Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Meaning of Functional Strength

If you are a lifter and have been on the intarwebs for 15 minutes you might have come across the term "functional strength".  Now I could have named my blog something "hardcore" like "Raging Iron!" or "Death Before Weakness" or "Anarchy and Torture!" or some stupid ass shit like that.  But I didn't because I wanted to redefine something.  I wanted to redefine that stupid ass term "functional strength".

The Death Skull was in the running for blog names but it lost out...

For me, the term is rooted back more than a decade ago when Dino training was a pretty big rage and dudes were doing a lot of sandbag work and odd lifting similar to strongman work in conjunction to their weight training.

At first, Dino training didn't seem like a bad idea.  Sandbag work still a valuable tool and obviously strongman event type training fits any definition of awesome.

However like most decent ideas in regards to fitness or lifting, shit eventually took a wrong turn.

Soon a lot of guys were just doing odd object lifting that had no real measurable merit.  I even made a post once about this a long time ago, where I talked about guys doing lawn mower throwing and picking up toilets.  These guys then made the claim that their strength was more "functional" than barbell strength and dumbell strength.  Which of course, is horse shit.

This was proven quite easily as a friend of mine who had been doing sandbag work invited me over one day to do it with him.  He had been doing sandbag carries and sandbag work for months and was very much looking forward to schooling me in it.  I had done ZERO.

So we pulled his two heavy sandbags into his apartment parking lot and he grabbed one in each hand and took off up and down the parking lot.  I admit, I had nothing to draw from on what was good or bad here so I was impressed with his performance.  I am big on specificity reigning king, so I thought he had me.

When it was my turn I picked up the sandbags and they were decently heavy.  I took off down the parking lot.  Down and back, down and back, down and back, down and back.  I just kept going and going, easily surpassing his number of trips and never really tiring.  Eventually I just set them down out of boredom.

After we were done we sat on the curb and my friend revealed to me that he thought because he had been training for these sandbags for months, that he would easily best me.  I admitted I thought so too.  However his barbell and dumbbell strength were far below what mine were, and I was still doing sprints and such a few times a week, so my conditioning wasn't bad either.  My barbell and dumbbell strength along with my conditioning easily carried me past him, even though I was not accustomed to said event.  I didn't need to do lawn mower throws and pick up toilets or sand bags in order to be able to apply my strength to the situation.  My strength and conditioning enabled me to do so.

Fatigue will make cowards of us all

About a year ago Jim Wendler and I kicked off this e-mail discussion that ended up lasting for about 700 replies between the two of us.  The theme of the training talk centered around getting as strong as possible while being in as good a shape as possible, conditioning wise, and the ebb and flow of how that could happen and the balance of it all.  Of course, between training talk was talk of music, women, and shit Jim sent me that is indescribable and not work safe.

Wendler is not work safe

Jim has talked openly about his transformation from gear whore to where he is now, and the fact that he realized that he squatted a grand and that all it was good for, was walking up to the platform and squatting it.  He was fat, out of shape, and felt like shit.  His 1000 pound squat was not functional in any other aspect of his life.

Now other fat powerlifters will say it was, because it served the purpose of squatting a grand.  Which is what he wanted to do.  In that regard, yes, it was functional.  To the rest of his life?  No.  To a REAL sport?  No.  It was useless except for geared powerlifting.  As far as he and I were concerned, it wasn't functional at all.

A few years before Jim and I had this conversation I was out of shape as well.  For the first time my wife had asked me to gain sympathy weight with our third child, and boy did I.  I quit all conditioning work I was doing, started eating chocolate chip cookies like Armageddon was around the corner, and soon I was hovering around 280.  I was out of shape, and not very strong.  The heavier I got, the worse I felt.  The worse I felt, the less I wanted to do.  In other words, I got lazy (imagine that!  a fat lazy person!).

I hated it.  I hated feeling like shit.  So after the baby was born, I cleaned up the diet again, started walking, and after I felt good enough started sprinting again.

Eventually I dropped back down to 230 and felt really good again.  I got back into martial arts and realized, just as Jim did, that having strength that was only good on a platform didn't mean a whole lot to me since well, that wasn't that big of a part of my life.  And being out of shape and feeling like shit wasn't worth any total to me.

