Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Functional strength.

Oh yes, we're doing this.

This phrase has been huge for a long time now.  It's right up there with "lean muscle mass" and "dynamic inertia".  The informercials tell you that you want, nay, NEED functional strength, and many a fitness program has been constructed around the goal of chasing down and obtaining this jewel.

What a crock.

Wrong Kroc, stick with me here

Since I tend to understand language in a way fundamentally different than most humans (I attribute this to sustained head trauma from years of boxing), let's look at what is being implied by the phrase "functional strength".  To have such a thing as functional strength is to imply that there is a converse type of strength.  Unfunctional strength?  Non-functional strength?  Or perhaps even dysfunctional strength, that kind of strength that gets drunk and can't hold down a job but you're sticking it out together for the kids goddamnit.

But it scored 4 touchdowns in a single game!

What could this even be?  Can you think of an example of strength with no function?  How would you train to acquire such strength?  Even the most bizarrely isolated and esoteric movement you could contrive with a bosu ball, kettlebell, smith machine and bands would still have some sort of function it could provide.  Your body cannot simply get strong without being able to display the strength in some capacity, it just so happens that the capacity can be limited and highly specialized.

Does that mean the strength is without function?  Or does it simply mean that the strength is not ideal for YOUR intended function?

And this is why the language is stupid.  Strength is strength.  It has no morality attached to it, it is simply binary.  Your body gets stronger, or it does not.  It is the user that decides the function, not the strength.  If you are training to be a better basketball player, and your primary means of training is flipping tires, you did not develop functionless strength, you simply did not develop the most ideal strength for your intended function.  This is user error, not biological, for this strength that you did develop has many applicable functions, they just don't relate to your goal.

This of course relates to the value of having a concrete and defined goal, and also explains the verbal sorcery that many "functional strength" advocates utilize to sell their snake oil.  Lots of folks define functional strength as this notion of being able to do "useful" things like scale fences, climb trees, fight off attackers, etc etc.  With this school of thought, being able to deadlift or squat heavy weights isn't functional.

Typical day at the office

Seriously?  Are you Jason f-in' Bourne here?  Run a quick mental recap on how many times you have needed to scale a fence, climb a tree or fight off attackers in your life.  Now, compare this number with how many times you have ever needing to pick up something heavy.  Whether you were moving into an apartment or relocating some office furniture or picking up a box that got shipped to your door.  I will bet that if you combine the total number of times you have had to be a secret agent, it STILL wouldn't equal how often you have needed to pick up and move stuff.

But let's be stupid and pedantic for a second here, because that's how I operate.  The functional strength camp likes to make the argument that you don't need to train to squat 500lbs, because when will you ever need to do that?  My answer: in a powerlifting meet.  And if you are a powerlifter, that is a very "real world" scenario you will find yourself in, where 500lbs (or whatever weight) is on your back, threatening to crush you.  Once again, the strength is defined by the function of the user here.  If all you want to develop is the strength to make it through life, for most office drones this just means a strong core to support the terrible posture office chairs promote with minimal back pain.  If you engage in any sort of outside activities, you then train to supplement these.  Unless you are climbing trees and krav maga-ing ninjas constantly, training for that just plain ain't functional.

The other argument we see in the functional strength camp is about how pro-bodybuilders are massive but not as strong for their size compared to those elite individuals who train to be functional.  This is two-fold stupidity.  First, bodybuilders have strength that is VERY functional, as it allows them to be better bodybuilders (improving their function).  More importantly though, this argument isn't about strength, it's about mass, an entirely different entity.  Size is not strength.  Strength is strength and size is size.  A man who gets bigger is not necessarily a man getting stronger, and to point to a large man and say "look at all that functionless strength" is akin to complaining that your grapes are being too noisy and everything tastes very yellow.

If your beef (pun partially intended) is that people are putting on mass that is only good at being big and not for making one stronger, this is no issue with strength at all.  Do not fall for the tricks of charlatans and salesmen here.  Know what your function is and train for it, and all of your strength will be functional.  Train without goals, and you will develop very functional strength, it will just be useless to you.

1 comment:

  1. I unloaded trucks for years. I currently push carts for Wal-Mart. I am demonstrably capable of pushing a four-wheeler at three miles per hour with a 250lb guy steering the thing.

    My one trick that makes women love me? I built a foundation around bench press, squat, and deadlift. I never even achieved that high a level, either. The carry over is just immense to anything in my experience.