Functional Training: 6 Keys to 360* Power & Strength

Functional Training: 6 Keys to 360* Power & Strength
A lot of lifters ignore functional training simply because they don't understand its benefits. Learn how functional training can help you achieve your goals.

Do you want to develop a body capable of withstanding 360-degrees-of-force?

Resistance training has its place, but if you’re in the market for a body that can withstand anything you can throw at it, and from any angle, you need to train like your life depends on it.

Developing 360* power, strength, and the lean looking build to go with it is easier than you think.

Changing up your training to be more like an athlete with the functional training methods outlined below, you will build a physique that turns heads.

Why should you care about athleticism?

An athletically well-rounded physique is less susceptible to injury and can perform a range of different tasks at a high level of efficiency.

Thus, it’s important to train the body holistically by challenging it with different levels of intensity and hitting it from all angles.

Now let’s find out how to achieve better performance and a more shredded appearance by placing functional training (with all 360 degrees of the body in mind) first.

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The Complete Athlete

To be considered a complete athlete, we must display a range of attributes essential to high-level functioning. This can involve cross-training a range of movements and methods. For example, explosive, anaerobic-style approaches can be used to develop speed and strength while lower intensity protocols can be employed to promote active recovery and aerobic fitness.3

Related: Top 6 Dumbbell Exercises for Athletic Muscle Building

For both serious lifters and the average gym goer, certain modifications can be made to their workouts, but the overall aim is the same: Develop the body as a complete functional unit.17

Developing a complete physique requires that we put the body through many different forms of physical stimulation. If you’re training only one way, certain areas crucial to performance are likely being overlooked.

To become functionally efficient you don’t need to squat one-legged on a Swiss Ball while pressing a pair of 5lb dumbbells. Nor should you neglect traditional resistance training approaches. Squatting, benching, and deadlifting in a strict and full-range fashion are central to making the body more functional.

To ensure that functional fitness is achieved, we must address several key principals of functional training such as: stabilization, mobility, explosiveness, and rotation. Sports specific training, agility, and flexibility work can also be included to accomplish this.

So, let’s now take a look at some of the more important ways to incorporate functional training into your routine.

Team Allmax Athlete Performing Pushups

1. Stabilization

Many lifters have a limited understanding of the various roles the different muscles of the body can perform. This may limit the functional gains such lifters might make. Here’s how you can avoid making this same mistake.

The body has many different types of muscle and each is called upon to perform a specific role. The two generic types of muscle we have are the movers and stabilizers.

By learning the difference between these two important types of muscle, you’ll dramatically improve your performance both inside and outside of the gym. If you include only one functional training concept in your training, let this be it.

When we think of muscles, we often think of the main (prime) movers, those that move parts of the body through a specific range of motion. However, by prioritizing the movers via bodybuilding-style training exclusively, we may overlook the crucial stabilizers muscles. These are the smaller muscles that hold the body in place while supporting the larger prime-movers.3, 10

Without optimal stabilizer strength, the movers are disproportionately strengthened, thereby compromising both posture and the proper positioning of the body.10, 11 As a result, unnatural movement at the joint may occur, performance may suffer, strength gains are likely to be limited, and injury may ultimately take place.

One of the more common stabilizer-associated problems in all of sport is extreme pain in and limited movement of the lower back.3 To improve stabilization of the lower back, a specific set of deep abdominal muscles must first be strengthened: the transversus abdominis and multifidus (both deep spinal stabilizer muscles).4, 12

Like all stabilizer muscles, the transversus abdominis and multifidus should be properly isolated to ensure optimal strength and improved functionality. This can be done by completing a series of short-range contractions of the deep abdominal muscles (the upper third portion of a Swiss ball crunch will do the job nicely).

Other important stabilizers include the hip abductors and rotators (which can be isolated with hip abduction work among other movements) and the scapula stabilizers, which enhance shoulder joint function and stability (isolate with band pull-a-parts among other movements).4

Overall, to improve performance in both sport and everyday life, the stabilizers should be properly targeted. Determine the location of each and learn to train them correctly.

The stabilizers can also be trained with unilateral movements such as one legged squats or one-armed bench presses. The inclusion of unstable loads such as sandbags and barrels half full of water can also be enlisted to strengthen these important muscles.

Ironically enough, stabilizer strength is more likely to be weaker in stronger lifters such as bodybuilders and powerlifters. In extremely muscular lifters, the movers often become so strong that they take over the role of the stabilizers.

Thus, being big and strong is no guarantee that your body will be able to properly support itself in positions that require optimal stabilizer strength. To get even bigger and stronger, while preventing the injuries that may sidetrack the training needed to achieve these goals, improved stabilizer strength is a must.

Allmax Athlete Rowing Heavy Weights

2. Mobility

Mobility is largely a result of how well the area of a joint where two bones meet can move without being impeded by various tendons, ligaments, and muscles. The greater the range of uninhibited motion around a joint, the more mobile we can be.

By improving flexibility in a given muscle, we increase the absolute range of motion in a joint and the length of the muscle that acts on that joint. However, as integral to elite athleticism as flexibility can be, strength, coordination, and balance remain the undisputed keys to better performance resulting from enhanced mobility.14

For example, while an athlete may show great flexibility, poor muscle strength and coordination will likely limit the ability of his or her joints to move freely. In short, mobility has a direct, specific functional effect on movement.  And by improving mobility, we can avoid injury while also completing a range of exercises with more power and efficiency.19

Related: Warming Up For Dummies - A Lifter’s Guide to Injury Prevention

A key concept of functional training is integration. When applied to mobility, a lack of integration can be seen to affect joint movement in several ways.

The bones, muscles, and soft tissues surrounding each joint (as one integrated system) each play an enormous role in both the health of the joint and how well this joint can function.14 Thus, we must take measures to strengthen each of these tissues.

