When thinking about functional fitness, do any of these quotes sound familiar?
I don’t care about being Bigger, I only want to be Stronger!
I don’t want to train like a bodybuilder, I want to be functionally strong
Whenever people say any variation of the above, it’s almost always followed a statement of wanting “functional strength”.
Unfortunately, functional strength doesn’t really mean anything, and neither does functional fitness.
It sounds like a useful term, but the reasoning we see applied to it is almost always wrong.
Truthfully, the term Functional Strength has no hard and fast definition. This term has become popularized because it sounds persuasive and it makes for great marketing. Many people are intimidated by the gym and by muscular people lifting weights, and have many false presumptions of how training works.
You can market to people about building “functional, long, lean muscle”, and not doing “bodybuilder” stuff, and they will buy into it.
This is wrong.
Muscle tissue is muscle tissue. How muscular an athlete appears is relative to their sport. Dancers only need to be able to move their bodyweight, their muscle reflects this. They do not train for “long lean muscles”, they train with the bodyweight doing very fluid and continuous movement, and form follows function.
Gymnasts also train with their bodyweight, and they are much more muscular than dancers. But they use their bodyweight in much more stressful and higher tension positions that demand more muscle tissue. And their form reflects this.
MMA fighters fight in a sport that has weight classes. The best fighters always cut weight. All fighters are muscular, some more than others. The best fighters tend to be quite muscular in fact. They train knowing they have to cut weight, so they must control their bodyweight. Their appearance suits their training.
Which athlete has more functional muscle? NONE OF THEM.
Muscle produces force. Training in the gym, if you are training appropriately, you develop the ability to produce force along the fundamental patterns of movement
If you can do all the above with coordination and with fluidity in loaded positions, you will be muscular, and you will be STRONG.
Whether you are “functionally strong” is relative to the sporting activity in question.
Further, comparing athletes from different sports is almost always a false equivalency/stupid argument
Sports are specialized, that’s why people spend decades of their lives getting good at them. Comparing NFL players to bodybuilders, or ballet dancers to tennis players, or ping pong champions to boxers, or baseball players to boxers, or even strongmen to powerlifters, its always STUPID.
It’s stupid because every single one of these sports has a different criteria of skill and necessary skillsets, and you can be good at one and godawful at another. Endurance and skillsets are not directly transferable. Throwing the term ‘functional fitness’ at it does not make this so.
As such, making arguments for functional strength based upon what one kind of athlete can do is never a coherent argument.
If you never train for something, why would you be good at it? You wouldn’t.
This is also why comparisons between strongmen, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and olympic lifters are also illogical. Different sports with different outcomes they train for.
Another critical point, Strength and size are not mutually exclusive.
Being muscularly big and being strong are not separate qualities. The most objective way to determine the strength of a muscle is its cross-sectional area. Which means how big is the muscle?
While there is an element of coordination that determines absolute strength, this coordination means nothing if there is not the muscle tissue to express it.
Getting stronger without getting bigger is possible to a limited degree, but ultimately the deciding factor for long-term progression is increases in lean body mass. This is why the strongest strength athletes in powerlifting, strongman, Olympic lifting are all the BIGGEST athletes.
Arguments against this are always based on faulty reasoning and false equivalence. For all intents and purposes, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, and a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle.
Can you get stronger without ever getting bigger. You can, somewhat, not very much, and what the hell for?
Muscle mass is literally the Holy Grail of prime health, for what possible reason would you want to limit your muscular development, and why would you limit it for the term ‘functional fitness’?
Lastly, when people talk about functional strength, what is it relative to?
Strong in the context of? Throwing kicks? Pressing a log overhead? Picking up your kid?
Those are all different things. And non ironically, the ONE thing that could improve your ability to do them is appropriately programmed resistance training.