There’s no doubt that strength forms the foundation of every human movement. This is why it’s important to train for strength. Over the years, there’ve been two approaches to strength training — functional strength training and traditional strength training.
These strength training approaches make the improvement of muscular force production their ultimate goal. While both have had their fair share of fanfare —which is still up in the air for some athletes — the lines get even blurrier as traditional claims to be functional and vice-versa.
There’s some truth to that. Nonetheless, traditional strength training and its functional counterpart have their differences — three, to be exact.
Want to learn more? Sit back and read on to learn what differentiates traditional and functional strength training!
What Is Traditional Strength Training?
It’s hard to say when strength training became an official training modality. One thing is for sure — its earliest iterations emerged as early as ancient Greece.
Statues depicted feats of strength, indicating that the ancient Greeks weren’t oblivious to the idea of lifting heavy things to get stronger. They’ve even got the legend of Milo of Croton to fall back on — a tale used today to explain the concept of linear periodization.
A few centuries later, the first gyms opened, and “traditional” strength training was born.
Traditional strength training grew to have the following characteristics.
First, it emphasized hypertrophy — or muscle growth — as an instrumental component to the development of strength. With the equipment present in gyms during the early 20th century, trainees achieved their strength goals under the iron. This meant heavy usage of barbells and dumbbells.
These pieces of equipment also influenced exercise selection. Calisthenics aside, trainees trained based on muscle groups. Today, this style of training has earned the name “bro-split” where trainees have days for specific muscle groups.
In short, traditional strength training makes use of barbells and dumbbells. For this reason, traditional strength trainees can expect a lot of exercises that target muscle groups with strength as the ultimate pursuit.
What Is Functional Strength Training?
“Functional” became a buzzword in the early 2000s, concurrent with the rising popularity of CrossFit. Functional training has come to mean any modality geared towards improving movements for daily life.
Under this definition, functional strength training is a way to train strength beyond the development of muscle groups. Rather, it means improving force production in a variety of movements. Of course, this also means training with a wider range of tools.
Strength trainees who train “functionally” will still incorporate barbells and dumbbells in their workouts. However, they’ll also be using other tools like kettlebells.
Even maces and sledgehammers have their place — though these are on the conditioning side of things. Calisthenics also has a larger part in a functional strength training program since moving one’s body is a metric for strength within the functional training model.
To keep things short, think of functional strength training as training to be stronger in different movements, using different tools, and through more exercises.
The 3 Key Differences
Both training styles will lead to strength. Nonetheless, anyone who’s on the fence about strength training has to be aware of the difference. Why? This is because it can mean the difference between being able to fill out a shirt better or moving a couch.
Aesthetics vs. Function
For the untrained individual, both strength training modalities will lead to improvements in aesthetics and function. Past the novice phase, trainees need to prioritize one over the other and select a training approach that’s resourceful to the selected goal.
When it comes to developing bigger muscles, traditional strength training is a superior approach given its heavy emphasis on hypertrophy. Traditional strength training involves movements and exercises that overload muscle groups. The overload — whether it’s increased weight or training volume — delivers the necessary stimulus for muscles to grow and get stronger.
On the other hand, functional strength training has the development of movement patterns as the main focus of training. This training modality has many of the core lifts in a traditional strength program. However, functional strength training also includes exercises from other sports like weightlifting and strongman.
The variety in tools and exercises in functional training allows trainees to improve their force production in activities outside the gym. Will this sort of training lead to hypertrophy? The answer is “yes,” but more muscular gains usually occur in a traditional strength protocol.
Planes of Motion
As mentioned earlier, functional training aims to develop a person’s movement patterns. These movement patterns aren’t for the gym but for daily life. For this reason, functional strength training has athletes or trainees lifting implements in many directions.
Within functional strength training, trainees don’t just pick objects up and put them down. Instead, they swing objects left to right. At times, there are rotations like 360s with a mace or club. Sledgehammer strikes on a tire are also a functional strength training staple.
Traditional strength training is narrower in the planes of motion of its exercises. Nearly all exercises — except machine-based ones — are along the coronal (front-back) and transverse (up-down) planes.
Variety in Equipment
If one were to look at two different types of strength facilities — functional and traditional — there’ll be a clear difference in variety. Functional strength training gyms are likely to have more pieces of equipment due to the variety of prescribed exercises. Of course, barbells and dumbbells will always be in both gyms.
Within the confines of such a facility are pieces of equipment like kettlebells, sledgehammers, maces, and clubs. If a functional strength facility caters more to a “strongman” crowd, it will also have odd implements like kegs and stones. As for machines, don’t expect any — except for the odd reverse hyper in some facilities.
Traditional strength training facilities will have barbells, dumbbells, and machines for isolating muscle groups. In some instances, traditional strength training gyms will also have platforms just in case someone feels like snatching and cleaning.
Get Stronger the Way You Want To
At the end of the day, the best path toward building a body that performs as well as it looks is one that’s sustainable and fun. Whether it’s adding a few inches to your biceps and triceps or a few meters to your farmer’s walk, choose your own path to strength and wellness.
Try a free week and let the gains begin!