Functional Strength Training

By Guest Blogger Kayla Mantegazza, WellMASS Program Coordinator

Strength training is an essential component of a complete physical activity program.  It builds muscle mass, which increases metabolism, absorbs some of the shock put on your joints during daily activities, and improves stamina.  However, you don’t need to use heavy weights or complex machines to build strength, increase muscle tone, or improve athletic performance.  In fact, you already own the equipment necessary to start an effective strength training program:  your body.  Performing exercises that rely on bodyweight to develop strength by mimicking movements you frequently perform throughout the day is known as functional strength training. Practicing functional training reduces stiffness, improves range of motion, and develops strength, balance, and flexibility.

There are a few core differences between traditional strength training and functional strength training.  Traditional strength training — such as a seated hamstring curl — typically isolates one muscle group at a time (in this case, as its name suggests, the hamstring).  Conversely, functional strength training — such as a forearm plank — activates many muscle groups simultaneously (in this case, the core, lats, shoulders, and quads).  The benefit to training multiple muscle groups at once is that you can build strength more quickly as well as burn calories more efficiently than you would if you were working only one part of your body.

Traditional strength training and functional training also differ in their outcomes.  The goals of traditional strength training are to maximize the amount of weight you can lift and build muscle for aesthetic purposes.  Functional strength training will still help you achieve your aesthetic goals, such as losing inches and reshaping your body, but success is typically measured by improvements in range of motion, stability, and flexibility rather than the amount of weight you can lift or the size of your muscles.

To perform an exercise that will make you functionally strong, there are a few guidelines to follow.  The first is to perform the exercise while standing without support.  When you train while sitting, laying on a bench, or using a wall to support yourself, you don’t need to engage your core muscles or work as hard to maintain your balance, posture, and form as you would if you were performing the exercise without the support of a mechanical aid or piece of furniture.  The next guideline to follow is to train with free weights (dumbbells) instead of weighted machines.  Dumbbells promote strength while improving muscle balance.  While weighted machines are not inherently bad or ineffective, they typically guide you through impractical motions that don’t reflect the movements you naturally make throughout the day, nor do they require balance.  Lastly, be sure to focus on compound exercises rather than those that isolate one muscle group.  Below are some examples of functional strength training exercises that follow these guidelines.  Make sure you talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

Glute Bridge:

Glute Bridge

Muscles Worked: Calves, Hamstrings, Glutes, and Lower Back

To perform this movement, lay on your back with your heels underneath your knees about 12-15” from your body.  Lift your hips up into the air pushing down from your heels, stabilizing onto your shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds and lower back to the starting position. Make sure to push your chin away from your chest as it rises closer.  Squeeze your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back throughout exercise.

Bird Dog:

Bird Dog

Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower Back, Abs, Shoulders, and Arms

Start out on all fours with your back in a tight, neutral position, keeping your head in line with your body (don’t look up or down). Reach your arm straight out in front of you.  While extending your arm, extend your opposite leg (i.e., right arm and left leg).  Once you have both your arm and leg out, pause for a 2-second count and then lower back to the start position.  Switch sides and repeat. Avoid letting the body twist or change height.  Imagine keeping a small ball on your lower back and keeping it in place going from step A to step B and back to the start.

Cross Over Crunch:

Cross Over Crunch

Muscles Worked: Rectus Abdominals, Obliques, and Transverse Abs

Start on your back with your feet 10-12” away from your body.  Place your ankle on your knee. Take your opposite hand and place your fingertips behind your ear.  This will allow you to support your head and neck. Start to turn your upper body toward your raised knee by using your abdominal muscles to lift your shoulder blades and head as one unit toward the knee. The goal is to have your elbow cross over your belly button.   Hold for one second and bring back to start.  Perform this sequence for desired number of reps and then repeat on the other side.

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