Functional Strength

Functional Strength

For years I have listened to people going on and on about “functional” strength that I finally decided I needed to shed some light on the subject.  Often the term “Functional strength” is thrown around by self righteous folks claiming that THEIR workout builds funcional strength and everyone elses doesnt. So, let me ask this –

Who has more functional strength, a boxer or a powerlifter?

The answer is that they are DIFFERENT but you cant say one is functional and one is not. Functional is relative to what you are trying to accomplish!  Strength is strength, that is, how much force you can exert.  The question is how much force can you exert and for how long?  What is “functional strength” is relative to what you are trying to accomplish!  Functional strength for a basketball player makes him jump high but the basketball player’s “functional strength”  is completely useless for a sumo wrestler.

Its all about the force time plot – let me explain what I mean by that. Lets compare what the boxer’s triceps is doing compared to a powerlifters triceps over the course of 5 minutes.  In the case of the boxer show below, you see that that in 5 minutes they got in ten punches.  Each of these punches only lasts for 60ms (0.06 seconds) for a total exertion time during the 5 minutes of only 0.6 seconds.  Although the punches do not last long, they are certainly powerful – each one packs 5000 newtons (1124 pounds) of force!

Boxer punch strength



Now lets contrast this to the strength of a powerlifter.  In five minutes, the below advanced powerlifter can do 600 pounds on the bench press for three sets of four reps.  Each of the sets takes 12 seconds for a total of 48 seconds exertion during the 5 minutes.


powerlifter bench press strength

So who is stronger?  Who has more “functional strength”?  Again, “Functional” is relative to what you are trying to accomplish!!!   A excellent boxer makes a mediocre powerlifter and a excellent powerlifter makes a mediocre boxer – lets just leave it at that.  It all comes down to the force time plot required, that is how long the maximum force needs to be generated. You can optimize your body for millisecond bursts of intense ballistic power like is required for boxing or martial arts, you can optimize the body for short term burts (5-30 seconds) like is required for powerlifting or football, or you can optimize the body for endurance (multiple hours) like is required for marathons – you cannot optimize the body for all three! Many sports require compromises be made. For example, if a basketball player just does plyometrics (jump training) to increase their ballistic power for jumping then they will be able to jump high but because they have not worked on endurance, they will be slow as molasses on the court. A basketball player needs both ballistic strength in their legs for jumping as well as great endurance for all the running required – they need to compromise. They wont have the endurance of a champion marathoner but they will be able to get a lot more vertical in their leaps than a marathoner does!

“Fuctional” is completely relative to what the person is trying to accomplish. A functional exercise improves your performance at what YOU are trying to optimize. There is a wise athletic training philosophy, its “train like you race”. In otherwords, the best way to train is often just like you race. If you do the 100m dash in track then do sprints in training. If you do the marathon event then do long distance running! A functional workout for a boxers triceps mimics that ballistic force required for a punch so a boxer could do clapping pushups … or do a bag punching workout! A bodybuilding workout isnt going to help a boxer all that much.


Functional Strength

So please remember, friends dont let friends say “functional strength”.