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!

Beginning Training Series: Getting Your Fitness Off the Ground Level

Today I will be discussing improving your base level of fitness as part of my series on beginning training.

I am a big believer that if you want to train to defend yourself in any type of confrontation, then you need to work on your fitness. Fighting is a distinctly physical activity no matter what tools you may be using. If you expect to survive the fight (or want to have any hope of surviving for that matter) then you definitely need to work on improving your body.

 For the purposes of fighting, there are five main areas that you need to work on improving: flexibility, strength, agility, endurance, and speed. Without training in each of these five attributes, you are severely limiting your performance when you need it.

 Flexibility

The most overlooked attribute is flexibility. Flexibility helps prevent injuries, and also gives you better mobility. After all, your goal in a fight is to stay conscious and mobile. This past year when I took Southnarc’s VCAST (Vehicle Combatives and Shooting Tactics) course, I had many of my older classmates jealous because of the way I could move around on the ground around the vehicle. My advantage in this arena isn’t because I’m younger (though it helps), but rather is because of my time training in Kyokushin. Not everyone needs to know how to throw high kicks, especially since they have limited practicality on the street. Everyone should, on the other hand, have functional flexibility.

The very beginning of you work on flexibility should be to work on improving range of motion in a handful of areas. Think back to the stretches you may have learned in gym class. An easy way to fit this in to your schedule is to stretch a little when you wake up in the morning. Try a stretching routine like this one, it’s a good start for basic flexibility. Another great option is yoga. Don’t knock it just because it’s a popular group exercise class for women. Many great fighters and trainers swear by it, and have great results.

Strength

Strength affects all areas of your self-defense. A contest between two technically equivalent fighters can often be decided on strength. Muscle allows you to absorb more damage and, if used correctly, deal out more as well. There are many ways to approach improving strength. This will all depend on your own exact goals.

If you have the time and resources, a full weight routine can give you excellent strength gains. If you cannot spare the time or money to hit a gym, you can do quite a bit in your home without weights. At a minimum you should be doing some basic body-weight exercises like pullups, dips, pushups, squats and crunches.

Agility

Agility directly affects our mobility. Mobility is key in any life or death situation, so you can see the value. Better agility will allow us to change directions, start moving, or stop moving very quickly.

The basics for improving agility involve performing agility-requiring movements. Work on changing directions quickly and starting movement from a dead stop. Playing some pickup games of basketball or another agility-heavy sport might be a good way to work on agility while enjoying yourself. Here is an article on improving agility you might want to check out.

Endurance

Endurance is often trained in an ineffective manner. Many people that think they are training endurance for the purpose of preparing themselves for fighting or a self-defense encounter spend significant time hitting the pavement or running on the treadmill. The reason this is so ineffective is that no fight is ever that smooth and continuous.

Fighting generally involves short periods of extreme exertion followed by other periods of milder effort. If you are attached to your running, consider adding intervals to your training. Spend 20 seconds sprinting and 20 seconds jogging or walking. You can vary the times for each. This will better simulate a fight than running at a constant speed.

The other reason that distance running tends to be a poor option for training fighting endurance is that there is minimal load. Combining strength training and interval training is a great way to push your endurance. When lifting, try using lighter weights with higher reps and decrease the time in between sets. Another option is to run, jog, or shadow box in between sets. There are plenty of options you can experiment with.

Speed

Speed is a very important attribute for us to train if we want to maximize our potential in a violent confrontation. Being fast allows us to get our sights on target faster, and hit before our adversary. Speed also allows us to out-maneuver our adversary. Remember that mobility is key to staying alive.

Speed is the lack of all extraneous movement. Believe it or not, we can improve speed by training slowly. Work on removing all unneeded motions and taking the most efficient path to where you are moving. If you want more detail on how to do this, check out my post about increasing your speed.

Improving

When you sit down to put together your plan, set goals for all five of these attributes. Set measurable goals, and choose exercises and drills that allow you to meet them. Practice as often as your schedule will allow. The only real obstacle to achieving your fitness goals is lack of training.

Do you have any suggestions for improving fitness? Please post a comment!

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