Strength Gains vs. Muscle Gains: Learn How To Build Muscle You Actually Use

Strength Gains vs. Muscle Gains: Learn How To Build Muscle You Actually Use

You may be able to bench 200 kgs without breaking a sweat. But how many guys at the gym with massive biceps and bulging pecs have functional strength? How many of these guys have you heard complaining that their knees hurt from playing with the kids or they strained their back putting suitcases in a car?

The answer is that it’s far too common. Too many people distance the gym from reality to the point where all their hard work in the gym isn’t actually improving their life, it’s degrading it. Life doesn’t care about how much you curl if you can’t do normal tasks without causing injury to yourself.

It’s time to talk about functional strength. It’s different to just jacking up your muscles or improving your numbers at the gym. It’s the difference between having healthy workout sessions and having a healthy life. Let’s have a look at functional strength, why it’s such a hot topic in the fitness world, and how to improve yours.  

What is Functional Strength?

Fit man and woman doing push ups in gym, man is clapping mid push up

There is strong, and then there’s functionally strong. What do we mean by that?

In its simplest terms, functional strength is strength that helps with your daily activities. When you train to build muscles, you focus on the numbers, the weights, and on the incremental increases to your performance in the gym.

A focus on functional strength is training your body to perform better in your everyday life. You train with activities that translate to movements and long-term health benefits.

Have I been training wrong this whole time?

Not at all. When you train to build muscle, you will build muscle. Training for functional strength places a focus on different goals, with different results.  

What do I stand to gain from functional strength training?

Your muscle mass and strength will gradually decrease with age. Functional strength keeps you active, mobile, and flexible for longer in life.

You also become less injury-prone with functional strength. Training just one area builds muscle in one area, whereas functional training contributes to the body as a whole. Think about it. If you bulk up and create massive pecs and shoulders, does that help you swimming? Or cycling? Not really.

So what’s wrong with building muscle?

Nothing. Nothing at all. You get tons of benefits from normal strength training. You achieve new personal records. You look fitter and healthier. You burn more fat with muscles. You gain stamina and size. You have more power. Functional strength just focuses in on the output of improved movement. This tends to work on joint and muscles together, like shoulders, ankles, knees, and hips.

What are good functional strength goals?

Good question. Rather than large pecs or bulging quads, functional strength goals are varied and tactical.

Strength - Of course you want to get strong, but not just “big” strong. Low reps at high weight will build raw strength the best.

Endurance - You want the ability to power through without feeling fatigue and sore the next day. Muscle endurance also is great for metabolism and fat loss.

Range of motion - This is a big one. You want to have pain-free range of motion in all your load-bearing joints. This will prolong your health and fitness into older age.

Speed - Your fast-twitch fibres allow you to switch direction quickly. This agility is crucial to functional strength where you move and twist every day.

Power - Imagine the difference between creaking out of a chair and leaping out of it. You want that kind of power in your muscles, enabling you to move your weight quickly and deliberately.

How to Build Functional Strength

Fit woman exercising with large ball in gym

Start by defining your goals. You’ll notice that these goals aren’t as rigid as “5 more kilos on the deadlift bar” or “3 more reps on my bench press”. Functional strength focuses on the goal of improved flexibility, increased stability, and better load transfers with compound movements.   

Fluidity/Flexibility

The traditional method of training uses restrictive movements that have limited mobility. Up and down. Back and forth. One side to the next. Your body doesn’t move that way. It turns, swivels, twists, rotates, spins, speeds up, slows down, and everything in between. The first goal should be to be mobile and flexible.

Pilates or yoga are perfect examples of this type of flexibility training. These movements to work on opening up the load-joints of your body, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.

Fluid motion also comes from full-body movements. Deep squats and lunges are perfect examples where you involve more motion and include the load-bearing hip and knee joints for flexibility.  

Lastly, use stretching routines. They elongate your muscles and promote a full range of movement. Remember to stretch “warm” muscles or only after you’ve trained them.

If you can include a weekly yoga or pilates session with your workout, do so. Otherwise, simple stretching will encourage more flexible motion.

  • Standing Hamstring Stretch: Stand straight. Pivot forward with the hip, keeping your legs as straight as possible. If you can, hold your calves with your hands while you remain in this position for 2-30 seconds.
  • Upper Back Stretch: Start on all fours on the ground. Keep your knees planted while you slowly walk your hands forward until your arms are straight. Press your chest down while your palms are firmly planted on the floor, stretching the upper back and shoulders.
  • Hip/Pelvis Stretch: Seated on the ground, bring your feet together, knees apart. Slowly pull in your feet towards your groin with your arms on your ankles, elbows resting on the inner thighs. Hold for 30 seconds to open up your pelvis and hip joints.  

Stability/Balance

The best balance movements involve unstable positions. Gym balls, BOSU balls, and one-legged exercises force your body to engage your core and improve your balance. If you can throw down 100 push-ups without a sweat, try balancing your hands on a BOSU ball and doing the same push-ups. Feel the difference?

Balance is a combination of support and control. That function stems from your core, your legs, and your back. You can incorporate balance-enhancing exercises in your workout routine. They will strengthen the key muscle groups to maintaining balance.

  • Jumping single-leg squats: On one leg, jump straight up and land with a soft knee on the same leg. Lower your body in a dip but don’t let your free leg touch the ground. Do 10 jumps on each leg at a time.
  • Speed skaters: Jump side to side from one leg to the other. Swing your arms in the motion you’re jumping, keeping your chest up and core engaged. Land softly on your leg with your free leg swinging behind your body like a speed skater. Try to land without stumbling or moving your planted foot.
  • One-legged squat: With one leg out in front, lower into a full squat with your front leg acting as a counter balance. Switch from one side to the other as you practice getting lower and lower with your squats.
  • Gym Ball Crunches: Lay across a gym ball with your head supported by your hands. Place the centre of the ball directly underneath your lower back. With your feet stable, do a crunch. Control your ascent and descent so that you don’t sway from side to side on the ball

Compound Movements   

No muscle in your body acts on its own. Each movement passes the load from one muscle group to another across your body. Work on functional strength by using compound movements that incorporate many muscle groups.,

Isolation exercises, like a bicep curl, focus on one muscle group, Compound exercises are better for functional strength. They train multiple muscle groups and multiple joints.

One of the important compound movements is the deadlift, an exercise that requires total body control. Start with deadlifts twice a week to focus on improving functional strength. Your deadlift should be around 75%-85% of your max weight. Do 1 set of 5 reps at that weight to train your compound movements

The pull-up is an example of a compound exercise that you can do anywhere. Remember to not use your body’s inertia to get over the bar. Do slow and controlled pull-ups to get the full range of motion to your biceps, shoulders and upper back muscles.

Practice compound movements such as:

  • Barbell Squats
  • Overhead Presses
  • Rowing (Using a machine)
  • Dumbbell Lunges
  • Ab Bicycles

The Functional Strength “Finish Line”

You're not training to be healthy tomorrow. You are training to remain healthy and active for many years to come. That comes from having a well-rounded functional strength that serves your daily motions and movements.  Target goals of flexibility, stability, and compound movements to see massive improvements on your functional strength.

Re-shift your focus to that long-term health mindset. Functional strength works alongside your training to build bigger muscles. Train hard to bulk up, and use functional training to improve the output of those muscles.  That’s the key to a long and active lifestyle.