[Episode 64] The Importance of Developing Functional Strength

by | Jun 25, 2021

In this episode we will be looking at functional strength. We’re gonna learn about what it is and why it’s so ploppin important for us to develop it the best ways we can for each of our bodies.

 

What is Functional Strength?

Functional strength is our ability to move our joints, particularly our shoulders, hips, knees and ankles through their full range of movement without pain, restriction or stiffness.

And it is so often overlooked when it comes to training. It doesn’t have a particular aesthetic. It’s got nothing to do with how much a person can lift or how hard they can train.

It could be said to be the unsexy side of training and is overlooked by so many trainers.

I think that also has to do with the fact that many of us, whether we’re trainers or not trainers, aren’t really taught about functional strength.

But functional strength is the base that we must build to then be able to comfortably do our day to day life things and train with or without load.

 


 

Training for Functional Strength vs Aesthetics

So many folks I’ve trained over the years look at training with aesthetics in mind. And this is totally ok, I definitely did too when I began training.

The thing is, to get to whatever goals you want to achieve, you first need to be able to safely move your body in all the ways that it’s able to.

And this takes time. Building functional strength is not a quick thing. But I guarantee that if you train without developing functional strength you’re gonna end up injured. No question about it.

On top of this, when we don’t practice or stop practicing movements such as pushing, pulling, grasping, jumping or getting up and down off the ground we literally lose the abilities to do them.

To me that is a scary thing. And I totally get that this often happens when someone has a joint or multiple joints that hurt when you do those actions.

 


 

Experiencing joint pain while training functional strength?

All hope is not lost. Because it is possible to safely develop the muscles around your joints. This strength helps to stabilize said joints which then reduces the pain and discomfort that is associated with movement. Leading to more functional strength.

Developing that strength involves gradually introducing movement to all your joints, in all the directions you’re able to move them.

Because there is not one magical movement for a particular joint.

And this can be tricky because when it comes to training, we will often repeat a certain group of movements over and over again for long periods of time.

While this can develop endurance and overall strength as in maximal lift style strength, that does not equal functional strength.

Now, I mentioned a minute ago that functional strength is the strength we need to do all the life things we want to do and just be able to survive in general.

 


 

Getting started with functional strength training.

So let’s reflect on this.

Think about how you currently move in your daily life.

What things do you currently do?

  • Do you walk places?
  • Hope up and down off the ground?
  • Carry things around, like shopping bags?

 

Just your general life activities. Get a really clear idea of what you do. It might be quite a bit, or it might not be that much at all.

Whatever you come up with, it’s all good.

Now think about how you move that may not feel too great.

For instance:

  • Do your shoulders hurt when you lift your arms up?
  • Does squatting down feel stiff, tight or painful in your ankles, knees, hips or a combination of those joints?
  • Can you get up and down off the ground?

 

Getting a clear idea of how you can move is really important. I get that it is easy to just avoid those actions or even thinking about those actions but it is a great starting point.

Especially if you are looking to find ways to get more active.

 


 

How to train functional strength

Now, once you have taken the time to feel out how your body is moving, you can then gauge how you may or may not be able to get moving.

And it definitely doesn’t have to be fancy stuff when you do.

As I said, there is not a single magical movement that helps build functional strength. The more ways you can move your joints, the better they can begin to move and the stronger they become in all directions.

 

Start Gradually

I recommend beginning any new movements gradually, especially if you experience any type of discomfort in your joints.

Don’t expect to get to full range of movement immediately. You may even find that there are some movements you struggle to do at all. That is ok.

And because pushing a joint further than it’s capable is not going to help increase the movement, work with where you are at.

No matter who comes to me for training and including myself with my own training, I incorporate functional movements into every session. Beginning with the warm up.

 

The NGF Warm Up

To do this I have them practice joint circles.

These are a great way to start getting movement into all your joints, that is also low impact.

When I do these, I like to begin at the top of my body starting with my neck, and make my way down.

Head Tilts

So I tilt my head left and right, look up and down and left and right.

Shoulder Circles

Then keeping a straight arm, I circle them windmill style backwards and forwards. Being sure when I do these to control the whole movement. Momentum is not your friend here, you don’t just want to fling your arms around.

Elbow Circles

Next it’s elbow circles moving them in outwards circles, then inwards circles. Well, technically I’m circling with my forearms, but it’s the elbow joint that bends to make this happen.

Wrist Circles

After elbows comes wrist circles, same as elbows, they circle inwards and outwards. Wrists can be a bit clunky in their movements, so if you experience any clicks, clunks or pops take notice. If they aren’t causing any pain, it’s not too much to worry about.

If however you do experience pain, it may be worth seeing a physio or myo (which ever you feel most comfortable with) to make sure you don’t have an impingement or other issue going on.

