Optimizing Health: The Importance of Functional Strength Training

What is Functional Strength Exactly?

Functional strength is simply exercises that mimic daily movements used in life either for sports or occupations. They are usually performed in a standing position and often with either one arm or one leg. Developing skills using complex movement skills promote growth and muscular change faster than pure strength training that isolates muscle. And it is also the first thing that people lose when injured or for older adults who have no longer been exercising. Unfortunately older adults are told to sit on machines or complete exercises lying down or sitting down, because it is safe. This is only making them worse not better!

Functional strength training for older adults is a concept that I am passionate about having spent a lot of time working with rehabilitation and recently older adults. And I explain to people what we are doing is not training muscles, instead we are training the brain or the neuro musculoskeletal system. Our goal is to get your body’s systems to work in a highly coordinated and effective fashion so that functional tasks are completed successfully. There is an extremely important distinction to be made here.

The isolated approach is really best for simply training muscles so that they get bigger and stronger. This is body building. Most people who go to the gym are not going to be body builders, but to improve their health and function. The functional or integrated approach is best for improving the efficiency of the body's ability to move. The focus is really on the end result that we are after – improved human movement and function. This takes advantage of how the body and the nervous system is designed to work in the first place which is in a highly coordinated manner.

Hardly ever would you see muscles work in complete isolation or anywhere close to it. If you did it would look very robotic. Some muscles contract to provide movement while some muscles contract to provide stability. This is all done at the same time. The don’t work separate to each other. In addition to this it must not be forgotten that the more co-ordinated and complex movements have a greater effect on the brain. Remember at the beginning we told you that “The positive effects of regular exercise appear to be largest for tasks that are more complex and which require executive control.”

This means that diseases like senility and dementia are less likely to be a factor by including a much more brain like approach to exercise. Sitting on machines or even sitting on the floor completing Pilates exercises because it is safe, is really undertraining your body and actually speeding up the aging process!

Here is some of our favourite integrated strength exercises and how it relates to improving function for life.

Squat With 1 Arm Press & The Deadlift

These are both very interesting exercises that mimic pushing something, eg lifting and pushing a wheel barrow. Again the squat action is needed here and for good reason. The energy must be created from the legs and through the core in order to create momentum and energy. And for the timing to be right and allow the weaker arms to cheat through the hardest part of the movement it needs to be done with a fast action!

Cable Woodchop

The Twisting movement is essential for a healthy, well balanced and strong body. The woodchop exercise greatly mimics the action of gardening, vacuuming the house, almost any sport, in particular golf which many seniors play. The golf swing and the gym movement both require a good weight transfer from the legs coupled with rotation of the trunk to provide the necessary power and momentum. Again a highly co ordinated and complex movement and one that is often not performed in the gym environment as people are thinking about muscles too much.

Active Daily Living Exercises

These are exercises that we use to exactly mimic movements needed in daily life and we add some complexity to it, to stimulate your body into improving it's ability to perform this activity. As mentioned earlier we are basically are trying to retrain your brain!

These exercises improve not just the strength in the muscles but the co-ordination of the brain to all the arms and legs, along with added skills of balance, agility and speed with me asking him to do this faster. All of these things not only make people stronger but also more equipped to deal with balance and skills needed for life.

I encourage you to read the book "Bending The Aging Curve" by Joseph F Signorile which is where I first saw some of these exercises in action and since used them effectively with many clients.


There have been stacks of scientific research proving that restructuring the brain and nervous system requires the use of complex movement patterns. Simple gym exercises or walking will have little to no effect on changing the way you move. For you to get good at an activity, you MUST practice the kinetic movement chain on which that activity depends. Once you do this all of the factors needed to improve movement are rewired to make lifestyle activites easier to perform.

Sports conditioning coaches all over the world understand this are endlessly working out better ways to train that are more specific to the athletes sports. The concept of improving a sporting movement and a daily movement are the same. Unfortunately many people do not understand this when it comes to training with older adults and see it as inevitable that they must just accept that they are too old to try. We know this is garbage and you can continue to improve, it just takes practice and a good coach to teach these perfect movements.

Written by Nick Jack of www.noregretspt.com.au
I am a CHEK Practitioner and been a Personal Trainer for over 10 years specializing in Rehabilitation, Injury Prevention and Core Strength Training. I have extensive experience with Sports Training and am a qualified CHEK Golf Bio-Mechanic Specialist trai