Traditional vs. Functional Strength Training: What's the Difference?

Functional vs. Strength Training

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

Strength training is a tried and true recipe for building full-body muscle and power. But if you’re new to strength training, it can be confusing to distinguish between the different genres of exercises and various monikers, like weight training and resistance training. Perhaps you picture a bodybuilder lifting heavy dumbbells at the gym—an image often associated with traditional strength training. Or maybe you think of functional strength training, the brand of exercises that use body weight or small equipment to improve your ability to perform everyday movements like squatting or lifting. 

So which type of strength training is best for you—traditional or functional? We talked to trainers Sarah Ashenden and Lisa Hunter to learn the difference between the two, and why you might opt for one over the other. 

Meet the Expert

  • Sarah Ashenden is the senior fitness director at Fitness Formula Clubs in Chicago.
  • Lisa Hunter is a certified trainer who works with clients and teaches group fitness at gyms in Chicago.

What is Traditional Strength Training? 

Traditional strength training isolates muscles and works them to exhaustion using heavy weights or the machines you see at the gym. A typical training session might be three to five sets of eight to 12 repetitions per exercise, says Ashenden. These exercises usually target one muscle group at a time, and are often simple movements like curls, presses, or rows. “You want weight that’s heavy enough to challenge your muscles to make changes,” says Hunter. “That’s how you build strength.”

Traditional strength training is also used to bulk up your muscles, says Hunter. “For instance, with something like a hamstring curl, you’re working a contraction more than lengthening the muscle,” she says. “You’re shortening the muscle under a load of weight, which makes the muscle shorter and bigger.”

What is Functional Strength Training? 

As the name suggests, functional strength training improves your body’s ability to perform everyday functions, from hauling grocery bags into your kitchen to walking up and down the stairs. While all forms of strength training are technically functional in that they improve your health and ability to perform daily activities, this particular genre involves more dynamic, full-body movements than traditional strength training, like doing jump squats instead of using the leg press machine. Functional training works many muscles in a single exercise, which encourages endurance, core stability, and balance in addition to making you stronger.

Functional strength training equipment is likewise more extensive. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, sandbags, medicine balls, bodyweight, or a combination of each in a functional workout. Some simple exercises are side lunges, planks, and push-ups, all of which incorporate multiple muscle groups to develop total-body power. You can also add weights or combine some of these foundational moves into more complex exercises like burpees, renegade rows, or lunges with a rotation.

The Benefits

  • Builds strength and muscle: Both types of strength training create tiny tears in your muscle tissue, which heal bigger and stronger to increase strength and muscle definition. Traditional strength training in particular can build up your muscle mass, says Hunter. 
  • Strengthens bones: Traditional and functional training can increase your bone density, says Ashenden, which supports skeletal health and strength.
  • Burns calories and fat: Strength training of all stripes not only burns calories during the workout, but can also increase your metabolic rate so that you burn calories and fat more efficiently throughout the day as well. 
  • Boosts mood: Exercise of any kind can benefit your mental health, and strength training is no exception. It can improve your mood and contribute to other habits that support mental wellbeing, like getting good sleep, according to Ashenden.
  • Improves endurance: Functional training in particular can promote endurance and cardiovascular health, says Ashenden, by getting your heart pumping and circulating plenty of oxygen throughout your body.
  • Helps you be functional: Functional strength training helps you, well, be functional. Working your muscles, endurance, and multi-directional movement conditions your body to do daily activities more easily and comfortably. Traditional strength training helps with this too, although the exercises less closely mimic the movements of everyday life compared to functional training drills. 

How They Differ 

Both types of strength training can help you build strength and muscle while boosting your mood and fat-burning capacity. In practice, though, there are a few key differences between the two. Traditional strength training usually involves short sets of targeted, precise motions. Functional training incorporates multiple muscle groups in one exercise, and can be done in sets or as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), circuit training, working every minute on the minute, or a combination of all of those, says Ashenden. 

Traditional strength training is great for beginners, she notes, because there’s less chance of injury since you don’t have to worry about stabilizing multiple joints at once. Popular exercises like bicep curls or shoulder presses are precise, isolated motions, which keeps things simple if you’re new to the game. Traditional strength training is also a recipe for muscle growth, which is why many people use it to bulk up. However, Ashenden notes, you’ll likely need access to a gym to get your hands on the right equipment. 

Functional training is more accessible, requiring either no equipment at all or simple at-home tools like kettlebells or resistance bands. Instead of zeroing in on one muscle group, it improves your ability to perform a range of dynamic movements that can help your everyday activity. “Functional strength training challenges other parts of your body,” says Ashenden. “It utilizes more muscles since you’re most likely standing, kneeling, balancing on one foot, and more, as opposed to being in a seated position like you would on a machine.”

Which is More Effective?

The type of strength training that’s most effective for you depends on your goals, says Hunter. If you’re aiming to build some serious muscle in a particular area, opt for traditional strength training. If you would prefer to develop endurance, stability, and power, then functional strength training might be up your alley. And because functional training can take the form of HIIT, it’s possible to structure your workouts so that you get stronger in less time, says Ashenden. Either way, you’ll be building strength and full-body health, and Hunter recommends a combination of both to reap the most benefits.

How to Differentiate Between the Two

A good rule of thumb is that if your workout is built of simple but challenging movements using seated machines, benches, cable pulleys, or heavy weights, it’s probably traditional strength training. Anything more complicated is probably functional strength training. 

Ashenden also recommends keeping an eye on your heart rate during your workout. “If you see it getting in the higher ranges, like 70% to 80% of your max, your workout would probably be considered a functional strength workout as you are burning more calories with a higher heart rate,” she says. “If you feel like your heart rate is staying in the lower ranges and you are comfortably able to carry on a conversation throughout your entire workout, that could be considered more traditional strength training.”

The Takeaway

Both traditional and functional strength training build full-body strength, grow muscle, and bestow all the usual benefits of exercise like improving your mood, increasing your metabolism and ability to burn fat, and supporting bone health. Traditional strength training typically uses repetitions with machines or heavy weights to build strength and bulk in a specific muscle at a time, like doing hamstring curls or deadlifts. Functional training challenges multiple muscle groups and endurance all at once with more dynamic movements that require little to no equipment, like kettlebell swings or bodyweight jump squats. A combination of both will encourage healthy strength of all kinds, says Ashenden, though check in with your doctor before getting started on a routine that’s new to you.

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