In addition, for the body to operate as one fully functional unit, each of its joints must be sufficiently mobile. If a single joint is in some way impaired, the functioning of the joints above or below it (as one “link” in the kinetic chain) can also be affected.10

Aside from strengthening all of the muscles and soft tissues of the body and improving flexibility of each muscle group, the best way to improve mobility is to include a series of mobility drills. Non-static mobility drills (such as leg swings performed in a pendulum motion from side-to-side) are done expressly to increase range of motion and improve the mobility of a specific joint.

A key point to remember when performing mobility drills is to work not only the “sticky” joint but also the joints above and below it to ensure an optimal chain of movement between these joints.

3. Explosive Strength and Power

To become physically well-rounded, it’s important that we also train to improve both explosive strength and power. Few sports do not require a decent amount of both.15 In day to day life there are also times when we must exert a maximum amount of force in the shortest possible timeframe (such as when sprinting to catch a bus or grasping for a falling object).

Explosive strength can be developed by replicating movements that require it most: sprinting, jumping, leaping, diving, hopping, throwing and punching.2 Specific plyometrics movements such as box jumps and clapping pushups can be used to enhance both explosive strength. power, and acceleration capacity.1, 16, 18

Allmax Athlete Throwing a punch

Explosive strength is a hallmark of elite level athleticism. The best ways to develop the kind of explosive power that wins major powerlifting events is to get both stronger and faster.

Exploding a bench press bar upward following an exaggerated negative builds this kind of power. The same approach can be taken with other resistance movements to develop this cornerstone of athleticism.

Explosive strength and power are important as both encourage the recruitment of a maximum number of fast-twitch muscle fibers.13 Mostly active in larger motor units, such fibers must be sufficiently stimulated before they can be properly engaged.

Increasing the frequency at which neural impulses are sent to fast-twitch dominant motor units (called rate coding), by training for maximum power, can also help to establish greater explosiveness. In doing so, more force can be created without having to activate more motor units.

4. Rotation

Almost all human activity requires some degree of rotation. From running to throwing, the degree to which we control both rotational deceleration and acceleration can make a massive difference not only in our ability to generate strength, but also when it comes to avoiding injury.6

Rotational exercises are designed primarily to work the core, to make an athlete functionally stronger in actions that take place across a transverse plane.5, 6 While twisting exercises using bands and cables are a great way to build rotational strength, superior movements that challenge the core to a greater extent exist.12

Three of these include: Rotational deadlift to press, medicine ball rotational throws, and sledgehammer swings.

5. Multi-Planar Training

As in life, much sporting activity requires us to move across all three planes of motion simultaneously. The three planes of motion are: sagittal, frontal and transverse.5, 7

The sagittal plane divides the body into left and ride sides. The movements that occur within this plane are: flexion, extension, dorsiflexion and plantar flexion.

Allmax female athlete rowing

The frontal (or coronal) plane divides the body into front and back. The movements that occur within this plane are: adduction, abduction, elevation, depression, inversion and eversion.

Finally, the transverse plane divides the body into top and bottom. The movements that occur within this plane are: rotation, pronation, supination, horizontal flexion (adduction) and horizontal extension (abduction).

The ability to work within all planes is transferable to many sports, exercises, and activities.7 Therefore, the first step to creating an effective functional training program is to ensure that a good selection of movements which target each of these planes of motion are included.

Unfortunately, many gym programs encourage the lifter to work within only one or two planes. Such an approach is a great way to invite injury and create muscular imbalances while limiting the acquisition of transferable movement patterns. So to become a well-rounded athlete it is essential to train in all three planes.

6. Genetics

There’s no escaping it. Genetics are the ultimate arbiter when it comes to improving both performance and physique. So while properly employing the functioning training concepts discussed in this article will enable you to become a bigger, stronger, faster and an overall better-conditioned athlete, don’t expect to be called up to the pros any time soon.

Focus instead on making gradual improvements in line with your own unique genetic blueprint.

While replicating the functional training methods of our favorite elite athletes will bring us closer to achieving our own version of success, we should always be realistic when planning our performance goals. Do not place limits on what you can accomplish but at the same time, be happy with the success you do achieve.

Bringing it Together: Programming for Functional Fitness

Training for improved functional fitness, strength, and aesthetics requires a multifaceted approach with a range of training methods and protocols.

To become athletically well-rounded, it’s therefore important that the isolation-heavy training needed for muscle-building be used in a supplementary and complimentary manner.

Related: 6 Strength & Athleticism Training Tips for Athletes

The good news is that by reducing bodybuilding-style training to around 40 minutes per session, greater recovery from intensive resistance can be achieved. This means potentially more growth can occur despite the inclusion of various functional training methods.

As mentioned above, the ways to train for functional fitness are many and varied. A seemingly infinite range of specific functional movements and training systems are available for the adventurous trainee.

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To become more functionally fit, the first thing to do is to ensure that you are training through all three planes of movement in your current resistance routine. Then, supplement your current workouts with specialized movements that help to improve stabilization, mobility, rotational strength, and explosive strength and power.

Spend the remaining 25 minutes of a typical resistance training session working specifically on functional strength with a selection of movements that work best for your body type.

In addition, assign one session a week purely to functional training. In this workout, specifically target your weaknesses. Address your weaker stabilizers and work specifically on where you most need to improve.

Above all, closely monitor your recovery to ensure that your muscles have sufficiently healed before they are again subjected to a combination of bodybuilding-style protocols and functional training.

Train hard, push yourself to the limit, but remember that the functional gains you ultimately achieve will come largely as a result of your genetic makeup, the feedback you receive from your body, and the effort you are willing to apply.

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