Functional vs traditional strength training: which is for you?
Strength is in style. With health benefits that extend far beyond muscles – delivering strong bones, healthy joints, a firing metabolism and a boost in brain power – strength training has surged in popularity in the last few years.
But there’s more than one way to get strong. While some are reaching for the barbells to focus on form, others are mixing it up to maximize function.
In the battle of functional strength training vs traditional strength training, which style is right for you? And are there really any meaningful differences between them?
Let’s explore the differences between functional and traditional strength training so you can get busy building your strongest self.
What is traditional strength training?
If you’re picturing someone deadlifting a loaded barbell or curling a dumbbell, you’re on the money. Traditional strength training is a muscle-building or bodybuilding training style that involves lifting or pushing against heavy resistance with the primary goal of increasing strength or muscle mass.
It can be done using free weights, machines, bands or bodyweight – anything that puts the muscles under tension. And while you can definitely work up a sweat, traditional strength is usually performed at a slower, controlled pace.
This is the type of strength training you’ll do in Centr Power, the definitive muscle-building program designed by Chris Hemsworth and his personal trainer Luke Zocchi.
Bobby keeps it traditional with a barbell hip thrust in Centr Power.
What is functional strength training?
Okay, you’ve got us. Technically, all strength training is functional because being strong supports everyday movement. But in traditional strength training, moving better in daily life isn't the focus of the training.
Functional strength training is mostly made up of compound exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups, with the intention of strengthening movement patterns you perform every day – such as walking, pushing, pulling and jumping.
It can be done using bodyweight or free weights, but rarely uses machines as traditional strength training does. This is because functional training is designed to replicate and strengthen natural movement patterns.
Due to the faster pace and full-body recruitment, functional strength training sometimes incorporates cardio exercise.
This is the type of strength training you will find in Centr’s Functional Movement Challenge.
Functional strength training employs resistance exercises done at a faster pace, and with more dynamic movement.
The key differences between functional and traditional strength training
These training styles share similarities and often overlap, but they differ in some key ways.
Whole body movement vs isolated exercises
While most traditional strength training programs use compound exercises, the focus is often on isolation exercises that target one specific muscle – a bicep curl, for example. This is because aesthetic muscle development (like having big biceps) is a more common goal in traditional strength training.
Functional strength training focuses on compound exercises – recruiting multiple muscle groups in tandem – and isolation exercises are uncommon.
Of course, there is some overlap between the two. Many of the moves you will find in a traditional strength training routine are functional movements, for example, lunges and push-ups.
But if you wanted to sum up the difference to your buddy in the gym, you might say it’s “bigger biceps” vs “increased strength to more easily lift objects”.
Cardio, or cardiovascular training, is anything that raises your heart rate. And while traditional strength training does have cardiovascular benefits, it typically won’t raise your heart rate to a great degree. To achieve benefits for your heart and lung health, you’d need to supplement your strength training with additional cardio.
Functional strength training often organically incorporates cardio through full-body flows – linking movements together into longer sequences that will challenge and build cardio endurance.
During exercise, your muscles endure microscopic damage. When you rest up, your body starts to repair the damaged tissue by fusing the damaged muscle fibers together. The result? Stronger, thicker and more plentiful muscle fibers – AKA hypertrophy (a fancy word for muscle growth).
The most common way to achieve muscle hypertrophy is via traditional strength training, as it allows for the isolation and focused fatiguing of individual muscles and muscle groups. And given weightlifting exercises don’t involve a lot of excess movement (you’re usually raising and lowering the weights through one plane of motion), there is more opportunity to lift heavy and further encourage hypertrophy.
While you can increase muscle through functional strength training, the focus is less on maximizing hypertrophy. This style of exercise places more emphasis on developing dynamic strength with obvious benefits on your daily life and essential movement patterns.
Repetition vs variety
No matter where you’re at in your muscle-building journey, traditional strength training relies on repetition – performing the same exercises for several weeks (minimum) in order to increase strength and build more muscle. That’s why our muscle-building program Centr Power is split into 3-week phases: maximizing gains from one set of exercises, then changing it up in the next.
In functional strength training, variety is key – challenging the body to move in new ways (or undo bad movement habits) and develop dynamic strength. In the Functional Movement Challenge, you'll incorporate new exercises weekly.
Mobility and flexibility
One of the core goals of functional movement is improving mobility and flexibility. It’s built into the training, helping you to move better in everything you do.
In traditional strength training, mobility isn’t usually a part of the routine – the focus is on loading the muscles. So you need to supplement your strength training with mobility work.
Traditional strength training may be for you if…
- You have pure strength goals. For example, you may want to be able to squat your own body weight or hit a deadlift personal best.
- You want to get as big as possible, as fast as possible. While both approaches can build muscle, a program like Centr Power is specifically designed to maximize hypertrophy.
Functional strength training might be for you if…
- You want to develop strength and cardio fitness within one style of workout.
- It’s your goal to increase mobility, flexibility or balance.
- You need to improve particular movement skills for your physical job or sporting pursuits.
- Your main goal is to feel and move better in everyday activities.
Try a free workout from the Functional Movement Challenge to experience new ways to move.
Or you could get the best of both worlds…
There’s no reason you can’t include both traditional and functional strength training in your routine.
Even when Chris is training for a film role, he knows it’s not enough just to be big, he needs to stay mobile as well – to move well through action scenes and be able to surf or play with his kids on his days off. That’s why our traditional muscle-building program, Centr Power, includes optional functional training days.
So if, like Chris, your priority is hypertrophy but you also want to maintain the ability to move comfortably, you might lift weights 3-4 days a week, then add 1-2 functional training days for mobility and cardio. And don’t forget, a lot of traditional strength training moves are functional, so you’re already getting a little crossover.
Or you might want to make functional movement your main focus, then add heavy lifting sessions 1-2 days a week to fast-track your strength gains.
Ultimately, both styles of strength training have big benefits for your body, your brain and your ability to age well.
Want to learn more about the science of strength and fitness?
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