So the phrase "fatigue will make cowards out of us all" rang loudly in my ears.  This applies across everything from athletic events to defending yourself or your loved ones.  It won't matter if you can bench press 600 pounds to the 175 pound guy that will whip your ass into oblivion because you're gassed after throwing 3 punches that he easily dodged.  Your 700 squat won't matter to that running back that still feels fresh in the 4th quarter when your fat ass is gassed and can barely get off the field.

Your strength is not applicable when you are a sad sack of shit conditioning wise, if you ever need it for more than a second or two.  The 500 pound highly conditioning squatter is stronger than the 700 pound fatigued squatter in a head to head athletic competition.

Strength, without the ability of application of said strength, is about as useful as tits on a boar.  Again, my definition of application means more than picking something up one time or waddling up to the squat rack.  If you run 2 hills and throw the fuck up, who cares what you squat?  You don't squat that shit while you're blowing chunks do you?

With that said, you don't have to be a marathon runner.  Strength is still 1a and conditioning 1b.  If you take a highly conditioned weak guy, and make him stronger he will get faster.  This has been proven countless times.  It's a true reversal of the other problem.  A guy that is muscularly weak, relatively speaking, demands more from the aerobic capacity of his body.  When he gets stronger, moving his mass through space becomes easier, thus he/she gets faster and the demands on the aerobic system are lessened as well.

Your strength and conditioning methods should work hand in hand, as a complimentary mechanism to each other.  There is always going to be a pendulum swing in one way or the other, depending on your goals.  You can't be in peak condition and also be at your strongest that you are capable of, and vice versa.  So you have to decide where the happy medium is, if having the best of both worlds is your goal.  This will vary from individual to individual.

What Constitutes Strong

When Jim and I came up with the standards for "What Constitutes Strong" I wasn't surprised to see that the butthurt about those standards was even stronger.

Those standards were put in place because of the regarding bit above.  We talked about being able to squat 500 for 20 and pull 500 for 20 while also being able to chin with 100 extra pounds for reps, because all of those things require you to be in shape.  So of course the fat guys complained about the high reps and the chins and the skinny weak guys brought up strength to bodyweight ratio.

We didn't give two shits about either.

It was our standards and we liked em for what they represented.  Can you imagine what the guy that could squat 500 for 20 and deadlift the same, that could also chin with 100, dip with 200, and clean and press 315 would look like?

He'd be lean and massive as hell.  And his conditioning would be top notch.  So the numbers were picked were not arbitrary.  They were by design.  They served a purpose.  They were functional because of the conditioning aspect that would be taken into account into reaching them.

Functionally Strong

So when I say functional strength, I don't really care about standing in one spot and moving something heavy.  This is great, and I am not downplaying it as a FEAT of strength.  But I am more impressed with a Vernon Davis or a Georges St. Pierre.  Guys who are strong, but apply that strength to a skill that also requires a great degree of conditioning.

This is what being functionally strong is to me.  No lawn mowers or toilets required.



  1. Amazing.

    This legitimately just kicked me in the ass, as i have been shirking my conditioning duties as of late, until yesterday when a hill i could run 10 times, killed me in only 6(granted there was a fresh set of snow)

    for a while, i came to love prowler pushing as much as i did lifting, and need to get back there. It's a sunnier side of the world, haha. Though the darker side does have an abundance of cookies.

    Great write, great read. Shit like this is why i check this blog every morning when i wake up. Thanks Paul

  2. Trust me Pat, no one needs a kick in the nuts as often as I do.

  3. Great Post Paul,

    I needed this. Walking my dog twice a week and adding a day every other week has helped me get in shape, made the wife happy and made the dogs happy. For those of us in the midwest who deal with snow in the winter, walking for about 30-45 minutes is almost the perfect conditioning. Hill sprints are next!

  4. Another good one that hit the nail on the head. However, I wonder how many will read, chew, and digest what you are trying to say.

