What Is Functional Strength?

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Discussing strength in the self-defense world often veers to a discussion of functional strength. Functional strength can have many meanings depending on who you are discussing it with. Let’s define what functional strength is for the self-defense enthusiast.

Why train strength?

Why do we train strength at all? Most martial systems claim to be effective against opponents of much greater size and strength. More importantly, why would I need to train at all if I have a gun?

Most fights happen at bad breath distance. Since there is no magic gun that will hold an attacker at arm’s length, this means we should be prepared for a physical encounter. While strength alone doesn’t make you a great fighter, it can only aid our fighting abilities (so long as we don’t go to the extreme of limiting our overall mobility; we’ll touch on that in a moment).

Being strong increases our chances of survival in a self-defense encounter.

Functional strength

Functional strength is geared towards whole body and compound motions. These compound motions better mimic real world movements than working on targeting certain muscle groups. To me functional strength is centered around bodyweight. For me to be functionally strong, I want to be able to successfully perform exercises like pullups, pushups, and bodyweight squats for reps.

I emphasize functional bodyweight training because in life I’d rather be able to manipulate my weight to a maximum effect than be able to lift my refrigerator over my head (and probably look like a refrigerator myself). I would describe the ultimate fitness condition for a fighter to be lean, strong, flexible, and agile. I want to be all of those things, not big and bulky.

Massive muscles can have a detriment on range of motion.

I once trained with a guy who was massive. He probably weighed around 300 pounds, but he was a strong guy. So strong the he could probably lift me over his head and spin me comic book style. One day we were working on breakfalls in class. His mobility was so limited that he could not extend his arm to breakfall, and would instead smash his elbow into the mats. His limited range of motion directly impacts his ability to fight.

If you do train for strength, never forget to work on flexibility or you will end up in a similar situation.

Why I prefer bodyweight training

My opinion is that if I can do many pullups I am not only strong, but I must also be fairly lean. You won’t see many 300lb individuals doing high reps at the pullup bar (although exceptions exist). I would rather be strong for my size rather than just strong. Strongman competitions certainly aren’t in my future.

Training for self-defense and functional strength are one and the same. Train like an athlete, not like a body builder. Work on explosiveness, speed, and functional strength so hopefully you’ll be functional when you need to be.

What kind of strength training do you do? Post a comment below and let us know!

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