is only a myth that our muscles will turn into hulking masses, so there should be no worry about that. As for functional training, using full body as the training equipment, not only activates the arms and legs, but the core as well. Balance and mobility improve with exercises that incorporate hips and legs. Movements like squats, twists, linear/lateral steps and climbing help prevent falls and missteps.