Finger Spread

Once wrists are done, we move to our fingers. Our fingers have a lot of joints in them and they are almost always forgotten about when it comes to functional movements.

Even though humans lead almost every action with their hands.

To invite more movement into our fingers we open our hands, straightening and spreading our fingers as much as possible, then closing the fingers to the palms of the hand and wrapping the thumb around the outside.

Squeeze them closed moderately tight, then open them all the way, again straightening and spreading the fingers.

Hip Circles

When the hands are done, it’s time to move to the hips. Hip circles can feel a bit awkward, firstly because you will likely be doing a movement you’ve never done in your daily life.

And secondly because it does require you to poke your butt way out behind you when you do these.

I think that poking my butt way out will always feel a bit weird and that’s ok. It’s like eating veggies, you do it because it’s good for you.

With hip circles it can also be easy as you circle to bend a lot at the hips and circle your upper body about while the hips stay still. Be mindful of this. Your head shouldn’t move about too much at all.

Knee Circles

From the hips, we take things down to the knees. Now, knee circles are a very small movement. Our knees are not going to move out to the sides very much at all and I don’t recommend you try pushing their range in that way.

It will end in sadness.

Knee circles consist more of a little dip and straighten style movement. If you have knee issues I’d recommend you be very mindful here. Start slow and feel god about skipping them if you feel any niggles at all.

Ankle Circles

After knees comes ankle circles. They are done just like wrist circles, moving your joints inwards and outwards,  with the added perk of having to balance as you do them.

Though if this is a challenge for you, it’s definitely ok to use something close by that’s stable to help you balance.

Over time though, developing your balance on one foot, is also an excellent practice.

Squats or Get Back Ups

Following these joint circles, there are two more movements that are great to incorporate and they are squats (assisted with a chair if necessary) and get back ups, where you hop down on to the ground then get back up.

All of these movements combined are a most excellent way to begin to invite a lot of movement into all of your joints.

And none of it requires you to have any equipment at all.

From these basics, it’s possible to build up more and more movements that will help increase your functional strength and overall ease of movement in your everyday life.

But as I say, start small and give yourself time to develop your abilities. Especially if this is all new to you and you have joints that aren’t so great at moving.

 


 

Functional Strength Training with injuries

Now, if you’re someone who has had injuries, reconstructions or grew a unique body that has particular ways that it likes to move, that is totally ok. There are always workarounds when it comes to pretty much any movement.

Take the knee circles for example, as I shared a moment ago. They aren’t always so great for folks that have had reconstructions or have cartilage troubles.

But there are other ways that the knees can be moved for example if the knee circle isn’t right for you then knee raises can be a glorious alternative.

This movement requires you to stand in one spot and bend one knee to lift it as high as you feel comfortable to, then place it back down and repeat on the other side.

It’s like high knees marching on the spot. It’ll get a good bit of movement to you knee joint, plus like the ankle circles, it’ll have you balancing on one foot which is very good for us to be able to do.

If you can’t get up and down off the ground, that’s ok. There have been many folks that I’ve trained who have this challenge. So starting from a higher surface like a bed, couch or bench can help develop that push strength you need.

Also, something we’re never really taught is how to get up off the ground efficiently. It wasn’t until I began practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that I learned how to get up in the most stable position possible.

This is a life changing skill. As with the other movements.

Really what it all comes down to is moving the ways that you can. There is no right or wrong way to move when it comes to your body. If there’s movements you can’t do that’s ok. Focus on the movements you can do instead.

 


 

Closing Recap

We’ve touched on a lot today.

We’ve looked at:

  • what functional strength is. Being the ability to move your joints without stiffness, resistance or pain, to perform your everyday life activities.
  • the difference between functional strength and overall muscle strength.
  • ways that you could begin moving that can help bring back movement to all the joints in your body.

 

If you’re enjoying the show and know other folks that may find some benefit in having a listen, I’d be so grateful if you shared it with them or anywhere else where you think that it could help someone.

Until next week friends remember, how our bodies move is a very individual thing. Embrace that. Your body is unique and understanding that and working to the strengths you have makes all the difference. So however you choose to explore movement, make it as unconventional as you like but most importantly, make it fun.

Bowie Stover Thinking Pose

Bowie Stover

Pronouns: they/them

My passion to help others through developing an active and healthy lifestyle, along with my desire to contribute as much as I can back to our queer community, has led me to co-found Non Gendered Fitness. To be a small part of your day that makes a HUGE impact on your life would be one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences that I could hope to have.

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Non Binary Fitness Coach Bowie Stover kneeling with two kettlebells

Bowie Stover
(they/them)
Kettlebell and Movement Coach

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