Getting Outside the Box: The Definition of Functional Strength
How is strength defined and who defines it?
Kinesiologists study muscles and have various ways to gauge muscle contraction, length, tension, and force. Therefore, kinesiologists typically measure strength by these primary factors and neglect individual variations of strength as a subjective concept. Whether one can lift X number of pounds overhead is meaningless in the overall definition of functional strength. Functional strength is the strength that gets us through life and daily survival.
Lifting a heavy load overhead is a fantastic measure for Hercules or the competitive weightlifter but the history of manual labor has consisted of something very different. Manual labor typically involved walking, running, pushing, pulling, and grasping. Take a minute to think back to your history books and those photos of the grueling pushing and pulling of primitive mechanical devices and the relentless building of the pyramids, to name just a couple.
What is wrong with “strength” as defined by Olympic weightlifting?
Absolutely nothing. I love it. I train with it, I teach it, and I encourage it. There is no better feeling than watching my athletes hit personal records of lifting heavy loads. Weight lifting (Olympic or not) has military value and athletic value. It increases stamina and power output. The technical skill that goes with the training behind it (Olympic lifting in particular) is second to none. For the sake of this article, however, I am not referring to this definition of strength, but rather I am talking about daily functional strength and the movement involved with everyday people living their natural lives. So what is this definition of strength? It is not very exciting unfortunately, but equally as important as load-lifting strength.
What is functional strength?
Functional strength is the ability to run your load-joints (shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles) through a full range of motion without pain, stiffness, or restriction. This is also known as load-joint articulation.
What is the goal of functional strength?
Load-joints must be able to open and close in a full range of pain-free motion. How does this work in a couch-potato environment where we are no longer pushing primitive machines around? It comes through movement. In today’s undemanding environment, we get stuck in a “box” of doing the same motions over and over again. We are no longer spontaneously stimulated by our environment, as we once were. More and more people are replacing the days’ motions with “work” (computers and typing, talking on the phone, and driving) or “recreation” (watching TV or playing video games), so we need to find ways to alter our environment in order to keep our load-bearing structure active and healthy.
How do we create movement in a “box?”
Unleash your restrictive movement. Put your body through a range of motion that requires an opening and closing of joints into all the planes of motion. Get outside of the gym, get inside the gym, get on the track, and get out on the trail. Do things that you once did as a kid. Play on a playground with the rings and the monkey bars. Practice handstands, somersaults, bear crawls, frog jumps, and lateral hops. Grab an agility ladder and play hopscotch with it. Stimulate your mind and your body’s response to it. Sit less and refuse to be bound by a box, restricted territory, or a terrain.
Is “stronger” better?
Let me give you an example of a great test. Let’s consider the bulky, muscularly defined “strong” man and the functional “weak” woman. If we were to put them both on a climbing stair test (a specialized, limited, and repetitive process) with ascents and descents, the weaker female would far surpass the strong man. Why is this? It all boils down to their varying degrees of musculoskeletal system function. Is there anything wrong with being strong and muscular in the sense of this man? Absolutely not, but at the same time he is limited in his ability to respond to spontaneous environments. The female in this example however, has a more varied (and pain-free) degree of function. She is agile and unrestricted to a box.
How do we get out of the box?
It is a rare thing to see an athlete of one sport move flawlessly to another (Michael Jordan for example as he attempted to move from basketball into baseball). It is even difficult for an athlete to change positions within the same sport (like moving from pitcher to first base for example). Why? Repetition of the same limited sequence of motion over and over again. Do not let yourself be confined to a box of limitations. Play multiple sports and do not get stuck just playing first base.
Degree of function varies between each individual. This is why having your own personal program is essential to fitness, strength, and functionality. Function is the key to success in sports, the military, and all other necessary skills, like speed and agility. All of these demands rely on the ability of the individual to run load-joints through motions.
We do have the ability to adapt to various mind-body combinations and the key is stimulation, not age. No matter how old you are, movement is vitally important and becoming functionally strong boils down to your desire to go out into the world and not wait for it to come to you.
Find a recipe that works for you - to do that you first need the right ingredients. What you put into the pot is what you get out of the pot. Seek out programmers who take your goals and custom-tailor your workouts to you. Run, bike, and swim. Add resistance training, weightlifting, and kettlebells to your training. Hop on some monkey bars and play around with gymnastic elements. Do some hot yoga and stretch well.
If you have never done any or even just some of those things listed, learn them and have fun with them. Form is always the priority so do not rush any of these elements. Remember that strength is not always defined by how much the load is but rather is most often defined by load-bearing functionality.
Best advice? Have fun and do not be confined by the box. Eat well. Train well. Have some fun (just a little bit is okay!).
Photographs provided by Katie Chasey.