How To Increase Functional Strength

How To Increase Functional Strength

We all want to lift heavier and look better - especially if that means developing muscles. Yet, sometimes building muscle is a huge challenge. With conflicting information online, it can be even more difficult to find what will work best for you to achieve your ultimate strength and body composition goals.

It's important to understand that there are many methods that will work better for some - training is highly specific. Although a particular program can be built properly, your body may not adapt to it as well as your friends will have.                  

In recent years, the term functional strength has risen to popularity - but what does it mean? Is strength defined as being able to do 100 pushups or bench press 500 pounds?

The simple answer - both define strength.

Before we can get into how to determine strength, let’s take a look to see what strength is and how you can best influence strength in your workout program.

Defining Strength

Man doing callisthenics workout, sit lifting on parallel bars

Relative Strength

This is a term used to define the maximum capacity for you to lift your own bodyweight - in other words, it is completely relative to you. Relative strength is usually related to calisthenic/body weight based movements.

In this same way, you can use your relative strength as a guideline to measure your overall progress. For example; if you started off doing 10 pushups, and you can now do 20 - that is clear strength progressions.

Absolute Strength

The bread and butter of strength training. Although many people don't know it, strength training is all about increasing your absolute strength.

Absolute strength is defined as the maximum amount of weight you can lift regardless of your personal bodyweight.

For example: If you are 200 lbs and your friend is 180 lbs, but both of you can Squat 300 lbs - your absolute strength would be the same.

Functional Strength

There is strong, and then there’s functionally strong. What do we mean by that?

In its simplest terms, functional strength is strength that helps with your daily activities. When you train to build muscles, you focus on the numbers, the weights, and on the incremental increases to your performance in the gym.

A focus on functional strength is training your body to perform better in your everyday life. You train with activities that translate to movements and long-term health benefits.

How To Increase Functional Strength

Woman doing high intensity workout with two ropes


Squats, deadlifts, rows, pushups - these are all simple exercises that when done correctly can help to build your body, and, more importantly, increase your functional strength.

Although the exercises are simple, increasing your functional strength is one of the most complex goals you could have in the world of bodybuilding.

Achieving this goal requires a simple understanding of a system called the kinetic chain.

What is The Kinetic Chain?

graphic of full body muscle anatomy

Think of a literal chain, strung together by a series of links. If one link in the chain is broken in any way, this comprises the entire chain, weakens it and makes it more prone to breaking.

In this same way, your body can be understood as a kinetic chain. The muscles, ligaments and bones work together just as links in the chain of movement.

From head to toe, every muscle is connected and works together.

Although isolating a muscle system may be beneficial for growth - moving to an integrated movement will help to strengthen your kinetic chain.

Isolation Vs. Integration In Training

When it comes to fitness, there always needs to be a happy balance between isolation and integration.

The kinetic chain is best described in two ways - a push and a pull. If you’ve talked to popular CrossFit coaches you may have heard of what's called the push/pull scheme.

Viewing the body from the perspective of types of movement, everything can be split into either a push or a pull.

For example: push movements are anything where you are pushing your body away from gravity - squats, lunges, push-ups etc. In contrast, pulling movements are those that require you to pull your body - deadlift, pull up, etc.

What are we getting at here?

Achieving functional strength requires you to do much more than just lift heavy. To increase your functional strength you need to have a high variability of movement from both pushing and pulling exercises that are integrated rather than isolated.

What Are The Best Methods to Increase Strength

Growing stronger and building muscle through functional strength is all about having as much variability as possible, while still having a structured workout program.

Here are some of the best styles of workouts you can use to increase your functional strength.

HIIT Workouts

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood training styles. Many people view HIIT training as just a  random collection of several exercises in a row yet, HIIT training, when done properly can have massive benefits for strength.

After all, HIIT training carries its roots from Tabata workouts - which were built to train elite level speed skaters.

HIIT training can be done in order to address both push and pull movements in the same workout - integrating both heavyweights and relative strength techniques.

When performed properly, HIIT training can really be one of the best assets to any functional workout routine.


One of the most avoided workout styles by modern lifters, callisthenics was the bread and butter of the golden era of bodybuilding. The likes of Frank Zane and Frank Columbo have been long-term advocates of bodyweight style exercises.

Most people see callisthenics as just pushups and pull-ups, but in reality, you can train your entire body - especially your legs, without any weight at all.

Callisthenics is all about movement complexity. Yes, pushups and pull-ups are the starts of your strength - and they should serve as your foundation, but in order to grow stronger, without increasing the weight you must add variability into your workout routine.

High Weight - Low Reps

The most common way to train for strength is to train with heavy weights at lower reps - and it works.

High weight - low rep has been a method for increasing absolute strength for as long as bodybuilding has been around.

The only main difference when training for functional strength is to ensure your movements are always ones that are practical to your goals and your functional perspective.

Functional strength is not about how you look.

Using shoulder strength as an example - in most cases there is no need to load up really heavy on shoulder raises - rather the idea should be to increase weight on your overhead press or lumberjack press (functional movements).

Whatever your goals, if you have an idea of increasing your strength from a functional perspective there is no one-stop shortcut to success. You must integrate all aspects of fitness into your regimen with the end goal of improving your body through functional movements that are specific to your goal.  

Programming for Success - Functional Training Workout Scheme

Understanding that training for functional strength is not easy is the first step to growing stronger. Training to improve your functional strength is much more complicated than simply saying you want a bigger chest.

In order to grow stronger and lift heavier, you must program for success.

Here are some ways you can integrate HIIT training into your workout routine in order to grow stronger in functional strength.

Prisoner Squat
Forward Lunge
Push Up
Prone Extension
Standing KickBacks
10s each leg
High Knee
Front Plank
*RBE: Rest time in seconds, between exercises
**RBC: Rest time in seconds, between full circuits


This is a basic example of a HIIT workout routine that combines all the elements of functional strength into one training program.

How to Make It Easier

Making this workout easier can be done by decreasing the amount of time you spend during your working set or increasing the amount of the rest time.

How To Grow Stronger With This Workout

Increasing your functional strength through HIIT training can be done in two ways: decreasing the rest time or making the exercises more difficult.

There is no need to train for longer - HIIT training should always be done with a quality over quantity focus.

Making the exercises more difficult comes down to being a little creative. Instead of doing standard pushups you can make it more difficult by doing diamond or archer push-ups.

Functional Strength Is Defined By You

One of the most important ideas you need to understand before you get into functional strength - it’s defined by you. If you have goals of increasing your bench, then your idea of functional strength will be through dips, pushups and presses.

With that said you cannot be strictly one-directional. Do not forget about the kinetic chain. In order to have the maximum strength, you should train the entire push/pull system.

Take advantage of fun and interactive HIIT workouts in order to add variability to your training program. Keep the volume low and always emphasize quality over quantity

Functional strength is not about the amount of weight you lift. Functional strength is about lifting a weight through basic movements in the most efficient way possible.

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