    I have wrecked my body at the ripe age of 33 because I chose to get stronger and stronger, and functional was waddling out to the platform to do 1 rep. 5 reps in the squat gassed me and a set of 10??? Forget it. Competitive geared powerlifting lead me to high blood pressure, stole my athleticism, and left me with bad knees, a bum hip, giant bone spurs in my shouldes, and the flexibility of a 255 pound rhino.

    I would rather squat 500 and pull 600 at 200 raw and be able to go 10 3-minute rounds on the heavy bag or roll for an hour straight then ever be back to squatting in the 800s or pulling in the 700s.

    Am I weaker?? I guess so...but thanks to adding "functional" training in and getting involved head first in jiu jitsu, I feel like an athlete again. I can move, jump, run, fight and I remember what it felt like when I was 16.

    It is all relative...but I dig being healthy. I dig being able to play a game of football in the yard with my kids and gas them out first! In another 15 years I will have 2-15 year old boys...scary. I will be 48...I need to be healthy and ready to go! If I can still deadlift 475 x10 and squat 405 x10, plus do hill sprints, intervals on the treadmill, and crazy circuits in the weight room at 48...I am golden.


  5. im the dude who was hoping you would write something about functional strength a while back. This is an awesome post. Once i get healthy enough' im going back to my track days. Im too young to be injured. Nothing worse than being a lean decently strong guy with crappy conditioning.

  6. some real funny - and real life - truths written there Paul! Good stuff.

  7. Excellent, Paul. I'm not a powerlifter or anything remotely so. But I totally agree with your argument about functional strength (vs lawn mower throwing, for example, lol).


  8. just reading through this again paul and it sprung to mind that some of the stuff you mention, like being strong whilst in a state of (at least partial) fatigue, is sort of what led to the "crossfit" fad. what are your own thoughts on "crossfit" type routines?

  9. Geoff - I think CrossFit is a good avenue for people who are just looking for overall fitness. However because the workouts lack specificity I don't think it's something I would enjoy.

    My overall theme is lift-run-bang. With bang being the wildcard. Bang can mean fighting, football, rugby, or just kicking ass in whatever way you need to. But it's lifting at a high level of strength as well. I don't think I'm ever going to see a crossfit guy hitting 500x20 in the squat or 315x20 in the bench.

  10. haha yeah lift-run-bang is a good theme, just like wendler's "train to be a motherf*cka", and one that i subscribe to - although i have to admit to having fallen foul of distractions over the years!

    what i was getting at with the reference to crossfit type stuff is the idea of training cardio and strength together - a "metabolic" workout, or even similar to some of the stuff Leistner advocated - rather than seperately. it's ok doing sprints then recovering, or lifting heavy then having a rest, but how strong are you after a sprint? that type of stuff.

  11. WEll yeah. It's hard to apply your strength to anything if you're a fat tub of shit.

    I think a lot of guys end up that way because pushing the calories and size is a quick way to gain strength but there is a point of diminishing returns (where you gain 30 extra pounds of fat that only translates to 10 pounds on your bench, etc) and the fact is, as I have noted, what's it good for? If all you can do is lay down on a bench and bench 600 but can't apply that strength to anything sports or athletic related, it's worthless to me.

    But that's my own personal philosophy.

  12. This was a great article, but the background legitimately hurt my eyes. I couldn't figure it out but for like 5 minutes after reading this my world was blurry and horizontal lines ran accross everything..

  13. I disagree on the lawn mower and toilet throwing not having merit. It may be odd but think of it as what some people do for everyday living or when my kid try's to flush mom's pumis stone down the toilet so then yes I have to park the HEAVY Toilet out on the lawn to fish the pumis stone out. Or another example would be my un-even lawn is a beast to mow so yeah I have to throw it around a lil bit to make my crappy lawn look good. Even though I don't drink beer I helped my co-worker/owner's son today throw around some heavy Keg's of beer at work so a customer could get his beverage of choice. Weather its weight lifting, cleaning dead bodies out of a sewer or throwing toilets it all has merit and is admerible in any walk of life.

    P.S. I just threw in the cleaning dead body's out of sewer to kinda try to stick to you'r theme here so hoped u liked it lol.