Functional Strength Principles

Today, I’m outlining the principles behind my approach to strength training. Many people in the gym use a “split session” approach, training shoulders one day, chest another day, legs the third day, and so on.

Split sessions are great for those who have the time. However, most people – and most of my clients – are time challenged. They aren’t able to come to the gym 6 days a week to train. Most of the people I meet want to improve their overall strength and have a limited amount of time for going to the gym. They benefit most from a functional approach to strength training.


Functional Strength Definition

What is functional strength? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability.”

In a nutshell, functional fitness improves strength by using multiple joint movements. Where a leg extension machine works your quadriceps muscles, a squat works all the prime movers of the legs, and also trains the synergists and muscles that help us balance and stabilize. Typically, I only use isolation exercises like a leg extension to strengthen an underactive muscle.  Among the benefits of functional strength training are:

  • Increased flexibility
  • Improved balance
  • Reduces risk of injury
  • Improves posture and dynamic stability
  • Improves core strength: almost every movement requires a high degree of core activation.

The result is balanced, total body strength, improved core strength and improved sense of balance.

“During my 15 years of college [strength] coaching, I noticed an interesting trend. As we evolved from a traditional power and Olympic lifting program to a more functionally based program, our strength numbers stayed consistent, and our injury incidence decreased drastically” Advances in Functional Training, Michael Boyle, p.23


The Three Planes of the Body

Because movement, like life, doesn’t always happen in a straight line, let’s start with planar movement. In anatomy, scientists describe the human body’s movement divided into three planes that intersect at the center of the body. While it’s not necessary to be an anatomy expert, this is good to know because the human body moves in multiple dimensions.

Sagittal: the body is bisected laterally. Think of walking down a sidewalk.
Frontal: the body is bisected by a plane into front and rear halves. The frontal plane (anterior chain): quads, abdominals, anterior shoulders etc. The rear: calves, gluteals, shoulder blades. Think of lateral stepups.
Transverse: The body is bisected at the waist by a plane. Movements in the transverse plane are rotational. Example: Swinging a baseball bat.


The planes of the body.

Image courtesy of By Connexions – OpenStax College. Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web

Pullups: a fundamental vertical pulling exercise.



Multi-joint Movements

Multiple-joint movements not only replicate real life movements in sports and at home, they maximize your time in the gym. I divide movements into leg movements, upper body pushing and pulling movements; and core strength.

Leg movements
Knee-dominant movements. Example: Squats
Hip-dominant movements. Example: Deadlift, bridges.
Hybrid movement where the hip and knee hinge equally. Example: step-ups, lunges.
Horizontal pushing movements include pushups and flat or incline bench press.
Vertical pushing movements include the landmine and the overhead press.
Horizontal pulling movements include cable rows; face-pull, dumbbell row, TRX high and TRX mid rows.
Vertical pulling includes pullups, x-band pulldown, and lat pulldown.
Core strength. Prone and side planks, crunches, rollouts. Avoid sit ups due to excessive lumbar spine flexion.


Pullups are a functional multijoint movement.


Movement Ratios and Programming

Because I find that many people have underactive gluteus maximus muscles, I prefer programming knee and hip-dominant movements in a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio (that is, one knee-dominant exercise to two hip-dominant). This can always be adjusted based on the needs of the client.

I prefer programming upper body pushing and pulling movements in the same ratio, 1:1 or 1:2 (that is, one set of horizontal pushing to two sets of horizontal pulling. Same for vertical movements). The upper back and latissimus muscles are some of the largest muscle mass in the human body. Keeping them strong improves posture and can alleviate back pain.

Do your core strength training after you do upper and lower body movements. During a pullup, row, squat, etc, you’re bracing your core to stabilize yourself.
Virtually every movement requires a neutral spine and core muscles activated.

If strength training multiple times per week, give yourself 48 hours’ recovery between sessions. Cardio can be done on consecutive days.



A single leg squat trains you in 3 dimensions.



One of the keys to improving your fitness and avoiding injury in the gym is knowing when and how much to progress the amount of weight you’re pushing. Sometimes, you’re better off increasing the number of repetitions before increasing the amount of weight. For example, if you’re doing 2 sets of 10 dumbbell presses with 20-pound dumbbells, it might be appropriate to increase to 2 sets of 14 before progressing to 25-pound dumbbells.

Another way to improve fitness is to work in all the planes of the body (see the diagram above). Most movement in the gym is done in the sagittal plane – the same as walking down a sidewalk. However if you enjoy ice skating, you’re often moving in the frontal plane – side to side. If you enjoy rotational sports such as golf, baseball or skiing, you’re moving in the transverse plane

Lower body: from two-legged stance to single leg stance
Upper body: from two armed to single arm, to single arm alternating
Stable environment to unstable environment. E.g. flat bench press to bench press on physio ball.


Surfers move in multiple dimensions


Planar movement: Most work is in the sagittal plane (i.e. walking down the sidewalk). Gradually add movements in the lateral and transverse planes. For example, move from forward lunges to lateral lunges. From lateral lunges to transverse plane lunges.  Gradually increase weight.